For these ‘Star Wars’ fans, the Force never faded

Letting out a sigh worthy of Darth Vader’s heavy breathing, I make a serious commitment. On Dec. 17, I’ll buckle in for a sold-out seven-film “Star Wars” marathon culminating in the latest installment, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” at Atlantic Station.

Crazy, for sure. Yet the unprecedented phenomenon of the “Star Wars” franchise continues to amaze. Experts say “The Force Awakens,” which hits screens across America this Thursday, will likely shatter the global box office opening record of $525.5 million held by “Jurassic World.”

According to Bloomberg, Disney and its partners could generate $9.6 billion in worldwide ticket sales, merchandise and home entertainment in roughly the film’s first year of release.

“Cha-ching,” bleeps R2-D2.

So what keeps people like myself willing to open their wallets and hearts to this sci-fi brand? Not only is the Force awake, it’s perpetually percolating with a caffeinated buzz.

» Get some spoiler-free first impressions of the new movie from our resident 'Star Wars' fan Melissa Ruggieri.

The maker

Atlantan Bob Bean first saw “Star Wars” inside a Jonesboro movie house in 1977. From the moment that self-proclaimed 13-year-old “nerdy, scrawny kid” stepped out of the theater, a pop culture obsession began. Bean reached for every piece of “Star Wars” merchandise he could.

Today Bean exemplifies geek dude cool with long locks and an earring on his left lobe. His fandom has blossomed into a career and his own Brookhaven studio. Bean not only creates and sells “Star Wars” costume pieces to fans, but makes his own brand of magic. He co-owns 3DPtree, which specializes in 3-D printing and scanning for TV and films.

In the late 1990s, the ASE-certified mechanic longed for his own screen-accurate Darth Vader costume. After building one, he earned a reputation as a Jedi-like craftsman. Boxes of Vader armor from fellow costumers around the globe began arriving for Bean to paint and trick out.

So he launched VaderPainter Studios, his own “Star Wars” costume fabrication business, while making personal appearances at special events in full Vader regalia. Need new lenses for your Vader helmet or aerators for that Stormtrooper mask? He’s got ’em.

Five years ago, Bean stepped away from the automotive industry to operate VaderPainter Studios full time. He and 3DPtree co-owner Jil Wyland take advantage of Atlanta’s role as Hollywood South by whipping up the same type of cinematic wizardry he fell in love with as a child.

“What I had to do was get to a place where I was building props and providing costumes for (movie and television) studios,” he explained. “Before, unless you lived out in LA, you didn’t have that kind of opportunity. Now things have opened up in Atlanta.”

With 3DPtree, Bean embarks on a variety of projects. One moment, he might be doing a 3-D body scan of a cast member for the PlayStation Network series “Powers.” The next, he’s making a combat-ready Captain America shield for a team of stunt people. With equipment including a vacuum form bench, Bean can pull molds to make prop weapons, armor and more.

“So I’ve taken what I was doing as a nerd in high school,” he said with a laugh, “and I’ve turned it into a small-business venture.”

The rebels

The basement of Paula Rosenberg’s Lilburn home screams “Star Wars” with floor-to-ceiling memorabilia, from books to posters to toys. Even the 6-foot tree has nothing but “Star Wars” ornaments.

On a Saturday in December, Rosenberg plays host to a “Star Wars”-themed holiday party for the Hothlanta Rebels. This social group of “Star Wars” fans, co-founded by Rosenberg, typically meets for a monthly meal at a Marietta burger joint.

“The fun part about ‘Star Wars’ is you can always find someone who likes it,” said Rosenberg, wearing a “Star Wars” T-shirt designed to look like a tacky holiday sweater. “But when you’re a real hardcore fan, you want someone who can put up with you talking about it for two hours straight. And that’s what we do.”

On this day, however, the sound of laser fire booms from her home theater as approximately 30 guests gather in the adjacent room noshing on R2-D2 cookies, talking all things “Star Wars.” Some engage in a game of “Star Wars” foosball, while others nibble on a giant Rice Krispies treat covered in silver fondant and made to look like a crashed Star Destroyer.

Rosenberg, who works in emergency preparedness and response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped put the Hothlanta Rebels together in 1999. Since then, this family of like-minded enthusiasts, ranging from 8-year-olds to those in their 50s, has grown to more than 100 Facebook members. The group helps coordinate the “Star Wars” fan panels at the annual Dragon Con pop culture convention in Atlanta.

The party reaches its peak with the White Bantha exchange, a “Star Wars” creature subbing for the elephant. Piles of presents in “Star Wars” wrapping paper and gift bags surround Rosenberg’s tree. Guests take turns grabbing one or opting to steal a coveted collectible already opened by another.

Of course, all of the goodies are of the “Star Wars” variety. Daniel Eisenhauer, 18, the group’s resident “Star Wars” trivia expert, snags a plush Jawa. Other cling to “Star Wars” throw blankets, glassware, artwork and books.

The real treasure, however, unwraps on the big screen when members of the group, their friends and family overtake an Atlantic Station theater room for a Thursday night screening of “The Force Awakens.”

“Our love for ‘Star Wars’ breaks down barriers,” said Kelly Adams of Atlanta. “We’re all very accepting and open-minded, because we come from different backgrounds. We share a common passion, and it just brings us together.”

The pastor

Decatur’s Matt Simpkins grew up on a steady diet of “Star Wars.” As a child, he crawled into bed between a set of “Return of the Jedi” sheets. He’s been a die-hard fan ever since.

So it somehow makes sense that as an associate pastor at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Midtown, he might find himself holding a “Star Wars” lightsaber in front of his congregation. On the Sunday before “The Force Awakens” premieres, he did just that.

“I’m always mindful that you can’t really take yourself too seriously,” Simpkins said.

Before the lightsaber reveal, Simpkins began his sermon talking about the season and its commercial flash, and confessed to being excited about it. “You know what I’m talking about,” he told the audience. “I think we need a little music.”

Suddenly the “Star Wars” theme rang out into the church, and a burst of laughter followed.

He then began using the “Star Wars” story as an analogy for the kind of hope people can cling to during troubled times. Despite today’s climate, we can make like the heroes and heroines in “Star Wars,” he said, and take action to help make the world a better place.

“That classic line from ‘Star Wars’ speaks to what the world needs to hear right now,” he explained. “Yoda says, ‘Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.’ … But when we come together and we rebel against that empire of fear, we see something even greater than we can imagine.”

While weaving “Star Wars” into a sermon might seem risky to some, Simpkins says he’s received positive emails and messages from those in attendance. The congregation reportedly applauded.

“It probably was just the John Williams music, to be honest with you,” he said with a laugh.

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