Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Meet the 501st Legion, Vader's Fist

Living in the Bay Area, you can't help but feeling close to the Star Wars galaxies. Lucasfilm's offices buzz with creative brains in the Presidio at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, Industrial Light & Magic is there too, and Skywalker Ranch (click here for a visit) is over the bridge in Marin county. That's like the triple-decker-Star-Wars effect. Now, imagine you're a die-hard Star Wars fan and you want to get yourself suited up with a storm trooper outfit. Or a lifesize Sith lord costume. Or a nasty bounty hunter ensemble. Or - thrills - the sombre shiny armor of Darth Vader.

No, a jumpsuit with EVA molded pieces is not going to cut it. There is a way to assemble these officially-George-Lucas-approved costumes and become part of the biggest army of Star Wars villains on earth: the 501st Legion. Self-described as Vader's Fist, this organization is actually a volunteer army. Bad guys doing good deeds? Yes, these guys get out and about to raise funds for charity. Make that 7,467 costumes worldwide as of June 29, 2010. Each costume is unique and hand-made. Each member gets a Legion ID.

Got your attention now? Believe it or not, three of the 501st Legion's storm troopers came to my 5-year-old's birthday party a few weeks ago - and it was the best experience the kids could have had. The guy to the left in the frame, he was the leader of the trio. Super nice guy.

I first heard about the Star Wars volunteers from my friend Sue who had a friend who knew about them. "They came down trees and stormed the place!" she described with glee. That's all the spark I needed to get in touch with them. Unfortunately she didn't have their name, much less a contact number. Still, I knew that it would be a blast for a 5-year-old's birthday party. Why?

I was 12 when I saw Return of the Jedi on big screen. I immediately fell in love with the movie, with the sets, with this sci-fi uncompromising world. I secretly worshipped Luke and the Force. Despised the Emperor all the same. I started collecting cards, trading them at school. I asked for the LPs for my birthdays and blasted the tunes on my record player (now, I do sound like a dinosaur). I read the novelizations. I subscribed to a sci-fi/fantasy movie mag and pinned the poster of the movie on my bedroom walls (wasn't easy, they were fabric with padding). The trilogy showed at Paris' largest screen. I dragged my entire family including my father who couldn't take it anymore (my mom loves Star Wars) and my two brothers. Seven hours of Star Wars in one sitting!

My family took a well-deserved break when I turned my obsession to the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I turned 14. However, that was not the end of Star Wars for me. Just wasn't collecting cards anymore.

Then life went on. When my girls became preschoolers, I started telling them stories of the Star Wars trilogy sixology (sorry George, trilogy sounds way better than sixology). They loved it all. How could they not? Princess, knights, villains, magic, evil against good, jokes, man-made moons, space travel. I mean - isn't it great? On a March visit to the San Francisco Public Library, I borrowed a DVD of the animated series The Clone Wars. Without knowing it, I had triggered a Star Wars button in their head. They loved it. When I started planning the birthday party, my junior Clone Wars fan announced: "It's going to be a Fairy Star Wars party Maman." Done deal.

I started looking for the Bay Area volunteer storm troopers and discovered there were two parallel organizations: the 501st Legion for the dark side of the Force; the Rebel Legion for the good side of the Force. It's Imperial Army vs Jedis. Quizzed on who she preferred, my daughter opted for the bad guys. I then filled the details to request an appearance by three villains.

Shortly after I got contacted by the Event Coordinator at the Golden Gate Garrison. He sent me a list of questions on the event including a stumper: "Are there any restrictions at this location which would preclude costumed members from appearing in helmets and (toy) blasters?"

Since the party was to be held outdoors at the picnic area of San Pedro Valley County Park, I set out to reach the rangers and ask them about toy blasters. Over the phone, they did not initially understand my request. They had me repeat "toy blaster" various times, loud and louder, until finally I explained the outfit of a storm trooper. Three phone calls later, the rangers gave us a green light. The Force my friend!

To turn the party into a real Star Wars party, I made a chocolate cake decorated with Clone Wars figurines, got my girls light sabers (including the training DVD, for good hand positioning), built a home-made R2D2 with tubes, silver duct tape and sheet metal from my neighborhood hardware store, and my husband made a "May the Fairies be with you" banner.
On D-Day, the storm troopers arrived when all the kids were getting wired up. As soon as the storm troopers appeared around the corner and started walking to us, it was like a tidal wave of screams and races. Boys and girls grabbed their light sabers and got on their two feet. My 5-year-old got behind my back and got squirmy.

I led her to the storm troopers. "Lord Vader told us it was your birthday." Silence from my little girl. "Happy birthday!" they said in their android voice. It was great to hear the voices as in the movie. If kids were excited, I was beyond thrilled. The three storm troopers graciously posed for photos with everybody, gently fought off a few enthusiasts and left with a great recommendation that Star Wars fans will appreciate: "Now you be good rebels!"

As  I walked back the storm troopers to their cars, my 5-year-old thought they were taking me to the Death Star and sent a small batallion of pint-size Jedis to protect me.

I had the hardest time convincing them I was not being kidnapped and that there was a shuttle back from the Death Star. Certainly didn't want them to see half-naked Storm Troopers in the parking lot.

When I returned she breathed a sigh of relief. "Mom, you're back from the Death Star?" Hey, I was not going to disappoint. Yes, with hyperspace travel and all, it's super quick. "Wow," she said, "Can I go too when I grow big?"

Gotta love nice storm troopers raising funds for the Make-A-Wish foundation. Job well done. To all Bay Area event planners, call the Star wars volunteers and do your audience a favor!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Northern California Pirate Festival at Vallejo

Ahoy matey! Yes ye lilly livered landlubbers, it's that time of the year. Time to channel your inner Long John Silver at Vallejo waterfront's two-day Northern California Pirate Festival on June 19 and 20, 2010. Get the peg leg out of the closet, find the white flannel shirts, let your hair down and let's hear some ferocious Arrrrrrrs! Last year we went with my husband and two daughters and had a giant ball despite a) a scorching sun and restrooms that seemed like they were miles away, b) a real parking challenge that ended up with us crossing some forbidden residential properties.

As I announced the program of the day that morning - it's like this at our house, I dress up in minstrel attire, unroll the scroll and read the list really loud perched on a barrel - my husband's initial reaction was: "What, the same folks as the Renaissance Faire? Do we have to?"

Err, yes, we have to. Probably the same folks as the Renaisssance Faire and the Dickens Fair too. I mean, they have a ton of white open-collared shirts with ruffles in their drawers. They've got to make the best use of them right? So yes the same folks but get this. We get to see Capt'n Jack Spareribs perform and after I interviewed him for my blog, I was dying to see Johnny Depp's look-alike with irresistible juggling skills. And so we went.

Good news, the entrance is free. Let me repeat that. FREE -unlike the Renaissance Faire and the Dickens Fair and honestly, I don't know how they manage to keep it that way. All you are going to enjoy, the music, the performers, the puppets, the cannon-firing, the boat battles, that's all free. So make sure to put on your best smile and enjoy the show.

Right after we got in, the Schooner Aldebaran was getting ready to engage into a fierce ship-to-shore cannon battle so we rushed to the waterfront. Boom! went the cannons, and sure enough we were smoked in. The girls were enthused. We couldn't hear many of the hopefully salty exchanges but enjoyed it tremendously. However the metal handrail lining the waterfront seemed totally out of place. Despite the costumes and the theatricals, the scene was lacking a dirt waterfront and 18th century rundown houses. Sigh. I am signing a petition right now to build a marine waterfront appropriate for period pirate fights.

The many shops and grass alleys forming the pirate encampment had achieved a remarkable effort in looking as pirate-like as possible. It was actually great eye candy and we soaked it in. My favorite hangouts were places where the girls could play games and activities. By knocking down rats at the Cat-Apult vs. Pi-Rats, our 5-year-old won as wooden flute she still cherishes to this day.

We even met a little fella pulled by her mom, all comfortably sitting in the pirate ship on wheels his dad had built for him.

Hey dads, feeling inspired? This is a great craft activity if you have a lonely Radio Flyer wagon in the garage. Our girls certainly thought it would make an ideal weekend activity. However Papa a.k.a. Cedric had other plans. Cedric was already eying the list of performers.

"Capt'n Jack Spareribs is performing in half an hour, let's go to the main stage!" Yoohoo, finally I get to see the real thing on stage. We headed over and heard the last two songs of a rock pirate band. Wish I remembered their name.

Finally You-know-who arrives on stage. Thrills in the audience, as he had been voted best family fun entertainment by readers of the SF Chronicle just days before. Man, Ace Miles a.k.a. Capt'n Jack Spareribs sure can juggle. Look at that, with a mouth-piece too. And he's a ventriloquist.

If you're sitting in the audience, be ready for a few harmless tricks that may involve you, your partner and delicate balancing acts. Nobody was hurt and the audience loved it all. It was so worth driving all the way to the Vallejo waterfront, a place we never go to otherwise. Arrrrr, can't wait for this weekend. Aren't pirate festivals the ideal Father's Day outing?

Details: The Northern California Pirate Festival is located on the Vallejo Waterfront, only a few short steps west of the Vallejo Ferry Terminal (the Ferry Terminal Address is 289 Mare Island Way Vallejo California)

Directions: click here. Hey, you can get there by ferry and enjoy a scenic water ride too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Yosemite at Wawona, where the Giant Sequoias grow

"Where is the tree that you can drive through?" ask most visitors. Answer: at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park. However you and I can't drive through it. The tree fell in 1969 because the driving-through hole actually damaged the root system. There. You can enjoy giant sequoias up or down but no messin' up with our green friends these days. Just walk through, relax, and reflect on how small we are. You may even learn cool forest stuff along the way. Then you can call it a day at the terrace of the Victorian Wawona Hotel sipping your drink that night and marvel at the starry sky. Here is to Yosemite's forest monarchs. Respect.

As much as I love the Yosemite valley and its gorgeous granite waterfalls, it's no mystery that from spring to fall the valley attracts big crowds and even trafic jams. With almost 4 million visitors in 2009, the park is uber busy year round and the campgrounds' popularity results in rare spots to snatch up six months in advance.

Despite the numbers, all you need to do is to stray from the main trail a quarter mile to find peace and tranquility- or head to other parts of the park such as the high country of Tuolumne Meadows or the southernmost portion of the park, Wawona. Wawona is where the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is located, home of the largest trees on earth and one of only 68 registered groves of these monster trees in California. How monster can they be? Not as tall as the coastal redwoods but if superlatives are you thing, giant sequoias are no less than the largest living beings on earth and can be as old as 3,000 years.

Kids will love that. Extreme old age, size, it's all cool stuff to impress. Plus, there might be an ice cream reward at the end so that's extra incentive to stick to the trails.

Your visit of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias starts at the parking lot on a wide paved road that ascends this side of the mountain during roughly 2 miles and culminates around the Mariposa Grove Museum. Unfortunately the museum was closed over Memorial Day weekend when we visited but the upside of the winter lingering on was that we found sizable fields of snow on the ground. Snowball fights in groves of giant sequoias? Bring it on!

After the hike, we all caravaned to the Pioneer Yosemite Historical Museum at Wawona, a family favorite. Right at the entrance off the parking lot is a general store that sells strawberry slushies (amongst other wonderful things such as Yosemite key rings) and our kids didn't need to hear that twice. It was a hot day and the 5-mile hike was a lot for them.

Getting to the Pioneer Yosemite Historical Museum was easy since it starts at the end of the parking lot. That place really deserves a shout out. It's an outdoors museum consisting of several historical structures that were spread throughout the park and moved to this location in the 50s and 60s.

There, you will find a covered bridge (that reminded me of the one in Beetlejuice), a barn with old horse-drawn wagons, a powderhouse that doubled as a jail, a Wells Fargo office, a blacksmith shop, a ranger patrol cabin and of course, log cabins in the best pioneer tradition.

Walking around is lots of fun and you can peek through the windows - only to wonder where the furniture is gone before realizing that there wasn't much furniture at all back in the days. This historical interlude completely re-energized our junior troups and as a group, we walked over to the Wawona Hotel, just to check it out. The velvet-heavy Victorian style lobby was really a riot and some of us wished we were staying there, just because the Saturday barbecue menu looked amazing. We weren't though.

We were camping at the campground closest to the park's entrance, Summerdale, a place described as "pretty in its own right despite the proximity to the highway" by Tom Stientra's California Camping guidebook. Honestly the place deserved better than that. For our kids (12 total, 7 families), exploring the river sides, their fishing opportunities or hiding options, was the best vacation they could have had. We let them play, unsupervised and enjoyed adult time by the campfire. I couldn't resist a dip, as did two other friends. Sure it was snowmelt but it was still the best remedy after a hot hiking day under the giant sequoias.

Next time you go to the Yosemite in the summer and decide to go south, pack a swim suit. There are good swimming holes next to Summerdale and in Oakhurst along the Lewis Creek National Scenic Trail.