Living

The Force is with these ‘Star Wars’ superfans

Walk into Shep’s Place, a restaurant that opened a couple of months ago in Weatherford, and you’ll notice a lot of the pop-culture kitsch that’s become common at such hangouts. But one iconic film dominates all else.

Head to the bar and take a seat on one of the “Star Wars”-themed stools: Darth Vader, Boba Fett and a Stormtrooper are among your choices. Look up and watch one of the “Star Wars” movies that’s continuously playing above the bar. And, if you feel the need to head to a restroom, boys look for the Wookiee on the door, while girls seek out Princess Leia.

John Shepherd, the restaurant’s owner, isn’t just any “Star Wars” fan. He’s a 7-foot-tall — 7-foot-6 in his Chewbacca costume — superfan who had a “Star Wars”-themed wedding.

“My cake was an AT-AT, the big snow walker, All Terrain Armored Transport [from The Empire Strikes Back],” says Shepherd, a longtime Weatherford restaurateur. “We had bobbleheads of most all the characters on the tables. All the tables were set up in the configuration of an X-wing fighter. We played ‘Star Wars’ music during the reception. We did play the original trilogy in the background at the reception.

“And my wedding ring is actually a lightsaber hilt,” he adds. “My wife surprised me and got that.”

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the first “Star Wars” feature film in a decade — opens in theaters this weekend, emotional connections to the franchise are swelling for fans whose hearts have been with the movies since they were children, sometimes going back to the original Star Wars in 1977.

They are legion.

John Shepherd: The ‘Star Wars’ groom

Owner, Shep’s Place, Weatherford

Shepherd, a longtime Weatherford restaurateur whose résumé includes the original Wild Mushroom and the now-closed Big John’s Burgers & Beer, says his introduction to the franchise was 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. He saw it when he was 5 or 6, and his mom dropped him and his little brother at a theater to watch the movie.

“I’ve been a fan ever since,” says Shepherd, one of the people who’s lost count of how many times he’s seen the movies. “For a long time there, they were always in the background at the house. It was just one of those things where I’d come home and put one in. One of them is always playing at the restaurant.” (Shepherd plays all six of the movies, but prefers the original trilogy.)

Shepherd enjoys seeing his customers’ reactions to all the odes to “Star Wars” in his restaurant.

“There are people who are like, ‘Star Wars — yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it before.’ And then you’ve got people who come in and they’re like, ‘Oh. My. God! Star Wars!’ There are people who absolutely love it, who’ve seen it and lived with it their entire lives. … It’s great to watch the families who’ll come in and sit in the dining-room area, and the dads and the kids will just be glued to the TV the entire time.”

When Shepherd was designing Shep’s Place in April and May, “Star Wars” references were out there, but he opened the restaurant just in time for the avalanche of the Force Awakens hype.

“Now, every place has something ‘Star Wars,’ ” Shepherd says. “Every place in the mall. Every aisle at Wal-Mart and Albertsons has at least one item of something ‘Star Wars,’ from cereal, to soups, to mac-and-cheese. They all have it. It’s everywhere now.”

And yes, he’s one of those guys with the decals on the back of his car.

“Our family car has the Chewbacca and Princess Leia, and then all of our kids and our dogs and cats as characters,” he says. “It went from cult classic very quickly and it has captured generations of people. You’ve got dads and their kids and grampas and their grandkids all watching it and all living it.”

Michael Kris: The ‘Star Wars’ educator

Head of Trinity Valley Middle School

Much like Shep’s Place, Kris’ office at Trinity Valley is festooned with “Star Wars” characters — Yoda and Ewoks. An Obi-Wan bobblehead and Jabba the Hutt smoking a hookah. Boba Fett hanging out. He has a working (although occasionally obstinate) miniature replica of R2-D2 that beeps and bloops about the room.

This can be serious business for an educator. When he was working on the first Star Wars, George Lucas was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell, a well-known mythologist. In spring 2015, Kris taught an elective course for seventh- and eighth-graders called “Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey,” about how the original trilogy matched the stages of Campbell’s “hero’s journey” model. He and the class used their knowledge about the first films to make predictions about The Force Awakens.

“It wasn’t till I became a teacher that I realized what ‘Star Wars’ really was,” Kris says. “I was a massive Joseph Campbell fan, very fascinated with fairy tales and mythology. … I once had a teacher who said to me, ‘If I had the budget of George Lucas, I could teach anything.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have the budget of George Lucas, but I have his movies.’ 

Kris wasn’t quite middle-school age when he saw the original Star Wars on Martha’s Vineyard in 1977, when he was 10 or 11. It was at a birthday party at an old theater, and the movie had been out for a few weeks.

“I remember waiting on a stairwell to get in, and people saying that they had seen it multiple times,” he says. “I had never heard of anybody going to the movies multiple times, and I asked why they would do that. And they said, ‘This movie will change your life.’

“I went in with pretty huge expectations. I’d never seen a movie about space. I think what that movie did was to bring science fiction to light, at least in terms of visualizing it.”

Now, he says, he has seen the original Star Wars well over a hundred times, and he’s probably close to that with Empire and Return of the Jedi. He’s less enamored of the prequels, but he has seen them several times as well. And he has visited other parts of the “Star Wars” universe — with a little help.

“I have two children at home,” he says. “One who is 4 years old and is fascinated by the Droid Tales, the animated version with the Lego ‘Star Wars.’ But I must have seen each movie easily over 100 times. I can quote them to you; I used to do an impersonation of Yoda. It’s remarkable how integrated this became in my life.”

(Even his 2-year-old son gets excited when he sees Admiral Ackbar, who uttered the famous “It’s a trap!” line in Return of the Jedi.)

And yes, he and his wife already have tickets for The Force Awakens. For a Saturday showing. It’s a day after opening day, but it’s also their wedding anniversary, and it seemed like a fitting way to celebrate.

Star Wars is so much more than a movie,” Kris says. “It’s this thing that you buy into, and that your kids buy into. I think that’s what this new movie really is, is a way for that buying-into to continue.”

Kirsten Murphy and Karen Hebert: The ‘Star Wars’ librarians

Head librarian and assistant librarian, Trinity Valley Lower School

While we were interviewing Kris, Murphy and Hebert showed up in the hallway wearing Jedi robes and bearing lightsabers. They’ve also incorporated “Star Wars” into education, centering the school’s summer-reading challenge on the story, with Yoda and Jedi Knights explaining how the pupils would become Jedi Readers.

The Dark Side got involved, too. Darth Vader and Stormtroopers tried to prevent summer reading. Eventually, even Darth Vader saw the light side of the assignment.

“I choose a theme for summer reading for K through 4,” Murphy says. “I always have to one-up what I did the previous year. Last year, it was Minions. So Jedi Readers became the theme for this year, and inadvertently completely tied into the fact that the new movie was going to be released in December. And what that did is, it really created a buzz in our community for reading.”

Becoming a Jedi Reader didn’t mean that they just read “Star Wars” books. The pupils read from a list of selections appropriate for their grade and age, and then completed a creative project to highlight one of those books.

Going extra steps could make a pupil a Jedi Master. Sometimes the children would read a non-“Star Wars” book but make connections between the books and George Lucas’ worlds.

Murphy thinks she was in fourth grade when she first entered the “Star Wars” universe, seeing The Empire Strikes Back with her parents. Hebert’s youngest son is a “Star Wars” fanatic, so she owns all six and there’s been a lot of repeated viewing.

“But there’s a love for the originals, I think,” Murphy says. “It probably relates to the fact that they’re what I saw first. It’s hard for me to go back and recapture that excitement.”

Murphy says she thinks a lot of the Lower School pupils are on the verge of becoming superfans, because they’ve grown up not just with movies, but with TV series, video games, etc.

“They’re having a totally different experience with it as a franchise now than what I had,” she says. “I just liked it. It was fun. Everybody dressed up as Princess Leia or as Jedis when we were kids.”

Jose R. Ralat: The ‘Star Wars’ army builder

The Taco Trail blog; associate editor, Cowboys & Indians magazine

Many North Texas food aficionados — especially the ones with taco cravings — are familiar with Ralat, the Dallas-based writer whose The Taco Trail site (thetacotrail.com) goes deep into the taco universe. Ralat has organized DFW taco festivals and contributed to Texas Monthly’s recent “120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die” cover story.

What Ralat’s followers might not know is just how much “Star Wars” means to him.

 ‘Star Wars’ is part of who I am,” says Ralat, whose home office is decorated with “Star Wars” figures. “When my wife and I were trying to conceive, we tried for a year and a half. It was rough. I was riding the New York City subway trying to pick fights. And that was dangerous, because you’re going to get arrested no matter if you’re the assailant or the victim.

“One day, I just got off the train at Penn Station and walked into the Kmart that was connected to it. Without realizing it, I walked into the toy department. I bought a bunch of ‘Star Wars’ figures and walked out. I felt so much happier and more at peace. Eventually, Diego was born. But it really went a long way toward helping me deal with the stress.”

The first time he remembers seeing one of the movies was in 1983, when he was 7 and saw Return of the Jedi in Florida. He and a friend started lightsaber-dueling as soon as the movie was over.

Since then, he counts the amount of times he has seen the franchise as “in the hundreds, at least.” He owns the movies in just about every format and still finds new things whenever he watches them.

You might be surprised to find how he uses them sometimes.

“I watch them sometimes just to go to sleep,” he says. “They’re so relaxing. It’s so familiar, I should say. It’s something that’s such a part of my life and something that I have many wonderful associations with.”

(Ralat’s wife, Jessica, is also a fan and is hosting a costume contest at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Dallas’ Texas Theatre. For more, see sidebar on Page XX.)

Ralat has 50 or so figures in his home office that comprise characters from the original release to brand-new figures. He’s what is known in the fan community as an “army builder.”

But a quick glance at the Wookieepedia website shows just how hard it can be to grasp this universe: There are sections for the films, the spinoffs, the TV series, novels, video games, comic books, soundtracks and more — and that’s just the major sections.

“It’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s referenced in TV shows. It’s in billboards and T-shirts and shoes. In ballcaps. Now there is an apparel company called Her Universe. It’s women’s fan apparel. When people argue a topic, I’ve heard people bring up Darth Vader. In one argument I heard, one guy brought up Vader, and the other guy said, ‘If you bring up Vader, you lose.’ 

Like Trinity Valley’s Kris, Ralat believes that the Joseph Campbell themes and the “hero’s journey” have a lot to do with why so many people connect so deeply with the movies. But he also has a simpler theory.

“It’s just cool to see ships flying in space,” he says. “And strange new worlds and teamwork. And with the new movies, we know that [the Rebel Alliance] didn’t necessarily win.”

Ralat will even speak up in (at least partial) defense of The Phantom Menace, the 1999 prequel that’s considered the weakest entry in the saga.

“What gets lost when people talk about The Phantom Menace is how awesome the character of Qui-Gon Jinn is,” Ralat says, referring to the Jedi Master (played by Liam Neeson) who comes to believe that young Anakin Skywalker is the Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force.

“He doesn’t rush into anything. He doesn’t discount anything. In The Phantom Menace, the characters of Yoda and Mace Windu don’t believe him. They think that he’s a renegade. But as it turns out, he was the qunitessential Jedi.”

Jeff Koenig: The ‘Star Wars’ robot maker

Electrical engineer

Like Kris, Garland’s Jeff Koenig has a working R2-D2. The difference is that Koenig’s is full-size, and he made it himself.

“For me, it was the artwork,” Koenig says of why he got hooked on the franchise at age 12. “It was the first time that I saw science-fiction hardware that I thought could actually work. It looked like something that could actually exist. That was really influential on me. I bought all the magazines that had to do with Star Wars and traced the pictures and tried to model everything I could. I’ve always loved robots, and that’s what got me to become an engineer.”

So in January 2008, he began to build his own R2-D2, which is all aluminum and steel, weighs from nearly 200 pounds, and took two years to make. It’s fully remote-controlled, with all the sounds and lights working. Koenig estimates he probably spent about $1,000 on his robot over the years.

“There’s an international online R2 builder’s group,” Koenig says, referring to Astromech.net. “Anybody can join and all the blueprints are on there. People who have worked on them share ideas and such. So I got involved with that, and it was hugely helpful.”

Koenig takes his R2 to conventions and private parties, but also occasionally to bookstores or movie theaters. He’s always struck by what a “smile generator” the droid is.

“It’s amazing to me that I have had people who are 80 years old, it just puts a smile on their face,” he says. “And little kids who are way too young to have seen the movies, they might play with the toys or something like that. Everybody has some kind of connection to ‘Star Wars.’ 

Devin Pike: The ‘Star Wars’ MC

Event MC for Dallas Comic Con, media specialist for Intel

Pike was there at the beginning. He saw the original Star Wars in 1977 at the much-missed General Cinema NorthPark 3 & 4 in Dallas.

“It was one of the legendary 70mm houses in the country,” says Pike, who was just shy of turning 7 at the time. “I loved that theater as a kid. It was a special treat to go to matinees on Sundays after church. I didn’t see it opening week. So I can’t say, ‘I was there first day!’ I won’t be that guy.”

But he is that guy who has seen it hundreds of times — in theaters.

“My parents were going through a divorce, and I was a theater kid,” he says. “My parents would drop me off at a theater and pick me up at the end of the day when the mall would close. I was living in DeSoto, and they’d take me to Red Bird. I’d buy the first ticket, but then I would stay through the other showings and see it four or five times a day for days upon end.”

Some of the people we talked to for this story had a hard time putting their finger on why some people are superfans and some are just casual fans, if they’re fans at all. But Pike has a theory.

“Everybody’s story is a little different, but for me, it was not just that it was science fiction,” Pike says. “Sci-fi was something that was always on at my house. Even before Star Wars, I was a Star Trek fan. When Channel 39 had it on, I would watch it in reruns. Space: 1999, the same thing. But Star Wars was the first film I saw where I wanted to learn how they did it.”

At that young age, Pike wanted to know how Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic created the ships and the special effects (ILM had to invent techniques in order to match Lucas’ vision). There weren’t a lot of books on filmmaking geared to 7-year-olds, but he read what he could.

“I wanted to inhale it,” Pike says. “I wanted to mainline it. I wanted to know every frame and be the characters, be the director, be the writer. Really, it was more of a formative thing for me. I wanted to know everything about it.”

He has, of course, inhaled everything else in the franchise, and he can see room for improvement in the original (Lucas did tweak it for the “Special Edition” reissue).

“As much as we love the film, and the universe that George was able to create, there’s so much more that a better writer and a better director could have done,” Pike says. “We saw that with The Empire Strikes Back with [screenwriters] Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, and Irvin Kershner directing it. Taking that universe, and then letting George handle the business end of it.”

(Brackett died of cancer in 1978, and Lucas called in Kasdan — who also has a screenplay credit on The Force Awakens — to finish the screenplay.)

Although he showed up at a Star-Telegram photo shoot accompanied by a BB-8 droid from The Force Awakens, Pike says he’s never been much of a collector. He had Star Wars toys growing up, but he played with them, instead of keeping them in their pristine, boxed state.

“There was a ‘Star Wars’ fan club that sent out as a fan-club perk the poster for Revenge of the Jedi,” Pike says, referring to the title considered for Return of the Jedi before its release. “I think it’s one of the 10 most valuable posters in existence now.”

He pauses. And then: “I put pinholes in it! I put it up in my room! I think there was a corner that was torn because I couldn’t get it right! I gave it to a buddy of mine, for, I think, 5 bucks.”

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