On this edition of Artist Alley, we take our interview for to the far reaches of the Galaxy (aka Upstate NY). DFAT had the privilege to talk to an Artist of a different persuasion who expresses himself in the form of his cosplay and community service. Don Burns is a member of the 501st Legion – Vader’s Fist and had a lot to say about what that means to his fandom and his impact on his community.

DFAT: When did you become a Star Wars fan?

Don: Back in Batavia, in 1977, most of the big movies hit the drive-in before making it into the movie theaters. I remember my parents taking two of my brothers and I to see the double feature (Orca: the Killer Whale was the first feature on the billing) and we were immediately hooked. From that point on my brothers and I were hooked: action figures, trading cards, picture vinyl, radio shows… we couldn’t get enough. 

DFAT: We COMPLETELY understand taking the Star Wars deep dive if you will. Hence, we have a whole day dedicated to that franchise. Awesome! What is your favorite Star Wars movie to date?

Don: I have a hard time choosing because, in the end, they are all Star Wars but I do watch A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back quite often.

DFAT: Yeah its good to fall back on some of the old classics from time-to-time. They will always hold up. What’s your thoughts on this new trilogy?

Don: There is definitely a different feel to the new films but, in general, I think movies are different today – In the past, I think that audiences used to be willing to sit back and let a plot develop as opposed to today where directors fill-in slow stretches with explosions, CGI and fight scenes. When I sit down to watch a movie, I like an engaging story and am willing to sit through an in-depth set-up as long as it has a good payoff in the end (like an epic space battle and an exploding Death Star)… but Hollywood’s smart and knows what sells and the audience does seem to like it. And, for anything that’s been around fifty years, to stay relevant you do have to change with the times.

All that said, I do like the new trilogy: they are entertaining and I really like the Kylo Ren/Rey storyline (especially in the last two movies). On top of that, it’s keeping Star Wars going!

DFAT: Couldn’t agree more. As long as there is more Star Wars out in the world/galaxy, can’t complain. I know you have an amazing Vader costume and we’ll get into that a bit more in a minute, but was he your favorite character growing up?

Don: Vader was always my favorite.

I joke that my Vader costume is my Mom’s fault: when I was younger, we lived across from the library and sometime, between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the children’s section had a life-size stand-up of Kermit Eller’s famous Darth Vader pose… I wanted it so bad. I immediately asked the librarian – she said that I could have it when they were done if it was okay with my parents.

My mom said no.

I was devastated.

After what felt like months of moping around, but was actually probably days in my seven(ish) year-old life, my mom finally relented. I rushed back to tell the children’s librarian but, by that time, it was already promised to someone else.

I visited that cut-out almost daily until it disappeared to its new home.

Now, as an adult, I’ve created a screen accurate replica of that same costume… if my mother would’ve just said yes from the beginning, I wouldn’t have spent thousands on this costume now.

My only solace is that if it was possible for my eight-year-old self to see me now, he’d think I’m a rock star!

DFAT: Hahaha, he’d probably even say ‘Most Impressive’, to quote Vader himself. What other cosplays have you done?

Don: Other than going all-out for Halloween, I really wasn’t into costuming before joining the 501st. I’d spend quite a bit on costumes, and when Revenge of the Sith came out, I shelled out $1,000 to be one of the first owners of a Rubies Supreme Darth Vader (I thought myself crazy at the time)!

Now, I’m working on a Rogue One Vader and have an A New Hope Vader and an A New Hope Stunt Stormtrooper completed.

One of my friends also hooked me up with an incredible Michael Myers mask so I also have a movie accurate Halloween II Michael Myers costume.

DFAT: Yes! That’s a classic right there. Love to see that when it comes together. How and why did you get involved in The 501st?

Don: As I mentioned before, I bought the Rubies Supreme Vader and loved it.

I wore that costume for ten years at least twice (for a yearly Halloween Party and Zoo Boo) a year and it was always a hit!

At that time, I was living in an apartment and one of my neighbor’s kid was a huge Star Wars fan. I was asked to surprise him one night as Darth Vader and, from that point forward, that was his name for me.

A couple months later, his mom told me that he was getting picked on at school because he told his friends, “Darth Vader lives in the apartment above me,” so I showed up to surprise him at his birthday party. From that point on, the teasing stopped!

All was great until I went, in costume, to The Rochester Strong Museum of Play’s “In another Galaxy”… standing next to a 501st Vader, My Rubies kind of lost its luster. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but I could.

After a couple years of looking up Vader parts online, my wife finally encouraged me to build one.

I was torn because we had two young children and the costume was expensive but decided that joining the 501st, and trooping to raise money for charity, far outweighed the initial financial hit of the costume.

I built the Vader and have been having fun ever since.

DFAT: Man that is an awesome and really heartwarming story. I love that the 501st and individuals like you can change lives like that. Seems like it was a fit for the both of you. What else makes The 501st such a great group to be a part of? 

Don: The biggest draw is fundraising for charity. The 501st are all of the Imperial characters and its motto is “bad guys doing good.” I’ve been asked to troop blood drives, memorials, fund raisers… and when you hear the stories behind some of these events, I feel so honored that they ask us to join them and be a part of their day.

Plus the places I get to see: last summer, Weird Al Yankovic invited us to appear on stage with him during the encore of his “Strings Attached” tour stop in Syracuse. My nine-year-old son was in the audience and, for that night, I was the coolest dad on the planet!

Also, my favorite troop has to be the children’s hospital troop – I’m not going to get into detail but to brighten some of the patients, and their families’ day is something that I am so grateful to be a part of. One year, I was walking down one of the hospital corridors when the Hospital’s event coordinator called out, “Darth Vader,” from behind me. I turned around to have a young girl wearing a hospital gown (around my daughter’s age) run up and hug me around the waist.

I’m glad I was wearing a helmet that day.

On top of all that, my now ten-year-old son often troops with me as a Jawa. I make it a point to show him that we are doing all this to raise money for charity – hopefully teaching him that donating your time is just as important as donating money.

And, being a part of the 501st includes you in a group of over 13,000 members that spans 61 countries! The people I’ve met doing this are some of the most generous, caring, helpful and all-around best people on the planet. I’m honored to call them my friends.

And… if all that wasn’t enough, I get to dress up as Darth Vader!

DFAT: Jeez Don, you’re gonna bring US to tears. You guys are truly doing the Galaxy’s Work out there. Amazing! What would someone do if they were interested in finding out more about 501 and getting involved?

Don: As trivial as it sounds, the first thing you would want to do is decide which character you’d like to be. The 501st prides itself with movie accurate costumes so having a plan of attack could save you a lot of time and money.

Once you’ve chosen your character, head to 501st.com to see what the build entails: there is a costume reference library (CRL) which lays out exactly what you would need to make a 501stapproved costume.

If that seems daunting, there are detachments attached to each costume build – once you decide which costume, sign-up with the corresponding detachments for tutorials, tips on where to find parts, and mentoring to help you along.

Finally, find your local garrison (Garrison Excelsior covers Upstate and Western New York). Introduce yourself and go on a couple troops… there is no ‘type’ of person that becomes a costumer and we’re a diverse bunch – come out, squire for an event and see what it’s all about.

From someone that was never into costuming before joining: It’s totally different than what I thought it was going to be and rewarding in so many ways.

DFAT: Well, we’re very lucky to have people like you and those involved in the 501st. Sounds like an amazing organization and I’m glad that it helped shape you into becoming an even bigger Star Wars fan.

Thanks so much to Don for taking the time to chat with us all about what it means to be Vader’s Fist, a love of Star Wars, and everything about the 501st. Make sure to head over to 501st.com as well as the Garrison Excelsior websites to learn even more!

Cover Image: Michael Fisher Photography