The sun was beginning to set over Coca-Cola Field as the director bellowed over the PA system for the actors on the field to head out past second base.
“If you’re an Imperial,” Bill Reynolds yelled, “keep going until the ‘oncology’ sign so you can get blown up.”
They hustle toward the CCS Oncology sign in the outfield and raise their lightsabers. The explosions will come later.
It’s rehearsal night at the Buffalo Bisons’ home field for Star Wars Night, the seemingly incongruous coupling of George Lucas’ epic sci-fi movie series with Triple A baseball that has become one of, if not the most, popular Bisons event of the season. Last year’s Star Wars Night sold out, beating attendance at the annual July 3 Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert and fireworks show, a longtime favorite. Tonight’s Star Wars Night has sold out as well.
A troupe of local “Star Wars” re-enactors who call themselves the North Ridge dress up as Jedi Knights, Stormtroopers, a Wookie and more. The Bisons players get into the act, donning “Star Wars”-themed jerseys and, instead of the usual stats, are announced as characters from the movies.
The kids in the crowd wield glowing “laser swords” (trademark issues bar them from being called official “lightsabers”). Bisons-themed “Star Wars” video vignettes starring the North Ridge characters plus Buster and the other Bisons mascots delight the crowd. The grand finale is an epic battle between good and evil on the baseball field under the blasts of fireworks as John Williams’ soaring music fills the stadium.
“I would stake my job on it – no one does what we do,” said Anthony Sprague, the Bisons’ marketing director and passionate “Star Wars” fan. “We just take it to that next level.”
That’s not to say that Buffalo is some sort of epicenter of “Star Wars” enthusiasm. Since the debut of the first movie in 1977, “Star Wars” has permeated American culture. For decades now, dads have encouraged their little ones by urging them to “use the Force,” and a girl can pick up two cinnamon buns, hold them to her temples and be instantly transformed into Princess Leia.
Then again, there was no shortage of references to ice-covered planet Hoth this past brutal winter among Buffalo “Star Wars” fans who circulated a Facebook image of Luke Skywalker on his winter-hardy Tauntaun, saying, “I’m headed to Wegmans. You need anything?”
“Whatever you feel about ‘Star Wars,’ Darth Vader and lightsabers and all these things are so much a part of the shared culture,” said professor Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “They’re like a classical period we all share. Like Aphrodite and Heracles, Zeus and all the rest.”
So who are these grown men and women who run around Coca-Cola Field in their “Star Wars” costumes?
In 2002, Chris Solecki, a North Tonawanda man who works for a medical billing company, was tooling around the Internet, looking for “Star Wars” fans when he stumbled across an inactive Buffalo fan chat forum. He got it running again and eventually met up with fellow fans. They started an official fan club and named it “The North Ridge,” a reference to the snow-covered opening scenes of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Solecki already had a rudimentary Darth Vader costume that his wife, Mindy, had made for him. The other members had their own “Star Wars” gear, and they came up with the idea of dressing in character for charity events, as other fan clubs do. That’s actually the only way they don’t get into trademark issues with Lucas and Disney, which bought the “Star Wars” franchise; the North Ridge often gives its profits to Compass House for runaway teens and young adults. The Bisons’ Star Wars Nights have always been a fundraiser for the American Heart Association.
Solecki is fully aware that some may not understand what the North Ridge is about.
“The guy who takes off his shirt in January at a Bills game, no one looks at him,” he said.
For the 38-year-old Solecki, dressing up as Darth Vader is no different.
“It might be weird,” he said. “It’s a hobby, and we do it for donations. … It’s an escape from our daily routine.”
The North Ridge has about 50 active members, including Solecki’s wife, and they are seen at events across the region, from charity fundraisers to the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester.
Among the members is Sean P. Moore, who has built a remarkably lifelike, remote-controlled R2-D2 replica robot that has a periscope, flashing lights, a gripper arm and a zapper arm, as well as a fire extinguisher in its head. Moore has been told a couple of times that he perhaps has too much time on his hands, but most people are delighted, said Moore, 46, who runs a computer repair business in Dunkirk.
Moore recalled a time when he was showing off his R2 unit at a Fourth of July event. A guy with a particularly beautiful girlfriend walked up to the robot as Moore showed off some of its tricks. The guy’s jaw dropped in amazement. The girlfriend “looked at him, put her hands on her hips and said, ‘Well, I never,’ and stormed off,” Moore said.
Karen Caligiuri, 38, a yoga instructor and massage therapist from Lackawanna, “fell into it” after going to a costume party as Ventress, a character from “The Clone Wars,” an animated “Star Wars” spin-off. When a North Ridge member invited her to join the fan club, she was a little leery.
“What do you guys do exactly?” she asked warily. But after learning that the members do their thing for charity, she signed up and has loved it. She will portray Ventress at the Bisons game tonight. “Really, it’s Halloween all the time,” she said.
For Nick Rockwell, 32, an Army veteran and teacher at Summit Academy for children with autism, developmental disabilities and other learning challenges, “Star Wars” has proved a surprisingly effective avenue for reaching children who can often be difficult to communicate with.
He joined the North Ridge as a Rebellion trooper a couple of years ago, after the group participated in a Summit fundraiser walk. He was struck by how comfortable the children were with the characters.
“Having the kids come up and be interested and high-five you – It’s not something they normally do,” Rockwell said.
This January, the North Ridge played the starring role in another “Star Wars”-themed fundraiser: a bowling party at the AMF Thruway Lanes in Cheektowaga dubbed “The Empire Strikes for Bucks.” But what does Star Wars have to do with baseball?
Sprague, the Bisons marketing director and passionate fan of “Star Wars” since watching “Return of the Jedi” as a little boy, had the idea of inviting the North Ridge actors to a “Star Wars”-themed Friday Night Bash in 2008. They did a few photo ops with fans and a post-game duel at the game.
Sprague realized quickly he was on to something.
“You opened the gate, and the concourse was filled up,” he said.
Star Wars Night at the Bisons over the last couple of years has become a full sensory, multimedia extravaganza, from the meet-and-greets where the North Ridge members offer trading cards of themselves to a Bisons-themed version of “Star Wars,” filmed at the stadium, shown between innings. As the game progresses and darkness falls across the stadium, thousands of laser swords light up the crowd like lighters at a rock ’n’ roll concert.
The Bisons Star Wars Night is widely considered the most elaborate of such theme nights hosted by minor league teams.
The players get a kick out of it, too. Former Bison R.A. Dickey was especially into it, Sprague said. He’d been scheduled to pitch at Star Wars Night in 2010 when he was called up to the majors to play for the Mets. He was bummed to miss the game.
“I’m not going to get my Star Wars jersey,” he said. The team ended up sending one to him later as a memento.
Thompson said the pairing makes sense.
“Baseball and ‘Star Wars’ are a match made in heaven,” the professor said. “They’re both a nostalgic thing now. … I’m not saying baseball is over, by any means, but I think if you walk into a minor league field, you get this sense you are in a nostalgic cloud of pleasure, and ‘Star Wars,’ now, falls into that as well.”
Bisons PR Director Brad Bisbing thinks baseball and “Star Wars” share “the fact that it’s generational” – the way a dad or grandfather takes his kid to a baseball game and talks about the players he saw when he was a kid. And with new “Star Wars” movies coming out with every generation – the next one is set to hit screens in 2015 – another generation introduces the next to the world of “Star Wars,” Bisbing said.
For the North Ridge and the 18,000 fans expected at tonight’s game, baseball and “Star Wars” are a natural fit.
Like. R2-D2 and C-3PO.