Jon Duffie spends a lot of time at home working on his projects. While others might toil away fixing up a car or motorcycle, Duffie’s focus is decidedly more otherworldly.
He builds droids.
"I’ve been working on my R2 unit for nearly a decade," said Duffie. "I spend a lot on parts. He usually needs repairs for something."
What Duffie has built is highly impressive. His life-size R2-D2 is a spitting image of the Star Wars icon. Duffie’s invention moves its robotic head and rolls along via remote control. It even beeps and whistles like its lovable movie counterpart. Well, usually.
"Right now, his sound chip is busted," said Duffie. "It’s always something."
With or without speech, Duffie’s droid is the center of attention at events like the Buffalo Auto Show and Buffalo Comicon.
"The best reaction is from little kids," said Duffie. "When children are interacting with him, they have a look of awe on their face. For them, it’s real."
By bringing these characters to life, Duffie and his fellow WNY Star Wars Fan Club members – a.k.a. The North Ridge – share the magic of the films. Founded in 2002, they’ve raised thousands for charity while putting smiles on the faces of countless children and adults who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy.
Though Lucasfilm is notoriously litigious, it has given its blessing to fan groups like The North Ridge. The droid builders receive the exact specs to the movie props. However, the droids can only be used to benefit charity.
These diehard fans have proven to be quick learners. Duffie reports that the R2-D2 seen in 2016’s The Force Awakens – the highest-grossing North American film ever – was created by a fan.
"The droid-building community has solved problems that the Lucasfilm special effects pros struggled with," said Duffie. "Our replicas are influencing the product on screen."
In the Star Wars saga, R2-D2 is linked closely with protagonist Luke Skywalker. Playing the hero’s role for The North Ridge is local actor Bryan Patrick Stoyle. He dons a Jedi cloak, and helps to plot the storyline at the annual Star Wars Night with the Buffalo Bisons. It’s Compass House’s largest fundraiser; in the past three years, the event has raised more than $45,000 for the non-profit. It’s also a season highlight for the Bisons, who can count on a packed crowd of lightsaber-waving kids.
The event gives Stoyle the opportunity to explore his passions.
"I have a theater background, so I love acting, directing and producing," said Stoyle. "The Bisons let us tell the story. Months of preparation go into our performance. It’s a lot of work but the reaction we get makes it worthwhile."
Stoyle first knew Star Wars Night was a success in 2010. This rainy day was a bad one for baseball players running around on a field, much less Sith lords dueling in masks. The North Ridge team didn’t feel they could go on. The ballclub’s response said everything about what the event had grown to be.
"The Bisons manager told us, ‘There are 13,000 people here and not for baseball,’" recalled Stoyle. "‘You have to go out there.’ So we did. It wasn’t ideal for performing but it definitely showed we were on to something."
With Disney in the midst of a run of five Star Wars films in five years, these are golden days for The North Ridge. Membership is at an all-time high of 45, which enables the group to support additional charitable events.
"We’re using our nerd powers for good," Stoyle said with a laugh.