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Star Wars Celebration Day 1: A revelation for this newbie

Attending day one of the massive Star Wars Celebration at Chicago’s McCormick Place West on Thursday, I felt like I was in a galaxy far, far away.

Big confession — I didn’t grow up a “Star Wars” fan. My immigrant parents didn’t know about the movies to introduce me to the phenomenon, nor for that matter, even go to movies. Later, I’d get up to speed as a teenager but have always felt that perhaps I didn’t have the full picture when it comes to all the fuss over “Star Wars.”

Now, I get it.

What “Star Wars” means to the American and global psyche is palpable at Star Wars Celebration. It’s quite an education to be surrounded by people of all ages, from all over the world, who feel so passionate about the franchise and in so many cases, consider it a way of life.

Fans get “Star Wars”-themed tattoos at the Tattoo Pavilion at Star Wars Celebration 2019 at Chicago’s McCormick Place West. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Everything you’ve ever wanted to learn, discover (and buy) about “Star Wars” can be found at this ultimate fan gathering running through April 15 at Chicago’s McCormick Place West.


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Fan Kelly Brennan euphorically recounted seeing the first movie way back in 1977. Dressed as Padmé Amidala (from the prequel trilogy), she traveled from Kansas City to attend Celebration.

“I own my geekdom and it’s great,” said Brennan. “These are fans and we love ‘Star Wars’ and we gripe about ‘Star Wars’ too. But it’s ours. It’s what we love and what we’re passionate about.”

The view from the top floor at McCormick Place West during Star Wars Celebration 2019 on Thursday, April 11, 2019. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Steve Sansweet helped start the very first “Star Wars” celebration in 1999.

“We thought maybe it would be a one-time event and here we are 20 years later,” chuckled Sansweet. “This is the thirteenth event. We’ve gone from over 12,000 people in attendance to over 60,000!”

Star Wars Celebration Chicago 2019
When: April 11-15
Where: McCormick Place West, 2301 S. Prairie Ave.
Tickets: $35-$75
Info: starwarscelebration.com

A former Wall Street Journal reporter and Bureau Chief, Sansweet began collecting memorabilia and artifacts in 1977. He now keeps his collection in a 9,000-square-foot former chicken ranch barn and runs the nonprofit Rancho Obi-Wan “Star Wars” memorabilia museum in Petaluma, California.

You can experience a taste of the museum at Celebration. The exhibit includes a display of collectible helmets throughout the years and he’s most excited to set the record straight about women fans in the “female fandom” portion of the showcase.

A young fan participates in the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago on April 11, 2019. Fans from all over the world gather in Chicago to celebrate the cultural phenomenon of the “Star Wars” franchise. | KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

“People think that women are just coming to ‘Star Wars’ now but female fans have been around since the very beginning, so we have a lot of stuff from 1977 showing how the merchandise was aimed at female fans too,” said Sansweet.

Fans run the gamut at Celebration. It didn’t seem as many people were in cosplay but I learned that many of the 5-day ticket holders use the first day to get the lay of the land before dressing in costume for their return visits the subsequent days.

Montie Garcia from Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood told me he’s not the costume-wearing “Star Wars” fan. “Not all of us wear costumes. We’re normal people. We have normal day jobs. ‘Star Wars’ is our [life] but not every day.”

Still, Garcia has been to every Star Wars Celebration. “I’m a ‘Star Wars’ nut and I’m not afraid to say it,” he said. “It’s something we have in common whether we’re Eupopean, Columbian, American. ‘Star Wars’ brought us all together!”

If fans are looking for a more “permanent” reminder of their time at Celebration, they can visit the very popular tattoo pavilion where custom ink designs of any number of “Star Wars” characters are a purchase away. It seemed that every tattoo booth was in use during my visit.

Adam Golden of The Artisan Tattoo in Syracuse, New York, said, “Everybody from all walks of life [get tattoos at Celebration]. We have people that are coming to get their very first tattoo and people that are seasoned vets that are coming to add to a sleeve.”

Husband and wife, James and Jenny Antonicic, from the Printers Row neighborhood, were first-time participants and “pounced” on the opportunity because it was based in Chicago this year. “[‘Star Wars’] informs us. It tells us what it means to be a friend, be faithful, be brave,” said Jenny Antonicic, later adding, “It’s also cool as [expletive].”

The force was strong with families in attendance. Many small children were getting indoctrinated by their parents, dressed as mini versions of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Ren. I didn’t not see a baby Darth Vader. Grown adult kids were carving out some quality time as they walked around with parents.

Ji Suk Yi meets up with “Kylo Ren” at Star Wars Celebration 2019 at Chicago’s McCormick Place West on Thursday, April 11, 2019. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Martin Kendrick dressed up as Luke surveyed the massive event with daughters Megan and Hallie Kendrick, each dressed as Rey. The Kendricks traveled from Florida and Ohio to meet up in Chicago for Celebration.

“He’s the reason we’re into ‘Star Wars’,” said Megan. “It spans across generations. Obviously he grew up with this and then we grew up with it because he loved it and it’s just [goes] down the line, and it’s still relevant today.”

The Force truly is a powerful thing.