4/1/2005, 10 PM, Times Square:
I arrive at the world's bestest Toys 'R' Us store, with my buddy Brian from UGO and his faithful cameraman. It's the night. The big night. "Midnight Madness." The unofficial countdown kickoff to Revenge of the Sith, loosely based around several retail chains' opening their doors at midnight to allow truly devoted fans first dibs on all the new Star Wars toys. Is that what it's really about? Nope. You go to be a part of it. You go to grab hold of that Star Wars magic for one of the very last times of this generation. You're going to spend a lot of money on stuff meant for seven-year-olds, sure, but nobody expects euphoria without an admission cost.
We got out of our cab and inspected the scene. Save for the impending rain that would crash down no more than an hour or two later, it was a beautiful night. Chilly, but definitely of the spring. People were everywhere -- Star Wars fans were everywhere. And they were excited. They were happy. They pointed in all directions and saw strangers who were still somehow friends. Across the nation, the same shit was going on at all the many Toys 'R' Us stores, not to mention the Walmarts, and by morning, the Targets. Being a loser is easiest in numbers; none of us felt embarrassed as the tourists and snooty locals zipped by wondering aloud why grown men and women would wait on hideously long lines for action figures. We'd have time to reevaluate our lives later. This was the last of a thrice in a lifetime experience. It wasn't to be wasted on anything but smiles. It wasn't about worrying if the people ahead of us would "grab all the good stuff first." It was about being there, being a part of this, justifying lifelong claims that these flawed silly movies were more than just flawed silly movies. It was going to be magic. As soon as I saw a giant M&M wandering around dressed as Darth Vader, I absolutely knew it was going to be magic. Midnight Madness was at hand, and I can't wait to tell you how it went.
Originally, I'd only planned to visit my more local Toys 'R' Us for the event. The Times Square store is beautiful, yes, but I work across the street from it and saw no reason to spend two hours commuting for such a familiar sight. Then, probably because he's not exactly a Star Wars nut and didn't want to go alone, Brian forwards me the press release. "MEET DARTH TATER!" "SEE STORMTROOPERS!" "WIN PRIZES!" All that and other weird shit that my poor little local store on Staten Island definitely would not be providing. I had to be there. Bitch to trek in on a Friday night, but upon being greeted by a 20' sign featuring an M&M dolled up as Vader, I knew it'd be worth it.
So yeah, here's the deal -- for each of the three movies in the new old new Star Wars trilogy, Toys 'R' Us stores across the universe hosted these special midnight events. Obviously, this would be the last party of its kind. I'd gone to the stores for the big shindigs for the previous movies, but this time, it felt different. In a way, it was kinda sad. Star Wars fans are experiencing a series of lasts. The last this, the last that. The last opening night movie debut, the last excitement over said movie's teasers and trailers, last this, last that. The last two times I've been to these, people seemed more urgent. This time, nobody was rushing. Nobody wanted to shorten it, much less waste it by mapping out grand schemes on how to get their hands on the "rarer" toys before the thousand other people beat 'em to it. I dare say that a fair chunk of the purveyors weren't even all that interested in buying toys come midnight. We would, but if we couldn't, we'd probably still be there. Partly to be in like-minded company, partly to see weirdos dressed as Boba Fett. Besides, if we're willing to be here on a Friday night, we probably have nothing better to do on Friday nights anyway.
You know, I don't care what corporate evils Toys 'R' Us is responsible for. I don't care that they've gone bankrupt and sold themselves to investors from the still unnamed fourteenth planet of our solar system. I don't care that they're overpriced, or that some of their less serviced stores reek of things that come out of baby orifices. The place has just done me nothing but good. It helped me spell giraffe, it helped me develop tolerance to bright light, it helped me avoid suicide in 1990 by providing one lonesome Mondo Gecko in a pile of Muckmen. I love the place and I always will. If I'm going to see Darth Vader, M&Ms dressed as Darth Vader and Mr. Potato Head dressed as Darth Vader, I want it to be here.
The crowd was enormous. I can't give a good guesstimate because I'm bad at that kind of thing, but the line stretched across one block and down another. Brian and I had press passes -- I think everyone hated us because of that. Can't say I wouldn't understand -- even when we left well past 1:30 in the morn, the line was still around the block with security only allowing more customers in by medium-sized lumps. Had they let everyone in at once, the concentrated weight on this one small portion of Earth would've collapsed the entire planet and forced us to develop immunity to space radiation. Remember all of those news stories about people so devoted to voting in the most recent presidential election that they waited outside till 4 AM? Trust me, people on this line were even stronger in their convictions, and all they wanted were plastic Count Dookus.
What originally seemed only to be a group of hardcore Star Wars fans soon revealed itself to be a group of twice-as-hardcore Star Wars fans -- as in, the ones who dress up as characters. Sure, there were a few in less stunning store-bought Halloween costumes, but the brunt of the folks were actually from a fanatical (I mean that in a good way) play group brought in to make the event feel a little more special for everyone. As you'll see again and again in this article, their costumes were just amazing. As close to movie quality as one could get without raiding the set's wardrobe. The neat thing? All of the costumed folks played their parts when it was called for, but when the curtains rolled through and midnight struck, they weren't "living" their acts. Put it this way: It's cool to walk past a Stormtrooper, but it's a whole different ball game to shop for toys with one.
Also nice to see was the diversity in characters. You'd think only the top dogs from the films would be represented, but not so! Look closely at the photo above and you'll even find a friggin' generic Hoth Soldier running amok, confident that he's in the one and only crowd in the whole world who won't continually ask him who he's supposed to be dressed up as. And that guy in the front -- an AT-AT Commander?! Listen, it takes dedication to hit the streets dressed as Darth Vader, but c'mon...everyone knows what you're up to, and even if they don't, you're safely covered from head to toe anyway. It takes a real fan to unabashedly prance around Broadway as an AT-AT Commander.
Finally, I saw what I came for: People...dressed as food...dressed as Star Wars characters. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. There will always be people dressing up as Darth Vader, and heck, there will always be people dressing up at AT-AT Commanders. Only now can one witness someone fitted into a giant M&M costume trimmed with Vader accessories. If the blood of X-Entertainment could be identified, that guy is it.
Whenever I go to one of these events -- and I've covered a couple here on the site and elsewhere -- I get camera fever. I become possessed with demonic spirits that make nothing in the world matter outside getting the best pictures possible. Considering the kind of stuff I'm usually photographing, it's kind of embarrassing. Point is, when I first glanced the so-called "Vader M&M" hobnobbing on the streets, my camera magically flew from my bag, into my hands, turned on, zoomed in and snapped 75 pictures in succession -- a remarkable feat considering that it only holds 50. Thing is, the Vader M&M was a popular dude. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Everyone wanted him to melt in their mouths. I couldn't get a clear shot. I was hapless Leia, haplessly shooting my hapless laser bullets at the departing Slave-1.
I tried to think of something I could scream, but the only words that Mr. Brain would compile were "EVERYONE MOVE OUT OF THE WAY, I NEED A PICTURE OF THE VADER M&M." I really didn't want to use a phrase that'd cause everyone in hearing distance to turn around whispering "Who the fuck is that asshole?" to the guy standing next to them. I remained silent.
After multiple tries, quiet pleas to God and at least one promise to the Devil, the Vader M&M turned and gave me my shot. He was beautiful. He was sexed up candylicious. Look, even that other guy in the picture was mesmerized. So yellow yet so black, so enticingly filled with a giant peanut. I'm sure the person inside the costume was literally throwing up on the mask innards over hating their job so much, but what a service they done did for us all. No Friday night for the rest of our lives shall ever include a massive M&M walking around in a Darth Vader costume. Our lives didn't just peak tonight, they god damned spiked.
Not that I had time to savor my giddy triumph. Just as soon as the Vader M&M waltzed out of sight, the real thing waltzed in. Darth Vader, in all his oberiffic glory. The last time I saw a "real" Vader this close was during a store's "Meet the Characters" event on a Saturday morning during my fifth year on the planet. What store was that? Toys 'R' Us. So began the chain of events that will surely lead to my premature death as a lonely, bitter man.
Yeah, but, amazing costume. The "ober" sounds poured forth not from a pathetic impression done by the man inside, but by an actual electronic voicebox sampling movie audio bites. He stood as tall as he should, either because the guy inside was tall or because I shrunk two feet without ever noticing or being told. He was evil. No pandering to the crowd. Vader would pose for pictures, yes, but that was just part of his politics. No sense getting everyone against him before sending the ships to their home world. Let them believe what they want to believe.
Eh, this picture honestly doesn't do him justice. Bad angle, I guess. Darth Vader grabbing his belt in a fit of macho posturing is one of the most unmentioned dated bits of the original trilogy -- way worse than everyone's hair. Nobody asserts themselves that way anymore. If I was willing to risk death before the midnight hour, I would've told Vader this.
Same, 11:15 PM, Same:
The natives were getting restless. Even the rare sight of a TIE Fighter Pilot and a Biker Scout couldn't shake their pants ants. It was starting to drizzle, and nothing protected them from the sky's unholy piss. Would TRU open its doors early? Fuck no...not with the meticulously time-budgeted stage show they had planned for the 11:59 sixty-second countdown event. Way too much effort went into that. Besides, the staff was handpicked by the store and Hasbro to piddle away a Friday night with 10,000 screaming sweaty Star Wars maniacs for a comparatively sucky time-and-a-half bonus. They wanted to stay there as late as possible!
The suits sent out another giant M&M guy to appease the crowd, but his heart was only half in it, and we could so totally tell. Drowsily waving to empty phone booths and seeing-eye dogs, the Vader M&M could've solidified his historic go-down in pop culture history by returning to the scene and hacking up this lesser-known with a saw. On the far right but only for half a face, ladies and gentlemen: Sugar. Ray. Leonard.