“Come meet Darth Vadar LIVE and feel The Force!”
The Filene’s department store ad said with the gross misspelling.
I was literally running in circles shouting, “can we go can we go can we go???”
My mother thought this was a good thing for my dad to take me to since he had not yet connected with me and Star Wars. Since their divorce when I was 2 years old I had only seen him now and again. He would mostly come by when he was on duty as a Newton police officer because he knew I loved seeing his patrol car.
On September 21, 1977 (I know this because my 3rd grade journals and Mrs. Patterson was a stickler for dates), my father took me and Lisa to see Darth Vader (or as my father pronounced it with his Boston accent, “Dah’t Vadah”) at Filene’s department store. When he came by to get us we had been ready to go for at least an hour. We fought for the front seat as we usually do when I realized we were wasting valuable time that could be spent meeting Darth Vader. I gave in and jumped in the back seat and off we went.
I was a ball of uncontrolled energy as we walked into Filene’s to “actually see Darth Vadar”. I was about to come face to face again with someone from Star Wars. First the Tusken Raider at the haunted house, now Darth Vader. Maybe that galaxy isn’t so far, far away.
There were dozens of kids already there waiting with eager anticipation in the toy department. This is amazing. He could’ve picked anywhere else in the store to meet his fans but he happened to choose the spot where there happened to be a huge display of Star Wars toys. Must’ve been the will of the Force.
“Where is he?” I repeatedly asked my father.
“I don’t know,” and “I still don’t know,” is what he repeatedly answered back.
After what seemed like forever, someone in a vest and name tag came out and told us that Darth Vader will be here in just a few minutes, but as we waited please direct your attention to the new Star Wars merchandise that Darth Vader had brought with him (he did?). These items included the new R2-D2 and C-3PO model kits by MPC. I later got R2 and Lisa got 3PO (which somehow became mine by the end of the day).
After what seemed like an eternity of jibber-jabber and propaganda from the manager, he introduced the “bad guy from Star Wars – Darth Vadar”. The Dark Lord pushed through the doors of the employee back room to audible applause and cheers. I was confused by his minimalist costume that consisted of the Don Post helmet, a shiny satin black cape, black pants, black button-down shirt, black laced up work boots and motorcycle gloves.
“Why doesn’t he look like he does in the movies? Where’s the real Darth Vader?” I whispered to my father.
I was conflicted. Even though it was obvious that this was not really him, I was caught up in the excitement to care. Kids were all shouting his name and showing him their Darth Vader action figures. He bounced back and forth from each kid trying to listen to what was being shouted at him.
He looked at me and I blurted out that he was “me and my friends favorite Star Wars guy.” He just nodded. “Where’s your ship?” I asked. He just looked at me. “Have you seen your movie?” I asked. He just looked at me some more. I wanted him to say something. I wanted to hear his deep voice to convince me that maybe this was the real one.
Smartly, he never said a word.
We left after getting an autograph, a few pictures and the model kits. I still wasn’t sure what to think about this Darth Vader.
Darth Vader appearances were now popping up all over the greater Boston area. I was surprised that he was making his next stop at Horace Mann School in Newtonville. How awesome is that! That’s where I go to school.
He was coming to the school’s bazaar night and this time he wasn’t coming alone. He brought with him a Stormtrooper and Princess Leia. Their galaxy was getting even closer and closer to mine. The auditorium was filled with practically every student and their parents. I had no idea that so many of my classmates were going to be here on a Friday night. No one ever wants to go to school but going to school at night and not having to do any work seemed like we were getting away with something. We were all there, especially the members of my Star Wars club, waiting to meet “The Stars of Star Wars”.
Our principal, Mrs. Cotti, made an announcement that they will be down from her office in a few minutes. “Is Darth Vader in trouble for killing Ben Kenobi?” I asked. This got a rousing laugh from the other 4th graders. As we waited we used our time wisely and bought raffle tickets hoping to win an R2-D2 ceramic bank. I must’ve bought a king’s ransom of $5 worth of 25-cent tickets.
Right before the “Stars of Star Wars” came out, Mrs. Cotti got on the auditorium stage to pick the winner of the R2-D2 bank. I couldn’t wait to win. I was going to show my new bank to the stars of Star Wars and have it with me when I got my picture taken.
“And the winner is…Michael Moschella.”
Everyone turned to look at me. I felt humiliated. I thought it was a given that I would win it. I hope I was not going to cry. Michael went up to claim his prize. He was my friend. I hated him.
Mrs. Cotti took center stage again and announced, “and here they are, the “Stars of Star Wars.” Was this going to be the real one now? I didn’t get my hopes up too high, and, I’m glad I didn’t. Darth Vader strode out with a costume that was maybe 15% better than the one at Filene’s. The Stormtrooper had the Don Post mask and cardboard armor. It’s hard to mess up Princess Leia. I did recognize her as the older sister of a friend in my class.
I quickly forgot about losing my R2 bank as I ran to the front of the picture taking line. I knew the Vader and Stormtrooper in cardboard costumes weren’t the real deal, but once again, I was too caught up in the Star Wars excitement to care.
I got a picture with Darth Vader and the Stormtrooper (to get Princess Leia would have cost an extra dollar which I didn’t have anymore thanks to the money I lost on the R2-D2 raffle. Thank you very much Michael!)
There were many more stops in the Boston area for Darth Vader.
I asked my mother if we could go to more but when she said “no”, I wasn’t too disappointed since the last few didn’t live up to my expectations.
Except for this one. There was a big full page ad in the Boston Globe’s Bradlees department store circular that read, “ The Force is with us! Darth Vader (spelled correctly this time) requests your presence.” This grabbed me. It sounded so official. They got the spelling of his name right. The ad was in full color. This must be the real deal. I had to go.
My mom must’ve thought the ad looked impressive also because she said yes. She made plans with Sean’s mother to take me, Sean and Lisa for the big outing. We couldn’t invite everyone in the Star Wars club for various reasons. This was to be a covert operation.
Billy’s parents were very protective and had to discuss everything in committee. This could take a couple of days and numerous phone discussions. Then they would want character profiles of everyone else that was going. You’re out, Billy. I didn’t invite Jimmy because I was still hurt that he didn’t invite me to go with him to see John Williams live after he took over for the Boston Pops. Not only was he was conducting selections from the Star Wars soundtrack for the first time, including two new ones from The Empire Strikes Back, but R2-D2 and C-3PO were his guest conductors. It took me a while to get over that one. Go play with Billy, Jimmy.
The plan was about to go down.
“Richard, time to come in,” my mother yelled.
“Sean, it’s time to come in,” Sean’s mother yelled.
We thought we were so clever. Sean and I gave each other a sly guilty smile as we parted ways and said goodbye to Billy and Jimmy.
Now it was time to get ready to see the real Darth Vader (don’t let me down). I was so excited. That is until my mom handed me my ‘itchies’. “Noooooooooooooo! Please noooooooooooooo!” Itchies were the most uncomfortable polyester pants ever manufactured, but they were dress pants and this was a big night. She laid them on my bed and left. I used every ounce of my excitement to help me forget the pain my legs had to endure.
We piled in the car and drove around the block to pick up Sean and his mom. Sean got in the car and we both ducked down in case Jimmy and Billy were still in the area. We did not have time to explain the valid reasons of our treachery to them.
We made it to Bradlees and Sean and I burst out of the car and raced to the toy department. Where’s Darth Vader? As we stood there trying to figure this out, we heard the Star Wars score playing somewhere else in the store. We raced up and down the aisles until we located where the music was coming from. We had finally found him. Right where we should have looked in the first place, in the women’s clothing department next to the stockings. That made perfect sense.
There he was! The real Darth Vader this time! This was no imitation, this was not made out of cardboard, this was a Lucasfilm-issued Darth Vader costume that was actually worn in the movie!
He stood looming behind a podium where he was signing movie stills for his fans. I was a little disappointed when he would hand the stills to his assistant instead of giving them to us himself. (As an adult I now see the logistics of keeping the line moving and I’m sure his visibility was limited through his fogged lenses.) Every once in a while he would look up into the crowd of young fans and wave. I wanted him to wave at me, but, what if he did? What would I do? Do I just wave back? Do I bow? If I made the wrong choice would he Force-Choke me? So much pressure for a nine year old.
Lisa, Sean and I stood in line five times to get the autographed movie still. On our last pass, I waved to him again and he turned his giant black helmet and looked right at me and waved back. I froze where I stood at the acknowledgement.
That was the last thing I recall.
I was in such a state of shock that I don’t remember a thing until we were driving home. Did I give him the correct response? My throat didn’t feel like it had been squeezed today. Everything was fine. I looked down to see that my mom had bought me the new X-Wing necklace (you know the one where the wings fell off every time you looked at it). Boy, will I have a story for show and tell tomorrow. Wait, this was a covert trip. I’ll just have to save it for another day.
(I’m so happy that the last live Darth Vader appearance I saw as a kid was the real movie costume. At this point my standards were too high and no slapped-together job would do. I didn’t even consider an ad I saw at the Childworld toy store in Natick, Ma. It advertised that Darth Vader will come to your home on Christmas Day and help you clean up. He will help put gifts away and pick up wrapping paper. Seriously?
I tried to get the image out of my head of Darth Vader showing up in a green and red turtle neck with reindeer needle-pointed onto it. Now that I think about it, I wished I had asked my mother to get me this Vader-maid just so I would have seen what everyone is picturing right now. That would have been a whole chapter unto itself.)
After this last Vader appearance, I now knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Darth Vader! Not the Vader-maid but the one in the real costume. I didn’t think as grand as being the actor in the movies. I wasn’t even thinking of being a real Sith Lord. I wanted to be the guy that visited stores and shopping malls in the Darth Vader costume signing autographs and waving at kids.
The man who had my dream job then worked at Don Post Studios who manufactured Star Wars masks. His name was Kermit Ellers and he was the man that the fans saw at the Lucasfilm approved Darth Vader mall appearances as well as posing for several publicity photos, presenting Oscars at the Academy Awards and got to put his footprint in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
“I’m going to be Darth Vader,” I exclaimed!
Not at a mall or school bazaar, but for Halloween. My dream of being the dark lord was closer than I thought. Now I would know what it’s going to be like when people thought I was Darth Vader.
Everyone at school and in our club was calling dibs on who they wanted to be. This wasn’t even a discussion I was willing to have if someone else wanted him. He was my favorite Star Wars guy, this is what I’m going to be when I grow up and I was boss of our club so I get to be him.
All the local department stores had just put out their costumes. I dragged my mother to Bradlees, they had no Star Wars costumes. I dragged her to Zayre, nothing. They must be at Caldor’s, nope. Where are they? We kept coming up empty handed. My mother tried to explain to me that they just weren’t available. She suggested that I be Batman again. It’s either Darth Vader or I stay in on Halloween and complain the whole night. With no commercially available costumes I was destined to stay in and sulk.
Then I got the call.
“Osco Drug just got Star Wars costumes in! Get down there quick,” my friend Eric Barisano screamed through the phone.
“MOM! We have to get down to Osco Drug NOW NOW NOW NOW…!” I couldn’t believe it! I was going to rule Halloween in Vader’s big black helmet and long flowing cape. I would have the computer chest-box and belt with lots of buttons. She saw how excited I was and we immediately raced down to Osco.
I bounced up and down in my seat as I thought about wearing my costume to school tomorrow. I strike fear into my teachers who dared to say I talked way too much about Star Wars. Maybe my new costume would give me the ability to Force-Choke those who doubted my power.
“Step on it!” I yelled.
The car hadn’t come to a complete stop when I jumped out and did a shoulder roll into Osco Drug (that might be a slight exaggeration). I ran to the Halloween aisle and saw the dozens of Six Million Dollar Man, Hong Kong Phooey and Captain Caveman costumes stacked to the ceiling. Where were the Star Wars costumes? Did Eric just lie to me? What’s his deal? Do I now have to plan some devastating revenge—
“Here they are,” my mother called to me. I didn’t see them since there were only 4-5 boxes left. My mother grabbed a Darth Vader before the kids looking for the same things took the remaining Luke Skywalker and C-3PO. I quickly opened up the box to reveal the awesomeness of this massive suit. Something didn’t look right. What I was looking at was a vinyl cape and a one-piece with a picture of Vader’s head and shoulders. The mask just covered your face and stayed on with a thin elastic band.
I know I was expecting a direct similarity that was seen in the movie and this was far from it. I didn’t care. I was going to be Darth Vader for Halloween and that is what mattered. And I was going to be Darth Vader at school. At church (yup). Everywhere we went I had to go in costume.
On October 27, 1977 my mother brought me (in my costume), Lisa, Sean (in his Spider-Man costume) to a haunted house that was put on by the Boston Children’s Museum. These were the best haunted houses I had ever seen. They were even sometimes a little too scary for me. But not this time. I was Darth Vader and nothing scared Darth Vader! I imagined how scared their monsters would be when they saw me dressed as one of the most feared bad guys ever. Those monsters are going to run and hide. Was this really fair to do to them? Who would be so brave as to try to scare Darth Vader when I could blow up their planet with my Death Star.
Did they already know I was there? Are they starting to get scared already? The line moved closer and closer to the entrance. I told Sean he could hide behind me if he was getting scared since he only had a Spider-Man costume on and no one is afraid to scare Spider-Man since he’s a good guy.
We got to the door and we were next to go in. We had to wait a few minutes until the group ahead of us was far enough along. The spooky door greeter had us come in and wait in the lobby. Now it was time to see how well my costume was going to work.
There was crying coming from upstairs. I looked up to see a woman in a duck costume. She was sitting at a coffin crying because her duck husband/friend/father was apparently dead. I did not get this. Why were they ducks? How did this duck person die? Wait, why were they ducks?? I thought this may be somehow related to that new song, “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees. Was that Disco Duck in the coffin? (To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of that confusing tableau.)
The spooky greeter told us it was our turn and to proceed with caution. We all walked in clutching each other in preparation for the chills and thrills about to come our way. As powerful as I felt, I walked behind Lisa as we went past the crying duck.
We were only a few feet in when a mannequin I thought was fake jumped alive and made us all yelp like little puppies. Even me as Darth Vader. I realized my costume wasn’t working. They are not scared of me but I was certainly scared of them. I hid my masked face into my mother’s jacket for the better part of the tour.
I came out of hiding as we walked through a room of colored spider webs.
“Sean, this is where you should live.” I told my friend. He was excited seeing a whole room that looked like Spider-Man’s house. “What’s that?” Lisa said. “Is that Spider-Man?” On the far side of the room was the wall crawler himself.
However, if it was really supposed to be Spider-Man than the performer didn’t do his homework. Spider-Man doesn’t slink in corners and scare kids. He greets them, shakes their hands and tells them to stay in school. I can understand why the performer didn’t want to come too close since he may have been embarrassed of his blue and red unitard with no webbing on it. It didn’t even have the signature spider on the chest. I thought Sean had a better costume than this guy and his was blue and red vinyl with a picture of Spider-Man that looked like he is doing the hokey pokey.
The last stretch of the house is where things turned interesting. Switches, knobs, dials and levers covered the walls. Funky bleeps and blips sounds came through the speakers. We turned a corner and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A Tusken Raider. Wow! He looked like he just stepped out of the movie. I walked up to the mannequin to study it. Sean reached up to touch his gaffi stick. Suddenly he came alive! He raised his weapon like he was about to strike us. Everyone screamed. Except me. I was in too much awe of this. When he saw that I wasn’t jumping in fear and was now holding up the line behind our group, he signaled for us to keep moving.
Just as we were about to walk out there was another surprise. Two tiny Jawa mannequins (really mannequins this time) could be seen through a large hole that was cut into the wall. They looked great too. Boy they certainly didn’t skimp on the Star Wars section. I have a special affinity to this day for Tusken Raiders and Jawas because of their appearance at this haunted house.
We went back a week later and I came baring gifts. I gave the Tusken Raider a Topps series 1 bubble gum card with his picture on it. I reached into the hole in the wall and put the Jawa card in front of the two little mannequins. I guess that was my equivalent to when kids make something and give it to Santa when they visit him at Christmas.
In the coming months, Darth Vader and other cast-members were appearances on several variety shows. There was even talk of a Star Wars holiday special about Chewbacca’s family. Sometimes there was even talk about a new Star Wars movie!