The costume contest and preliminary Yoda and Chewbacca sound-a-like competitions were scheduled to occur outside Gate D just after 4 p.m. The two-pronged competition was to proceed as follows: The top 10 finalists in the costume division would be introduced on DiamondVision during the evening's Mariners-Giants game, with the single most impressive contestant tossing out the ceremonial opening pitch. As for the Yoda and Chewbacca sound-a-likes, three finalists from each category would execute their character imitations atop the Mariners' dugout between innings. The grand-prize winner would be chosen by the crowd, whose applause would be registered on the Dome's sound meter. Prizes included life-sized Watto and Yoda figures, a variety of Star Wars-emblazoned clothing, and a handful of Nintendo 64 game systems (including the new Phantom Menace game).
The preliminary rounds lasted nearly two hours. The proceedings, emceed by an employee of KNDD 107.7 "The End," were extremely laissez faire. The only requirement for entering the contest was showing up and filling out a form. (Indeed, the only rule was a non-rule, stated in the press release: "Some have asked if it's okay to wear masks and bring fake guns as part of the costume, and the answer is yes.") By the second hour of the contest, when passers-by realized the open-ended nature of the competition, the queue at the registration table had become formidable, and people were rushed on and off the stage at hyper-speed.
This utter lack of parameters during the preliminaries was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allowed you to glimpse the massive appeal of the Star Wars phenomenon: When you see a 50-year-old man decked out as Obi-Wan Kenobi standing beside a 4-year-old girl in Princess Leia hair biscuits, you come to understand the almost Jungian yearning for a collective cosmic mythos, which this movie franchise has magically tapped into. Star Wars--with its Manichean dualities of good and evil and its colorful, neo-frontier charm--cuts across generational, social, and political boundaries, in much the same way Ronald Reagan's filmic feel-good presidency served to unify the country during the upswung '80s. The Force, in all its Gnostic glory, is truly with us.
The downside of this anarchic display was that virtually every goofball with an ad hoc Star Wars schtick got a chance at the microphone. This was not so much annoying as ultimately disrespectful of those individuals who'd gone to great lengths to assemble elaborate costumes or hone their Wookie warbles. This disrespect was especially evident in the endless string of Yoda impersonators (some heretic even went so far as to attempt an Austin Powers/Yoda combination, until he was removed from the stage for using foul language).
Yodas were a dime a dozen. Just what is it about the wrinkly green Jedi that appeals to so many Americans? Is it the dehydrated spewing of faux-Asiatic wisdom? Is it our simple love of Muppets? Contestant after contestant took the stage and gurgled out that soon-to-be-legendary line from Phantom Menace: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." Pretenders to the Yoda throne so outnumbered the Wookie wannabes that nearly every Chewbacca impersonator made it to the final round.
The sheer quantity of untalented Yoda-heads did serve to make those with an obvious connection to the Jedi Master stand out all the more. Jerry, a Lopez Island resident and "moderate" Star Wars fan (he's seen the original 13 times), became a finalist with his pitch-perfect Yoda impersonation (he eventually lost during the bottom of the seventh inning, nudged out on the applause-o-meter by a kid named James). Jerry attributed his Yoda perfection to a lifelong fondness for Muppets--he considers Kermit the Frog to be one of his finest impersonations. Jerry explained the preponderance of Yoda impersonators at the contest: "It's a little easier to imitate than Chewbacca."If the sound-a-like preliminaries were characterized by a numbing plethora of Yodas, the costume contest presented a more egalitarian mix of the Star Wars universe and its cast of quirky characters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Queen Amidala, Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi (both young and old), Luke and Anakin Skywalker--nearly every major character was represented. But there were some notable gaps in the roster. Thankfully, there were none of those chattering, fuzzy Ewok abominations who so befouled Return of the Jedi. And such special-effects incarnations and computer-generated species as Watto, Jabba the Hutt, and Jar Jar Binks are technically and fiscally impossible for the average citizen to re-create.
The real surprise, though, was the conspicuous absence of that most wonderful and charming Star Wars hero, the ruggedly sexy and incorrigibly snotty Han Solo. It was difficult to believe that not one person in the greater Seattle area had taken it upon himself to don the black vest and needle-barreled laser pistol, thereby channeling the most complex, satisfying role of the series. Could it be true, as some egg-headed critics have already hinted, that George Lucas has indeed struck the first decisive blow in cinema's future trend toward anti-humanism, with his substitution of highly controllable, computer-generated hoopla for the fallible reality of an actual Homo sapiens cast? Well, this is not the forum to cut that particular Gordian knot. Just let it be stated that the disconcerting absence of a single Solo impersonator seemed to speak volumes to that affliction of cultural amnesia which is the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry.
Perhaps the single most impressive costume on display during the prelims was a fully-crenelated Boba Fett, the interstellar bounty hunter who makes a brief but unforgettable appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. The Boba Fett get-up--a perfect replication of Mandalorian armor, right down to the macrobinocular viewplate--was an undeniable crowd favorite, and its wearer cruised easily into the final round. But in keeping with the Star Wars legacy of cute benevolence prevailing over the dark menace of greed and Force-related power-mongering, Boba Fett was, in the end, ousted by an adorable, pig-tailed little boy dressed as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Not to take anything away from the diminutive Obi-Wan. In his belted robe and Tatooine-inspired desert garb, and with his blond hair shorn in true Jedi-mullet fashion, he stood with downcast eyes before the wildly applauding crowd assembled outside gate D, a spitting image of the affectless Ewan McGregor in The Phantom Menace. The boy seemed oblivious to the fact that he would soon be casting that fabled First Pitch in front of thousands of cooing Mariners fans. It looked for all the world as though he were channeling the Force, following one of the crucial principles of ego-diminishing Jedi advice: Don't think, do.
For me, though, the true highlight of the look-a-like contest came when a grinning, goateed hippie kid, dressed vaguely like Luke Skywalker, stepped onto the stage with a drooling pug slung over his shoulders. The dog's head peeped out from under the leather knapsack with its long tongue dangling all pink and wet. The crowd gasped, and then surprised laughter broke out here and there as the dog's fur became more visible. Apparently, the hippie had dipped his canine entirely in dye, coloring the animal a pale lime-green--in imitation of Yoda, Jedi Master--and the whole ensemble was intended to represent that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is in training on Dagobah, forced to jog the swamps with Yoda jockeying around on his back and talking nonsense. It was one of the more ingenious costumes of the day, a sort of impressionist interpretation of cinematic reality.
With the winners chosen and the finalist of the Yoda and Chewbacca sound-a-like-a-thon selected for the ultimate showdown, everyone retired to the Kingdome in anticipation of the ball game's Star Wars-saturated festivities.
I wanted to chat with a few of the finalists prior to the sound-a-like championships, but to get to them from my perch in the press box, I was forced to negotiate the loopy back corridors of the Kingdome. My labyrinthine route was an uncanny simulation of Luke, Leia, and Han wandering the ventilation system of the Death Star in the original film. I feared taking a wrong turn and ending up in some tremendous Kingdome trash compactor, never to be heard from again. Finally, I located the meeting place (Guest Services, Arena Level, Gate B) where the contestants were biding their time before they went on stage.
Ron and Andy, both employees of Western Wireless in Issaquah, had squeaked into the final round with their Wookie impersonations. They appeared undaunted by the prospect of executing their competing Chewbaccas in the echoing, fan-filled Kingdome. As Ron put it: "How often do you get to go up and do Chewbacca in front of 30,000 people?" Indeed, it was the question of the day, and Ron, eyes ablaze, seemed genuinely thrilled by the opportunity. "I want to see how many of these 30 some thousand people I can affect."
Affect? The implications of this rather esoteric statement led me to believe Ron wasn't just referring to the ramifications of his vocal interpretation. He was talking about the Force. Pressed further on the subject, Ron looked me directly in the eyes and began a rather elaborate disquisition on the connection between the power of the Force and... the music of the Doors. "Jim Morrison was the Force," he said. "I really identified with [him]. That's what Star Wars was tapping into. It's about coming together."
Minutes later, Ron was to discover how those 30 some thousand grouchy Mariners fans felt about his combination Doors/Force theory, when the poor guy choked at the mic, and his throaty Chewbacca impersonation fell flat on its ass. As Ron stood exposed atop the Mariners' dugout, he was roundly and vigorously booed by the Seattle audience, a negative reception reminiscent of the Bobby "I-blew-a-five-run-lead-in-the-ninth-inning" Ayala days. Tough crowd. Or perhaps, at this late stage, the Mariners' faithful had had a cosmic noseful of all the megalithic Star Wars hype. People are strange.
The final competition--the Yoda duel--took place after the seventh-inning stretch. It had been a long day, and I'd almost forgotten there was a baseball game going on. With the generous permission of a Kingdome PR staffer, I was allowed to follow the three Yoda impersonators down to the Mariners' dugout, where they would be asked to croak Jedi wisdom into the microphone in rapid succession before 35,625 people. As a group, we made our way down toward the field, past season ticket holders, under the harsh lights of the Dome. One Kingdome staffer was hauling a life-sized Yoda statue in his arms. Heads turned, and a couple unruly fans threw coins at us. As the emcee and the three contestants crouched at the railing, awaiting their cue, I heard someone behind us yell, "Hey, Yoda! Fuck you, Yoda!" Despite this outburst, the trio of vocal impersonators performed wonderfully. They were unfazed and perfectly graceful, almost Zen-like in concentration.
In the immortal words of Yoda himself, "No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."