Putting on a Different Kind of Face
Costuming groups in Baton Rouge aren’t just about dressing up
By Jake ClappPosted Aug 8, 2012
Sculpting tools, airbrushes, resin mixes, a sewing machine, and almost any other type of tool a craftsman could hope for neatly line the shelves and work bench of the spare room tucked in the back of Jeff Schunneman’s home.
There are also paints and materials, and movie posters and memorabilia are scattered around the room. A couple of posters for the movie franchise Predator hang on the walls, next to a shelf holding a Cylon mask from the 1978 TV show Battlestar Galactica and a gigantic, menacing helmet. It’s an authenticated replica of the helmet worn by Sauron in the opening scenes of The Lord of the Rings.
The crown jewel in this room, however, is the enormous Predator head, complete with the iconic silver-hunting helmet. The level of detail on the head and mask is extraordinary. The long, hair-like tentacles that hang from the back of the skull, the bumps and ridges set into the head, the deep grooves from an attack that scarred the mask – even the red targeting system that spelled doom in the 1987 movie is included.
With that level of detail, it would be easy to think the head and helmet were purchased elsewhere. On the contrary, Schunneman made it all in his small workshop. His treasures aren’t just for decoration, either. The head and helmet are part of a Predator outfit that Schunneman created, which includes hands, clothing, and weaponry. When he puts on the outfit, he stands over seven feet tall.
Predator isn’t his only costume; rather, it is a favorite that stands atop (if you will) a large number of others. There are several Star Wars outfits – including Darth Vader and Revan – and Jaffa attire from the movie Stargate. All carry the same attention to detail.
“I’m really more of a ball-cap and t-shirt kind of guy,” Schunneman said with a wisecrack smile. “This is my hobby, and there’s nothing like making it all yourself. I’ve ordered so many pieces that have come back flimsy that making it all myself is now cheaper and more reliable.”
Schunneman isn’t alone in his passions. Baton Rouge is rife with costuming groups, covering every fictitious story universe imaginable: Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, anime from every corner, plus a few video games…you get the picture.
While most groups are small and maybe entail a few friends getting together to prepare for conventions like Comic-Con or just to share in their fandom, there are several groups that stick out in the capital city for their numbers, their dedication to high-quality costumes worn to conventions and charity events, and their role as Baton Rouge social clubs.
Among the more prominent groups in Baton Rouge are the USS Corsair, the local chapter of international Star Trek fan group, Starfleet; Bast Alpha Garrison, the Louisiana chapter of the 501st Legion, the Star Wars “bad guys” costuming organization; the light side of the Star Wars universe, the Rebel Legion, is present in the city; and the Louisiana Ghostbusters, the fan group of the 1984 classic.
Gathered around a small table in the living room of Schunneman’s home, Trisha Tunis and her husband Edward, both members of the USS Corsair, and David Campbell, a member of the Bast Alpha Garrison with Schunneman, sit and talk about their different organizations. The group, which includes Campbell and Schunneman’s wives, is close friends, thanks to their shared appreciation for the different film franchises and the resulting costumes.
“It’s our passion,” Trisha Tunis said. “We fell in love with these different films or books and it turned into a hobby that’s led me to do some fun stuff. It’s allowed me to meet my husband and some great people. I’ve had people all the time ask me why I would do this at my age, and after I explain to them that it’s not just about dressing up, but about being social and helping charities, they begin to understand.”
Schunneman interjected: “It’s really no different than that guy who dresses up [in] black and gold for the Saints game. Our costumes might just cost more.”
The USS Corsair and Bast Alpha Garrison both sport around 50 members each. Bast Alpha Garrison’s mother organization, the 501st Legion, totes a roster of nearly 6,000 active members internationally.
It’s clear this isn’t just dress-up. These organizations adhere to a strict costuming standard, with outfits and props rated for movie accuracy. To become a new recruit in the 501st, they must follow a tutorial to set up their first outfits, what Campbell calls their “Greys,” i.e. the Imperial outfit worn by crewmen.
The 501st Legion’s attention to detail has caught the eye of Lucasfilms, and members make frequent appearances at official Star Wars celebrations.
Campbell pulled out a black Stormtrooper blaster from a bag, and quietly remarked that it was “only 85 percent accurate.” To the average eye, the blaster could fit in with the ones used on set, but Campbell begins to point out imperfections of the prop. There aren’t enough holes in the barrel, a logo has been stamped into the piece of metal, but the blaster was homemade and Campbell was satisfied.
“If we are going to make this, we want it to be as top-notch as we can make it. We are fans, after all, so why not do it right,” said Campbell, who has costumes for a Star Wars Tie fighter pilot, AT-AT Driver, and Imperial Crewman.
For Schunneman’s Predator, he points out that the tentacles hanging from the head are made from rubber, and the mask is made from a hard plastic he crafted. Everything was meticulously made by Schunneman but could have easily passed for products of a special effects shop. Schunneman and Campbell will readily admit that this isn’t a cheap hobby, but both are well into their own professional careers and they find room in their budgets for new props and costumes.
Dressing up, doing good
While sci-fi and movie fandom have led to costuming and dressing up, the purpose of these organizations has gone well past the general meet-up with other fans. USS Corsair, Bast Alpha Garrison, its sister club Rebel Legion, and the Louisiana Ghostbusters have expanded their missions to include charity and social work.
“When you’re in costume and you’re passing around a Stormtrooper helmet to raise money to help an organization, you get some results,” Campbell said.
The organizations often host fundraisers, or participate in charity events. The Animal Protection and Welfare Society (APAWS), food bank Our Daily Bread, the American Cancer Society, and a few local comic book shops have benefited from charity work done by Baton Rouge costuming groups.
The national 501st Legion raised close to $12 million in 2011 through appearances and charity events. Chapters of the organization, including Bast Alpha Garrison, do not charge for appearances, but do encourage donations to charity.
Giving back is even written into the mission statement of the Louisiana Ghostbusters. Founded back in 2009, the group of around 15 members proclaims that it is “saving the world, one charity at a time.”
“Going and spending time with people through different charities is what makes me want to do this,” said Ghostbuster Jack Dupuy. “We did a Relay for Life and stayed on the track all night. Everyone else had left except us and the firefighters when a woman came up to me around 4 a.m. and told me her daughter had died from cancer. That had been tough on her, and she said seeing us out there meant so much. That’s the reason we do it like this.”
Though their costuming rules aren’t as strict as the Star Wars or Star Trek groups, Dupuy still pushes for authenticity in his personal costume. A life-long fan of Ghostbusters, he decided to build his own proton pack. He admits to spending about $2,000 to build and modify two proton packs over the years.
He would later meet other Ghostbusters fans through their shared appreciation for the movie. Some Louisiana Ghostbusters don’t even have costumes, but still participate in the fundraising, Dupuy said.
“The only rule we have is no inflatable proton packs. Those things look terrible,” Dupuy said.
Similarly, while the USS Corsair has costuming rules, they aren’t as strict as the 501st Legion. Among the Legion, if you remove your costume around children, or break the illusion during an event, you might suffer the consequences, Campbell said.
“A big part of this is for kids, sometimes,” Campbell said. “To see them wide-eyed and have these characters they’ve seen on TV in real life is a big deal. You don’t drink, smoke, or cuss around kids, especially not in costume.”
During their conversations about costuming, Trisha and Edward Tunis, Schunneman, Campbell, and Dupuy all attest to how much these organizations have affected their lives.
Trisha attributes finding a job and meeting her husband to her involvement in Starfleet. Campbell has lost weight. Schunneman found an escape from his day job as the owner of a cooling and heating company.
“When Ed and I first moved down here from New Jersey, I didn’t know anyone but my family,” Trisha said. “But because of Star Trek and networking through other fan groups we don’t have enough time in the week to do everything. We aren’t just there for one another in the science fiction world, but we’re there for each other everyday, too.”
More information on the different costuming groups in the area can be found at:
Bast Alpha Garrison