The Force is strong in Baltimore.
"I've had my tickets since October," says Stephanie Kellum, a staffer at Geppi's Entertainment Museum who's been waiting months, if not years, for this weekend's opening of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
"Oh yeah," she adds by way of understatement, "I'm a big 'Star Wars' fan."
She and a few million others around the country.
With the venerable franchise passing from creator George Lucas to J.J. Abrams, a director who's already breathed welcome new life into what had been a stalling "Star Trek" franchise, star warriors the world over have been awaiting this latest chapter (the seventh, for those counting) in the continuing saga of the Force and all those affected by it.
At most theaters, tickets for opening night were scarfed up within hours of going on sale back in October. At the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, fans started camping out over a week ago, to ensure they get the best seat possible. And while that level of mania doesn't seem to have transferred to Baltimore, plenty of fans have been preparing for weeks for the big premiere. Many are planning to show up in costume, the better to pay tribute to a film series dating back to 1977.
Tom Atkinson, curator of the Star Toys Museum in Linthicum (which he runs out of his house, tours by appointment), plans to show up in his Jedi robes (the same ones he wore for an MPT piece about his awesome collection of "Star Wars" toys that aired a few years back). And chances are excellent he'll be in line for the movie more than once.
"This one is exciting, this one looks good," Atkinson, 51, says of "The Force Awakens," although details about it — save for a few trailers and some tantalizingly cryptic plot details — have been zealously guarded. "I am, kind of in spite of myself, excited."
Most fans aren't nearly so reserved; excitement is running rampant. For them, life doesn't get any better than when they're transporting themselves to the "Star Wars" universe.
"You've been waiting your entire life, for most people, to find out what happens," says Kellie Hendley, a preschool teacher in her mid-30s who notes that, chronologically, the last to feature this narrative was "Return of the Jedi," which came out in 1983. For 32 years, fans have been waiting to see what became of Luke, Leia, Han and everyone else.
"We're finally going to be able to see what happens to them. For years, we've been waiting for that."
Among the most dedicated local "Star Wars" fans is Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who had a ticket to see "The Force Awakens" Thursday night at the Senator Theatre — "the earliest they're allowed to show it, by law," he jokes. For him, the movies' appeal is easy to pin down.
"You have good guys and you have bad guys, it's just that simple," he says. "For me, that's one of the things I had originally like about 'Star Wars.' There are good guys and there are bad guys. In the real world, things are rarely that cut and dry."
For most fans, their devotion to the series goes way back.
"It's actually one of my first memories, the Millennium Falcon taking off from that ice planet," Charles Wright, a 38-year-old firefighter living in Bowie, says of his first encounter with the films — a viewing of 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," which came out when he was only 3 years old.
Wright, unfortunately, won't be able to see "The Force Awakens" right away — a firefighter's schedule tends to be a bit unyielding, and since his bosses know well his enthusiasm for "Star Wars," they'd see right through the ploy if he tried to call in sick.
But come Saturday, he'll be at the Senator, in full Rebel pilot regalia, along with other members of the Rebel Legion, an international fan club of "Star Wars" fans who create and wear costumes from the saga. Wright is the base commander for Maryland and D.C., so you know where his heart lies this weekend.
"We do a lot of cool stuff together," Wright says of his fellow Legion members. "We hang out together, both after events and during events. A lot of us consider each other pretty much family. Last year, I was in the wedding party of one of my members." (And no, he wasn't in costume, "although I did have a small light saber in one of my pockets.")
"Star Wars" is far from the oldest movie franchise. The James Bond series, for instance, dates to 1962's "Dr. No" and, with November's release of "Spectre," is still going plenty strong. "Star Trek" dates to the original TV series' premiere in 1966.
But no film series has been more successful than "Star Wars" — all told, the six movies (and their reissues/special editions) have brought in over $2.2 billion at the U.S. box office, according to Box Office Mojo, while the total franchise value (including merchandising, licensing and other sources of revenue) has been estimated at $37 billion. In 2012, the Walt Disney Company acquired LucasFilm for approximately $4.06 billion. Disney has announced two more "Star Wars" films — "Rogue One," scheduled for a December 2016 release and an untitled Han Solo film in 2018.
No film series has a more devoted fan base, as the long lines of people waiting this weekend to see a movie they know precious little about will attest.
"These things transcend being an individual film or TV show," says Arnold Blumberg, who teaches courses on popular culture (including classes on zombies and the Marvel universe) at the University of Baltimore. "They're more than just another piece of entertainment or storytelling."
With a franchise as big and as successful as "Star Wars," the fan base becomes its own community, Blumberg, 44, says. True, it takes some serious skill and artistry to get something like this going; thank George Lucas for that. But once it's established and thriving, such a community of fans develops its own staying power.
"We just become so emotionally connected to those characters and that universe," says Blumberg, "and sharing that journey with others is one of the key factors that enables them to enjoy that experience."
Perhaps best of all, "The Force Awakens," if it's as good as everyone wants it to be (and as the trailers suggest), should attract a whole new generation of rabid fans.
"I've been having fun explaining this to my kids," says Henry, whose daughters are 13 and 10. "They've literally never seen it — they've never seen people lined up around the block waiting to get in, waiting to buy tickets just to get in and see a 'Star Wars' movie."
WBAL radio's Derek Hunter, for one, is so looking forward to checking out "The Force Awakens" that he's found himself a substitute host today.
He's been a "Star Wars' devotee for decades, Hunter says. "I don't know, maybe Princess Leia was the first girl I ever thought was cute, maybe she was my first crush. And I mean, everybody wants to be Han Solo when they're a kid. You know, George Lucas was really on to something."
Like everyone else, Hunter knows little about what to expect with "The Force Awakens." But that isn't making him any less excited.
"I can't find anything about this movie," he says. "But God, I want to see it."