Alaska News

The force behind huge Star Wars fan club an Alaskan at heart

A few things you may not know about Mary Franklin, the force behind the wildly popular Star Wars Celebration fan events:

• She has a secret crush on a reptilian bounty hunter.

• She has her own Wookieepedia entry.

• She says home is Cordova, Alaska -- a place far, far away from the California movie studio where she worked for 14 years.

Yet it was from that mountainside Alaska town -- where Franklin had long lived -- that Lucasfilm snatched her up. The jump from Cordova to work for "Star Wars" creator George Lucas in San Francisco seems improbable. Besides running a small communications business, Franklin had been a weight trainer, fished commercially and done a short stint penguin wrangling in Antarctica.

But longtime Cordova friends say she's a born organizer who made her luck relentlessly pursuing her passion, however quirky it was in the fishing town with less than a few thousand souls.

She was living in the Prince William Sound town in the mid-1990s when she helped build an online grass-roots fan club. Franklin had thought she was alone in her geeky devotion to the space saga. But in the early days of the Web she found a community of like-minded people in an AOL chat room. She soon become president, and grew the club with trivia games and a weekly newsletter emailed to 7,000 subscribers in 23 countries.

The independent film studio, which had no website at the time, caught wind. Lucasfilm subscribed to the newsletter, and wanted to know more about the fans' views.

"We didn't know then that the prequel episodes 1, 2, 3, were in the works, so that was why I think they were interested," Franklin said.

Franklin, who lived in Cordova 13 years, returns each Christmas and New Year's to see the friends she calls "family."

While living there, she kept an impressive collection of "Star Wars" figurines in her gym and organized everything from intergalactic parties -- complete with themed cocktails -- to the "Star Ladies," professional women who traveled to Las Vegas from all points of the globe for "The Phantom Menace" opening in 1999.

Her friends say she was hardworking and disciplined -- and crazy about "Star Wars." "You start organizing massive amounts of people, and the people profiting from it will notice," said Michelle Hahn O'Leary.

Of course, the fanaticism could get tedious. "If you want to know the serial number on the Millennium Falcon, she can tell you," said another Cordova friend, Barclay Kopchak, laughing.

The geekdom paid off -- for both sides -- after Lucasfilm hired Franklin in 2001 to help organize Celebration and build the fan club. The New York Times recently published a piece about how the official club is the envy of other movie studios hoping to improve their relationship with followers. Lucasfilm, and Franklin, get credit for closely catering to the army of devotees, including responding to each fan letter.

The multiday Star Wars Celebration events, held every year or two in places such as Florida, London and Tokyo, are the highlight. Franklin organized all but the first in 1999 -- she was in Las Vegas with the "Star Ladies." They've grown steadily, with the most recent one in Anaheim this spring drawing 60,000, many costumed as stormtroopers and Jedi Knights.

Fans play a big role by submitting proposals to Franklin and others, then creating elaborate exhibits for the show, such as remote-controlled droids or realistic X-wing fighters. An amateur Boba Fett once jet-packed into the Celebration in 2007.

With "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens" due out in December, Franklin will continue to organize Celebration. But she'll be doing it through Connecticut-based event organizer ReedPOP -- she recently left Lucasfilm to grow professionally.

Reached recently at her new gig on the East Coast, Franklin said the events owe their success to the public: "It's by the fans for the fans. I'm just helping provide the avenue for them," she said.

Franklin came to Alaska in the 1980s, after tending cattle at a commercial meat ranch in Montana out of high school. She paid for business school by fishing and waitressing in Bristol Bay -- where she lived in an empty cargo van and lifted halibut weights strung together on ropes to keep in shape.

After that, she moved to Cordova with her late husband, Kevin Holmes, who died while fishing in 1989. There, she started a gym, waited tables and ran her communications business writing business plans and grant proposals for local nonprofits. She also worked a six-month season in Antarctica catching penguins for biologists.

Margy Johnson, a former Cordova mayor, said Franklin held multiple jobs simultaneously. "When passion meets relentless hard work, sometimes good things happen," said Johnson, now vice president at Alaska Dispatch News.

Franklin said she'll never forget organizing her first Celebration in 2002, when the entry line in Indianapolis stretched for something like six blocks, turned down a street and kept going. Some 27,000 people showed up.

"I love to get people together," she said. "I love to be involved in making something that creates memories for other people."

A perk has been occasionally rubbing elbows with the likes of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and "Star Wars: Episode VII" director J.J. Abrams. She even met President Barack Obama at the White House, with a pair of stormtroopers and droid C-3PO in tow.

But working with the fans is the best part, she said. Responding to letters often brought tears to her eyes. In 2013, she introduced a pair of hobbyist R2D2 builders to "Star Wars" filmmakers. That got them jobs working on "The Force Awakens." ?And once, a "Star Wars" fan donated his kidney to another fan, though the two had never met.

"These guys are the real heroes, we just provide a platform," she said.

As for Cordova, Franklin will keep returning for the holidays each year, hosting her annual parties complete with cocktails she's created with names like Dead Wookie and Sex with a Rodian.

With its personality, creativity and her good friends, Cordova reminds of the cantina in the original "Star Wars." "Of all the places I've lived, and I've lived in a few, Cordova and Alaska feels the most like home," she said.