Having slept nine hours, Graham and I got up fairly early on Friday morning, totally invigorated. We checked the Facebook group for Celebration, and there were already fans in line for the Episode IX panel and had been there for hours. Apparently the staff was handing out Happy Meals to them.
Traditionally, the big panels have been almost impossible to get into without putting in serious work. People would literally camp out for days to get into specific panels. Fourteen to 24 hour waits were not unheard of. Graham and I kind of assumed we'd never actually be able to get into one because we're not really the types to be willing to stand in those sorts of lines.
But for a variety of reasons, that was not going to be possible this year. The city of Chicago would not permit lines longer than four hours or overnight camping. The weather was not going to cooperate. The larger panels were in a separate arena across the street from the main convention hall.
So the convention implemented a lottery system, where attendees could, through their badges, select the panels they wanted to attend. The lottery system also worked for some of the toy exclusives (Funko, Hasbro and Lego, I think). We threw our lots in for the Episode IX, the Mandolorian, and the Phantom Menace Anniversary panels. (There was another panel for Galaxy's Edge, the new theme park, but we figured we'd just go one day instead.) The arena held about 7000 people, and there were two overflow rooms in the convention center that probably accommodated another 3000. I think that per day there were about 35,000 people at the convention. The odds were not necessarily great, but they weren't terrible either. And on Tuesday morning, we found out that we had gotten into both the Episode IX panel and the Phantom Menace panel. We were overjoyed.
So I got dressed in my Empire poster dress with Han Solo leggings, tall black boots and a long sleeveless vest/hoodie, and Graham wore his Obi-Wan sweater, and we were in line at the arena by about 8:45ish. The line was moving, but it still took us about ten minutes to get through. Everyone in line got a black beenie with just the numerals IX on it. Since it was a little chilly, it was a very welcome piece of swag. We could have waited for a Happy Meal, but it was cold, and we were too excited to go in to wait for any longer.
We got into the building, and we found our section and then some seats by about 9:30. The arena was buzzing, but it wasn't yet packed. I got us some breakfast at one of the concessions (soft pretzels), and we took in the crowd and the ambiance.
The warm up team was having fun with the crowd, and at one point, they pulled out four or five girls wearing stormtrooper attire and brought them on stage. Then, he brought another woman on stage and introduced the girls to Samantha Alleyne, who was the very first female stormtrooper in The Force Awakens and has been a stormtrooper in the subsequent four movies that they've made, including this one. She told a story of a young fan coming to her once to thank her, because her brother and his friend told her she couldn't be a stormtrooper because she was a girl. The little girl pointed out that Samantha was a girl and she was a stormtrooper and the boys had to concede the point. One day ALL the boys will concede the point.
Finally, with the arena full, and the energy practically visible, the lights dimmed and out came Stephen Colbert! What a welcome surprise! I never thought I'd ever been chanting "Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!" much less in this context, but here I was, chanting along. He was a perfect host for this event, with a very well documented geek cred and passionate about the subject matter.
JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy were the first guests brought on stage. Colbert did what he could to elicit some sort of idea about what the movie would entail. They remained pretty cagy, but they did talk a little about the kismet of finding footage from the Last Jedi with Carrie Fisher that worked organically into the storyline. They said CGI and recasting was entirely off the table, but working with the footage they had was really awesome. They also talked about, and this would come up later on the Mandolorian panel, the importance of using practical effects and real locations as much as possible to give a sense of grounding to the movie.
Next, Anthony Daniels and R2D2 came on stage, and I legitimately started crying when I saw R2. 3P0 has been in every single movie, and Daniels can still fit in the costume. They flashed an image of him with his costume pieces from three separate trilogies, and it was remarkable of the changes and similarities. Daniels was charming and gracious
Billy Dee Williams was next up. The crowd went wild. I think his casting had been confirmed before, but this was undeniable. Abrams and Kennedy talked about how in awe they were of him when he came back to the set, and he told Stephen Colbert that Lando had never left him after all of these years.
The rest of the cast came on stage next, to much fanfare. There’s a new character, named Janna, played by newcomer Naomi Ackie. She was very silent about the part, but they did flash an image of her character on the screen. I took a photo and immediately posted it on to social media. She talked about getting the role and having to be silent about it.
The cast was clearly pretty close, and Colbert talked to them individually and as a group. They’d often defer to Abrams and Kennedy if there were any questions that got too close to the plot, and images kept flashing of stills from the movie. I captured as many as I could with my camera.
The very best part of the cast interviews was when Stephen turned to Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose. Last year, she had to remove herself from social media due to fan bullying after The Last Jedi. But when Stephen Colbert mentioned her name, the crowd went insane and she got a standing ovation that took a few minutes to calm down. And then she started misting up, so we started misting up and cheering all over again. It took awhile for everyone to compose themselves.
Then, we got a treat of a new droid being introduced for the very first time! He’s even smaller than BB8, and terribly adorable. Named D-O, he sort of had a look of the Pixar lamp in droid form. JJ Abrams reminded us that we all met BB8 at Celebration right before The Force Awakens came out, and he also said that like with BB8, Celebration was the deadline that the builders had to finish the prototype.
Finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for arrived, and JJ Abrams announced the teaser trailer. You could have heard a pin drop in that arena. 14,000 eyes were glued to the screen. I grabbed Graham’s hand. We gripped tight during that opening sequence with the waiting and centering and voiceover and sand and speed and tie fighter and calm and the light saber and the run. And then when Rey did the flip, we cheered like mad people. The rest of the trailer, with Leia’s theme playing and all of the new information to absorb was almost a blur. I don’t think any of us blinked, though we cheered when we saw Lando, and we sniffed when we saw Leia. And then Luke spoke again, and then that laugh. And then the name was revealed. And everyone just went insane.
The lights came back on, and Ian McDiarmid was standing on stage. It took a minute for the crowd to compose itself with the shock and excitement of the trailer, and then with McDiarmid on stage. He was just smirking. And then he turned on the Emperor, and said, “Roll it again.” And the lights dimmed and the crowd went insane again, and we went through it all over again, with just a little more information than we had before.
It was an emotionally exhausting hour that was just amazing to be part of. The crowd was still buzzing when we were leaving to get out of the arena and across the street to the convention center. We were absorbing and talking about what it all meant and just totally excited about what we had just seen.
After getting to the convention center, I noticed that the line to get into the official store was a fraction of what it had been yesterday. I had heard that the system crashed at some point yesterday and that was a big factor in the massive line then. I figured what the hell, and got in. Graham had a panel he wanted to see around the same time, and we figured we’d be through our respective tasks about the same time. Once Graham left, I called Jose to tell him to watch the trailer, as it was already online. I watched it a few more times.
My estimation of the line was not great, and I ended up in it for about two hours. I made friends along the way, but it probably wasn’t my best move in terms of time management. Finally, I got into the store (right as Graham was getting out of the panel), and found some tee shirts and other items I wanted, and texted Graham that I’d soon be out. The system crashed again, and the line I thought would be similar to a Saturday checking out at Trader Joe’s took another 25 minutes.
When we were reunited, Graham told me about the panel (on military stuff) and took me down to this awesome room he found full of fan-made droids. There were dozens of them, and most were functional to some degree or another. Everyone in the room had a blast taking pictures with the droids, including me. I have a massive love for R2, and there were dozens of variations of his theme.
We went back to the main room, hearing too late that most of the cast had gone over to the stage there for more informal interviews on the Star Wars Show stage. But there was so much more than there had been the day before, so we spent some time exploring, getting photographs, talking to people, including this awesome guy from Toronto who Graham is now talking with about maybe developing a Jedi Yoga class with. We probably spent close to a half-hour talking with him.
Exhausted and invigorated, we headed back to Wicker Park at around seven, and Graham found a nice Italian restaurant for dinner. Wicker Park is active and vibrant and has the nicest Walgreens the world has ever seen. (Seriously, it’s in an old bank building and it’s three floors of amazing.) We came home and hit the hay ready for the next day.