Star Wars may take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but did you know that the first Star Wars Celebration was held here in Denver in 1999? Here’s a look back at Colorado’s surprisingly deep connection to the Force.
The 2023 iteration of the Star Wars Celebration event just wrapped up in London, leaving fans around the world excited about upcoming films, television shows, books, and more. Celebration is the largest convention for fans of the popular franchise with tens of thousands of attendees from all over the world converging on one lucky city to dress up as their favorite characters, meet actors, authors, and creators, and join with friends to share their love of all things Star Wars. While this year’s festivities took place across the pond, did you know that the very first Star Wars Celebration happened in Denver in 1999?
You might be asking how such a big event got its start in Colorado? Star Wars wasn’t filmed here, George Lucas isn’t from here, and none of the studios were here—so why Denver? Well, Colorado-born Dan Madsen has been a fan since 1977 when the original film came out. While attending a convention for another popular “Star” franchise, he had heard about "a new space movie" and after seeing it, quickly became obsessed. He made his bedroom into a shrine to the franchise, plastering his walls with posters and hanging models of starships from the ceiling.
Madsen was approached by Lucasfilm in 1980, after the release of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, to revitalize the then-defunct Star Wars Fan Club. The club was temporarily rebranded as the Lucasfilm Fan Club in celebration of not just Star Wars, but of all of Lucasfilm’s other projects. A decade later, George Lucas began to revisit the idea of new Star Wars movies and Madsen began talking to representatives at Lucasfilm about changing the name back to the Star Wars Fan Club. Things really took off from there; the club jumped in membership up to 100,000 members and Madsen founded the Star Wars Insider magazine, which is still in publication today. Operating from his home in Denver, Madsen also ran the official Star Wars store on the new, official, Star Wars website which shipped official merchandise around the world from a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Aurora. Madsen became such an influential figure in the Star Wars community that, in 1997, Lucasfilm approached him to help them organize the first Star Wars convention and even offered him a cameo role in the next movie.
The very first Star Wars Celebration opened at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum on April 30, 1999. It ran until May 1, preceding the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace by two weeks. An estimated 20,000 people attended the event which featured celebrity guests including Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Warwick Davis (Wicket W. Warrick), Ray Park (Darth Maul), and Jake Lloyd (who is from Fort Collins and played young Anakin Skywalker). Fans could also see a life-size replica of Anakin Skywalker’s podracer, a 3/4 replica of an X-Wing (which can still be seen at Wings Over the Rockies), and watch the construction of a life-sized LEGO N-1 Naboo Starfighter over the course of the three days. Fans were also treated to a special musical performance by Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) at the Temple Events Center.
Since that first Celebration in Denver, there have been fourteen more gatherings across the country and even the world. This was still in the early days of the internet so advertising for the event happened primarily through the Star Wars Insider magazine, local newspapers, radio, and other science fiction and pop culture magazines.
It’s obvious that Star Wars has had a significant impact on both culture and history. The first film was unlike anything that had ever been made before. Spawning several similar films and parodies, the franchise has since grown to eleven movies, several television shows, and countless books with more on the way. The filmmakers did things that had never before been done in filmmaking and fundamentally changed the way movies are made. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company founded to work on the original film, would go on to have its hands in just about every movie produced today.
The sheer cultural presence of Star Wars also means that you probably can’t go a day without encountering a bumper sticker, t-shirt, or advertisement for something related to Star Wars. There are frequent Star Wars days hosted at major league sporting events across the country, including Rockies, Avalanche, and Mammoth games here in Colorado. George Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, is even one of the new co-owners of the Denver Broncos.
Star Wars has its own holiday! May the 4th is internationally known to be Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you). The franchise means so much to so many that big-name celebrities and world leaders line up to be in the films. Did you know that Daniel Craig from the James Bond films and both Prince William and Prince Harry played stormtroopers in the most recent trilogy? Even History Colorado’s collection reflects the influence Star Wars has had on popular culture here in the Centennial State. The collection consists of several original 1977 Kenner figures, including major characters from the films, an AT-ST Walker, a Death Star playset, and much more.
As the fandom grows larger and the galaxy keeps expanding, perhaps we’ll get the chance to experience the Force in Denver again someday soon. Until then, maybe I’ll see you at the 2025 Celebration in Japan. Or maybe here at History Colorado’s Research Center! Come check out our collectibles—and may the Force be with you!