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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Inquiring Into Fan's Side of The Force

May 19, 1999|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you carry around a little spiral-bound notebook for a living, you sometimes have to ask idiotic questions to fill it.

That explains why I came up to Brian Ehler at the big "Star Wars" party he was throwing at his Ventura copy shop and asked: Just what is it you like about all this "Star Wars" stuff?

It was like asking Salvador Dali what he saw in melted watches, or Julia Child what she possibly could enjoy about goose liver. If you have to ask, you either are incapable of comprehending the answer, or you're a guy with an empty notebook, who needs to fill it.

Ehler, who is as thrilled about today's opening of "The Phantom Menace" as I am utterly unmoved by it, was absolutely honest.

Cornered by a man with an empty notebook and a weighty question, other people might retreat into solemnity and say: "Well, I like to think that the 'Star Wars' stories, depicting, as they do, the mythic yet very real clash between good and evil in a galaxy far, far away reflect not only the turbulence of our culture in the waning years of the millennium, but also the profound disconnect between passion and intellect deep within the human psyche, and, also, of course, I really get off on the special effects."

Surveying hundreds of his wookies, ewoks, Jedi knights and storm troopers jammed onto shelves in a glass case, Ehler leveled with me.

"I don't know," he said. "It's just the feeling you get when you're sitting there watching the movies. I've been into this since I was a little kid, but now I don't need my mom to haul me around and buy the toys."

Of course, there are a few other differences.

Now Ehler, a 28-year-old graduate of UC Irvine, owns a business called C & R Reprographics. Normally, architects and engineers stream briskly through with blueprints in hand, but on Tuesday a couple of hundred customers, friends, relatives and passersby ambled in for bagels, fruit, slices of 6-foot cold-cut sandwiches, a measure of conviviality and a drawing for "Phantom Menace" tickets.

A TV hanging over the counter played the three previous "Star Wars" films nonstop. A notice posted on the wall outlines the performance schedule for each and every business day: "Star Wars" at 8:30 a.m., "The Empire Strikes Back" at 11 a.m. and "Return of the Jedi" at 2 p.m.

Before the first "Phantom Menace" lunch box was a glint in George Lucas's eye, "Star Wars" was the subtext for Ehler's business. Waiting for an order? Try your luck on the "Star Wars" video arcade game in the side room.

Waiting on hold? Pass the time listening to a jazzy rendition of the theme from you-know-what.

"It's been like this since Day One, and that's OK," said one burly employee. "The one thing I didn't like was when he wanted me to dress up like Princess Leia."

Ehler's wife, Shelly, said she didn't share her husband's interest when they first met. But by the time they married, she surprised Brian with "Star Wars" toys on their wedding cake.

"I wasn't into it at all," said Shelly, a second-grade teacher at Santa Rosa Elementary School in Camarillo. "Now, all of a sudden I find myself standing on line at Toys R Us, grabbing boxes, fighting the crowds to get these figures."

The couple's garage is packed with hundreds of them, untouched in their boxes to fetch top dollar from collectors down the line.

"But he'll never sell them," Shelly said. "When he collected baseball cards, he'd show me one and say, 'This is worth $100.' So I'd say, 'Fine, cash it in and let's go to dinner.' And he'd say, 'No, no, you just don't understand."

Brian and Shelly went to Denver a couple of weeks ago, along with thousands of other true believers, for a "Star Wars" convention. At their party Tuesday, they flipped through their album, pointing to captioned photos of themselves with authentic "Phantom Menace" props, with Chewbacca, C3PO and Boba Fett, the "baddest bounty hunter in the galaxy."

So what if it's hokey? So what if Liam Neeson, who plays a grizzled Jedi knight in "Phantom Menace," told the New York Post: "Even if my career is on a slippery slope at the speed of light, I will never be at a 'Star Wars' convention."

There are dumber ways to have fun.

Because I enjoy NyQuil more than prequel, I had to ask Shelly whether she ever gets sick of Brian's "Star Wars" passion.

"No, I don't," she said. "My husband loves it so much. I just see the joy it brings him."

Well, then.

It's easier to fill an empty notebook with bile than with joy, but I decided joy will do just fine as I said goodbye to Brian and Shelly.

"May the force be--well, you know," I said.

They knew.

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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