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Heart of Illinois ‘Star Wars’ fans celebrate latest movie premiere

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Dan Zehr at the Star Wars Episode IX premier

Peoria (HOI) -- Star Wars enthusiasts have been waiting for December 19, 2019 ever since Disney announced a new sequel trilogy years ago. Peoria fans were ready to celebrate.

Disney says Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, which released Thursday, marks the end of the main series of movies. This story-line began in 1977 with an under-hyped, over-budget movie, then only known as Star Wars. Forty-two years and billions in merchandise sales later, people of various generations are anxious to see how the saga wraps up.

"I think they're going to stick the landing," Tyler Pompa of Peoria said through a Kylo Ren mask. He can remember Star Wars' influence on his life from when he was a kid, "The main thing I remember is falling off a bike as a kid and all I wanted to do to make myself feel better was watch 'Return of the Jedi.'"

Some in the Heart of Illinois have turned their passion for this space epic into a side-job. Dan Zehr teaches British Literature Mythology and Composition at Washington Community High School. He's also a host of "Coffee with Kenobi," a podcast that's been running since 2013.

"The thing about Star Wars that keep bringing me back for more is the themes of hope and the themes of family," Zehr said. "Whether it's surrogate family or biological family, you have people you can connect with. The more you work together with people like that the more successful and happier you are. Star Wars is a great way to show that."

The success of his podcast, which published its 300th episode this year, led him to be invited to the Hollywood premiere of The Rise of Skywalker earlier this week. He and his wife (a "casual" Star Wars fan) chatted with Harrison Ford.

Dan Zehr and Harrison Ford

"Meeting Harrison Ford and having a 5 minute conversation with him about education about writing and about Indiana Jones was a highlight for the blue carpet and a highlight of my life," Zehr said. "I got to talk to Harrison Ford! I got to do that with my wife and we'll remember that forever."

Zehr is hosting a dinner and a movie event at the Peoria Riverfront Museum Friday night at 6 p.m. where he'll discuss the impact Star Wars has made on culture before a screening of The Rise of Skywalker.

Bobby Oler @bobbyoler

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