In most cases, the sight of scout troopers — the henchmen of the Galactic Empire in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” — at a funeral would be an odd sight. For those who knew Ira Keeler, it made perfect sense.
The Vacaville resident created the designs for the costumes as well as several other props and ships in the “Star Wars” universe and a slew of other blockbuster movies from the ’80s to the early 2000s when he was an employee with Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects division of Lucasfilm. Several family members and co-workers came by Vacaville-Elmira Cemetery Wednesday to pay their respects to Keeler, who died April 15 after a long illness.
The funeral was a tribute to Keeler’s work, complete with scout troopers serving as pallbearers. Steven Coleman, a “Star Wars” fan who met and befriended Keeler a few months ago, said the troopers were members of the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion, a worldwide “Star Wars” cosplay organization that often takes part in community events.
The scout troopers even stood in a straight line during the funeral service to highlight Keeler’s work, something that was commented on often.
“This is a first for me,” Chaplain Steve Brown joked at the start of his address, as the “Star Wars” baddies stood behind him.
However, the memorial also focused on Keeler’s personal side, whether it was his sense of humor, intelligence or work ethic. He was born July 22, 1940 in Modesto — incidentally, the same town George Lucas grew up in — and his enthusiasm for creating models developed at an early age. Ronnie Watson, who grew up with Keeler in La Grange, said the two of them built model cars and airplanes as kids.
“We shared a keen interest in anything powered by an internal combustion engine,” he said.
Watson said that when Aluminum Model Toys created a model 1932 Ford Roadster, both he and Keeler bought one, but Keeler used his skills to transform it into a Chevrolet Coupe.
“Ira’s first car was a black 19837 Chevy Coupe that was the baddest thing in La Grange and all around,” he said.
The creativity continued for Keeler as he created go carts and upholstered a World War II-era motorcycle. Upon graduation from high school, he enrolled in the Air Force and was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. In 1965, he married his wife, Joy; went on to have two children, Shawn and Dawn; and called Vacaville home for the rest of his life.
Joy told The Reporter that around 1981, Keeler was looking for an outlet for his model making skills, which led to a job at ILM. Around the time, staff were working on the effects for “Return of the Jedi,” where he brought his woodworking skills. Among other things, Keeler helped create the designs for the Red Guards, various weapons and spaceships and the scout troopers, variations on the Stormtroopers who were stationed on Endor.
“Somebody had to carve those helmets in wood,” Lorne Peterson, who was the longtime head of the model shop at ILM, said. “Ira was the person who carved those kinds of things…He was an incredible carver. You don’t realize how hard it is to make things totally symmetrical when you’re just doing it by eye, but Ira was the one that carved those things.”
For the next 20 years, Keeler worked on the models and effects for some of the biggest movies of the period, including the “back to the Future” series — where he created the model for the iconic DeLorean time machine, the “Indiana Jones” series, three “Star Trek” movies, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Men in Black” and “Starship Troopers.”
Steve Gawley, another ILM employee, said Keeler brought in his own tools and had a knack for creating. A few years ago, Gawley said he went over to Keeler’s house to learn how to make model airplanes, which he said Keeler was pretty adept at.
“It was amazing what he could do with so delicate of a touch to make these planes,” he said.
Keeler would continue to remain involved with “Star Wars” projects over the remainder of his career, including working on the effects for the original version of the Disneyland motion simulation ride Star Tours, in which he also has a cameo in the accompanying short film as a crew member who ducks underneath a desk near the end. Keeler created models for the first two films of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, ultimately retiring in 2002.
Joy said her husband continued to make models in his retirement, including building rockets and restoring trains. In 2014, he was a special guest at the Town Square Library’s annual Star Wars Reads gathering, where he shared the original model of a scout trooper helmet and photos of himself with R2-D2, which delighted the youngsters in attendance.
“We pretty much knew it was a big deal and would remain popular,” he was reported as telling the crowd at the time. “Of course, now we have a whole new generation of fans that enjoy it.”
Keeler’s daughter, Dawn, said she would always remember her father’s laughter and his tendency to quote movie lines, his favorites being from “Rain Man,” “A Christmas Story” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“He was always making us laugh,” she said, adding that she would remember his smile and spirit.
Joy said she would remember “what a wonderful husband and father he was.”