May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”My name is Luis, and I came all the way from Spain.” Thousands clap and stomp, hoot and holler. Another testimonial: ”I’m from Florida, and I named my two sons Darth and Luke.” The voices rise again, lifting the praises of the faithful to the top of the windswept tent. One more true believer: ”I spent all my money to get here. I don’t know how I’m getting home, and I don’t care!” Amen, brother!

With only days remaining until their very own Second Coming (known to most of the world as the May 19 premiere of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace), you can excuse Wars fans for feeling some of that old-time religion. On April 30, heeding the heavy-breathing call of the official fan club and blessed from on high by George Lucas, over 30,000 Jedi-worshiping fanatics made their way to the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver for the ”Star Wars Celebration,” a three-day extravaganza dedicated to the glory of all things Wars. The Force-fed affair (the first officially sanctioned fan convocation since 1987) had throngs braving driving rain, near-freezing temperatures, and ungodly lines to catch exhibitions, lectures, video presentations, and a Saturday-night ”Jar Jar Jam” dance party. Really.

Observers might have questioned the need for such an event. After all, with hype already at fever pitch, wasn’t this simply a case of preaching to the converted? For devotees, such mundane issues were beside the point. Part revival meeting, part feeding frenzy, part support group, the celebration offered believers the opportunity to bask in full geeked-out glory (as evidenced by the impromptu fan testimonials offered up on the first day of registration). Even real-life tragedies were unable to dim the fantasy: Although everyone was mindful of recent events at nearby Columbine High School (organizers handed out memorial ribbons and set up donation boxes for a victims’ fund), that didn’t stop fans in Stormtrooper garb from staging mock executions of ”rebel scum.”

Some other outside-world problems were more obtrusive. For two days, heavy rains turned the museum grounds into Yoda’s swamp planet. Early on the first day, as the faithful watched, aghast and ankle deep in mud, fire marshals capped occupancy of the main hall at 4,000 — leaving thousands in the rain for hours. Lines a quarter-mile long swiftly developed outside the hall and two adjacent lecture tents (both of which leaked). ”For the most part, everyone has been happy,” said a convention organizer, gamely glossing over hordes of livid attendees. ”It would’ve been fine if the weather had held up.” But clearly some had crossed over to the Dark Side. ”This blows,” ranted Lou Tambone of Somerville, Mass., after waiting for three rain-soaked hours to get into the official store. ”I’m about to say f— Star Wars. It almost wasn’t worth coming.”

Once inside and warm, however, scowls melted into beatific gazes. Fans packed the tents to see taped greetings from Menace stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson, not to mention from godhead Lucas, as well as the world premiere of upcoming TV ads. Of the celebs who attended, Jake Lloyd, who plays young Anakin Skywalker, and producer Rick McCallum were popular speakers. But it was Ray Park — soon to be best known as villain Darth Maul — who stole the show with his jaw-dropping martial-arts demo, as well as with his affable disposition toward autograph seekers. (A typical signing: ”Death to all Jedi!! XXXOOOXXX, Ray Park.”)

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