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Jackson Rathbone of 'The Last Airbender' and 'Eclipse' sees Philadelphia's taste of devotion from fans of all ages

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It’s 92 degrees, but they don’t mind the heat. They’ve come from Harrisburg, Phoenixville,Jackson Rathbone, star of "The Last Airbender" and "Eclipse" along with his "Airbender" co-star Nicola Peltz at Philly's "Taste Of America" Saturday. Photo by Aileen Bannon. and three blocks over. Some of them have been waiting in the broiling sun since 6 A.M, all for a few moments with actors they adore. And most of them aren’t older than nine. Fans came in droves as actors Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz returned to Philadelphia to promote the locally filmed fantasy epic, The Last Airbender.

Though this was only one of the numerous attractions present at the “Taste of Philadelphia” event, the vast number of fans wearing their yellow wristbands, redeemable for an autograph, indicated otherwise. Multiple bystanders asked me questions; “What’s going on with this?” “Who are these guys?”, and, most notably, “is this a young thing?”

The last question was the most accurate. Judging from those wearing wristbands, yes – it was very much a “young thing”. But not entirely so.

CLICK HERE for Aileen Bannon's AWESOME photos of the day!

The Last Airbender, which was directed and adapted for the screen by Pennsylvania native   M. Night Shyamalan, began life as an animated series on the Nickelodeon  cable network. The story follows Aang, Sokka, and Katara as they seek out the remaining three masters of the elements – or “benders” – who can help Aang, the titular “Airbender”, master their techniques, reach his potential as the “Avatar”, and save their world from the brink of war. Most of the Airbender fans present were barely out of middle school, but I was able to talk to Austin, a young man of 17 who had been watching the series since it debuted in 2005.Anxious fans await the arrival of Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz. Photo by Aileen Bannon.

He was immediately drawn in by the show’s blend of strong characterization, humor, and the supernatural. He’s been checking fan sites constantly for information since the movie was first announced. For him, it’s a culmination of a late childhood love, and he’s happy to see the transition to the big screen. He plans to see a midnight screening of the movie, with four other possible viewings to come. His mother doubts he’ll get a wink of sleep for the next week out of sheer excitement. Hollywood dreams of customers like Austin.

For now, though, they’ve settled on a different reality: the devotion of a female fan base. Mr. Rathbone also plays the role of Jasper Hale, a member of the Cullen family of vampires in the Twilight saga, and, not surprisingly, his supporters arrived in full force. There were various teenage girls in “Team Edward” t-shirts, a Twilight fan site moderator from Philly, a young woman wearing a sombrero and mustache, a deceptively intimidating man named Raven, and – most surprising of all – a devoted father.

Terry wears his Twilight  t-shirt with pride; it was a Father’s Day present from his daughter, Nicola Peltz talks to fans during Saturday's Q and A. Photo by Aileen Bannon.and he bears no reluctance about being part of the phenomenon. He’s seen the movies, read the books, and anticipates seeing the upcoming movie The Twilight Saga : Eclipse with his sixteen year-old daughter. He was beyond happy to give her and her two friends the chance to meet Jackson in person.

The fan site moderator, Rebecca, was there for much the same reason. She’s a big fan of Rathbone, and when she heard he was cast in Airbender, she went straight to the source material – and although she’s more excited for Eclipse, she’s also eagerly anticipating the theatrical release of Airbender. “ I started watching the series when I first heard about the movie, and I totally fell in love with it,” she said. She’d arrived at around 6 in the morning, and met up with other Twilight fans – mostly from the website she moderates, Twilighters Anonymous, under the handle “Becky In Philly”.

She also supports Rathbone’s band, 100 Monkeys; she, along with several other 100 Monkeys fans present (Raven included) describes herself as a “Monkey Junkie”, and vocally supports a charity the band’s involved with, the Spencer Bell Memorial – a foundation supporting adrenal cancer research, in memory of Rathbone’s beloved friend and bandmate.

Given his Twilight fanbase, it seems that much of the attention is drawn to Mr. Rathbone, and this is true. But Ms. Peltz seized the opportunity to shine during the Q&A session. Run by Q102 radio personality Maxwell, the questions were brisk and lively. Ms. Peltz talked about the filming, her stuntwork – which required extensive training in Tai Chi and Kung fu– growing up with the Airbender animated series, and, finally, Maxwell ended the Q&A with a very difficult, very personal question – “So, Nicola – Team Edward or Team Jacob?” She responded without hesitation, “Team Jasper,” giving her support in that most eternal of struggles to her deserving co-star. The Monkey Junkies approved.

Rathbone had his own tough question to handle - the crowd called for him to pick which one he enjoyed filming more, Twilight or Airbender. He gave a direct response, saying, “You want me to choose favorites? That’s cruel…” Rathbone paused, thought to himself, and said, “I guess you could say that The Last Airbender is my favorite 3-D kung fu series, and that Twilight is my favorite vampire series.” That answer pleased both Twilight fans and the fickle middle school audience. Rathbone continued to handle himself well, touting the amazing people he met while in Philly, the city’s gastronomic virtues, and, of course, mentioning the fun times his band had in town. After much ado, one excited fan was given tickets to see the Airbender premiere in New York City, and with that, the stars left the stage.

Afterwards, I talked some more with the fans as they lined up for autographs – tFans line up for the Q and A session Saturday at "Taste of Philadelphia." Photo by Aileen Bannon.he girl with the mustache and sombrero explained the mystique behind her outfit (an inside joke from 100 Monkeys gigs), Raven told me how excited he was to have Eclipse’s release coincide with his birthday, and Austin was amazed when I told him about my job last summer, when I worked as a fight scene extra on the set of The Last Airbender. It was fun work, to be sure – while there was quite a bit of waiting involved, I reveled in the opportunity to learn kung fu forms, fight on camera, and be paid for it. Austin was envious. I understood. An experience like that would’ve been the highlight of his year – just in the way that, for many of the younger fans, meeting the real-life versions of their favorite "Airbender" characters would be a wonderful experience.

It was a few more minutes before Rathbone and Peltz re-emerged, flanked by photographers, handlers, and two black-suited men of intimidating stature. I hung back, watching as the actors situated themselves in the small booth and smiled for the innumerable cameras, and then turned my gaze to the line. Excitement was positively thick in the air, and the children in line began to fidget with anticipation. The older fans had a familiar look of nervous tension on their faces, coupled with a certain giddy feeling that recalled Christmas morning. As the flashes subsided, the fans approached, and were greeted warmly by the actors.

One eager young woman walked up to the booth, and produced something from her purse. It was a small, squishy centipede toy, which she handed to Rathbone. “I thought your hand’d get really sore from signing all of those autographs, and this should really help,” she said, smiling. He had a look of honest appreciation on his face, and thanked her for her thoughtful gesture. She walked away, trembling with excitement. “I’ve been here since 6 am, and – oh my god, I’m still shaking – this is amazing,” Lauren said. She and her close friend, Nikki, departed Harrisburg at 4:30 in the morning to be assured of meeting him. Mr. Rathbone is her favorite, and the taste of meeting him is one she won’t forget anytime soon.

Philly2Philly welcomes Brian Lynch to the team!  Brian is an extra in "The Last Airbender," which hits theaters July 1st.

Contact him at brian.andrew.lynch@gmail.com