Most people who were children in the 70s remember the moment well. Where they were. What they were doing, when a little movie released on May 25, 1977 would disrupt the filmic landscape, some say for the worse. I beg to differ. The movie? “Star Wars,” of course.
My first glimpse into that galaxy far, far away happened on the eve of Memorial Day weekend. I was ten years old, living in El Paso, Texas. School was out and summer was upon us, which meant my sister and I could stay up later than our usual bedtime of 9pm to watch TV with our parents. The schedule was the same every night, prime time shows followed by the news at 10 o’clock, followed by “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
How did Stars have Wars?
As the local news wrapped up for the night, the anchorman mentioned a new science fiction movie that was breaking box office records on its first day. Crowds were lining up around the country to see it. The TV station then cut to a segment with David Sheehan, the entertainment reporter for KCBS in Los Angeles.
Sheehan talked about a movie called “Star Wars,” which was taking audiences by storm and appealing to all types of filmgoers, much like “Jaws” did two years before. There were shots of the lines around Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Sheehan mentioned how the movie was a throwback to the old Flash Gordon serials of the 30s but with a new twist.
Images of the Death Star escape, TIE fighter dogfight, and the Millennium Falcon were burned into my retinas. I’d never seen anything like it. Sheehan spoke of a farm boy named Luke Skywalker fighting an evil empire and Darth Vader. Who were they? There was a furry alien called Chewbacca. What? The bad guys wore white armor and all of the good guy’s spaceships looked beat up and dirty. And how did stars have wars?
Sheehan mentioned George Lucas, the writer and director of the movie. He’d made another hit, “American Graffiti” several years before. Up to this point I had no idea how movies were made. Was it like a play that was filmed? All done in real time? The components to a movie were still a mystery to me.
The Patience of a Jedi
David Sheehan wrapped up his “Star Wars” review and “The Tonight Show” followed, but I was in a daze. Johnny Carson gave his monologue and I heard my parents laughing, but I couldn’t think of anything else. That night I dreamed of spaceships and aliens. The seed had been planted. I had to see the movie. But there was a problem — it wasn’t even showing locally yet.
The next morning I started begging my parents to take us to see it. Every Thursday night after dinner I would scan the entertainment section in the local newspaper for the movies premiering the next day. I would not rest until we were all sitting in the theater. After three eternal weeks, I got my wish. My father relented and agreed to take the whole family. Could he tell how much it meant to me? Or did he just want me to stop antagonizing him? I like to think it was a little of both.
Movie day couldn’t come soon enough. My dad drove us to Cielo Vista Mall, the newest shopping center in town. Inside was a General Cinema theater with three screens. The days of the single screen movie theater were coming to an end.
As we walked through the mall to the theater, I was expecting to see a line with tons of people waiting. Luckily, there were only a few moviegoers in front of us. “Star Wars” fever had yet to hit locally, El Paso was not a large city like L.A. or New York. Probably for the better, as my dad would’ve turned us around had there been a long line.
My father paid for the tickets and we lined up at the concession stand for popcorn and drinks. We were finally about to see the movie. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would fly out of my chest. There were a few posters in the theater lobby, but not much else to remind us what was in store.
Moment of Truth
We found some seats in the decent sized theater and sat down to enjoy our popcorn. I can’t remember if I wore a watch then or not, but I kept asking my parents what time it was and how long until the movie started. I was ready for this. Was anyone else there as excited as me?
The house lights went dark and the Coming Attractions reel flickered onscreen. In the late 70s, only a handful of previews would be shown, not the half hour of commercials and trailers that happen today. Back then, it was important to be on time for the movies, because you might actually miss the beginning of the movie.
One too many trailers later, the General Cinema Feature Presentation promo began to unspool on the movie screen. This 30 second long piece of film still reminds me of every movie I saw growing up in El Paso, most of them at the Cielo Vista I-II-III inside the mall. The screens are gone now, having moved out into the parking lot and sold to another theater chain. But the memories are imprinted in my brain forever.
The promo ended and the screen went dark. My heart raced and I began to sweat. What if I passed out? The 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare blared onscreen, followed by the now familiar Lucasfilm, Ltd. logo. Can you imagine anything else but Star Wars when you hear that fanfare today?
From the majestic opening shot of the Star Destroyer gliding across the screen to the Death Star battle at the end, I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I would not be the same again. As soon as the movie was over, I needed to see it again. But these were not the days of videotape, DVD or streaming movies on your TV. Back in the late 1970s, the only way to see a movie again was to go back to the theater.
Millions of people across the world would come back again and again to revisit that galaxy far, far away. “Star Wars” was a blockbuster, becoming the top-grossing movie of its time. It played on El Paso movie screens for nearly a year, even longer in other cities.
I was hooked on movies after “Star Wars” ended its theatrical run. I began reading Starlog and Famous Monsters of Filmland, which became my film school. I learned how movies were created by a group of people, how they were “built.” And the director was the person calling the shots, making sure this army of people came together to put all of the pieces into place. I had taken my first step into a larger world, to quote a wise Jedi.
Naturally, my Christmas wish list for 1977 was already filled out by the time December came around. There were no action figures in stores yet, so I got the double LP soundtrack and a Super-8 reel with selected scenes. I had seen the movie at least five times at this point, but having “Star Wars” on film was amazing to me. I screened it for years afterward at our annual Christmas party, along with our home movies.
Beyond that Galaxy Far, Far Away
After “Star Wars,” May to August would never be the same. The movie struck a chord with filmgoers and convinced Hollywood that once again summer was an optimal time to release a movie. “Jaws” had proved that 2 years before.
Of course “Star Wars” didn’t just end when it left theaters, it spawned an entire universe of spin-off merchandise ranging from Underoos and breakfast cereal to toys and action figures. The space opera was becoming a phenomenon. And there would be no end in sight.
Years later, I worked with a guy whose father was an marketing executive at Mattel in the mid-seventies. He took a meeting with a filmmaker named George Lucas who had a science fiction movie coming out. Lucas was searching for a partner to help make toys based on the movie. At the time, no Hollywood studio even gave merchandising a second thought. My friend’s father said no to Lucas, who went on to strike a deal with Kenner and make history. Who knew?
Along the same lines, I found out another co-worker had been a part of the crew who would later form Industrial Light & Magic, building models for Star Wars. When I asked him if they knew the movie would be such a hit, he said no, they were just a bunch of hippies building spaceships and blowing them up in a Van Nuys warehouse.
That’s the beauty of Star Wars to me. It was a shaggy underdog of a movie, willed into existence by Lucas and fought for with blood, sweat and tears. It had heart. The movie was also one of the first to imagine the future as being lived in, only the bad guys had shiny, new spaceships and gear. The good guys were forced to use their ingenuity to cobble together old, outdated things to build something new. You could say the same thing for the film. It recombined the DNA of mythology, old movie serials and science fiction to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
What are your fondest Star Wars memories?