A long time ago…

1977 Star Wars newspaper adI saw Star Wars for the first time on its original release date: May 25, 1977.

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. My memories tell me that I saw it some time after my high school graduation, which would have put me in the theater in June, not May. After poking around a bit I was reminded that South Florida in 1977 was not even a second-tier movie market, so it was not in the first two waves of release. I can’t find a precise date for the first showing — thanks for having locked archives, Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel! — but me and my friends would have gone to that matinee some time in the latter half of June.

I went, however, on opening day for our area, that’s for sure.

Shortly before its local release, the newspaper ran a full page ad for it: that amazing, thrilling, beautiful poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt (although reproduced in half-tone black and white — newspapers didn’t have color in those days, kids). My small nerdy tribe was familiar with the Hildebrandts through their Middle Earth calendar the year before, so the connection brought with it an unstated expectation of epic scope and fantastic visuals.

Star Wars does inadvertently provide a window into the early history of geeky fandom. Without the ubiquitous information source of the Internet we had to scrounge and scrabble for scraps and rumors about this movie. I’d found the novelization in Waldenbooks several months earlier, its cover proudly proclaiming that it was soon to be a major motion picture. That was rare in those days: a big budget science-fiction film with good special effects and a raucous, action-driven story.

Sitting in that theater and seeing it for the first time was as close to an ecstatic experience as I’d had to that point. I saw it for the second time on the same day, having moved down to the first row in the largely empty house. That was followed immediately by the third time, and I’d have stayed to see it again but hunger and sensory overload finally won out. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie more than once in the theater, and — the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz excepted — there was no other way to see a film again in those pre-VHS-and cable days.

Star Wars pre-release novelizationWe talked about it quite a bit, me and my friends, particularly the goofy ending that clearly left open the possibility that there could be further installments. That would have been too much to hope for, though. More Star Wars? Might as well ask for our own TIE fighters, while we were at it. Sequels were rare creatures, generally reserved for major critical (The Godfather) and box office (Jaws) successes.

Of course, Star Wars met the latter criterion with bells on, so it didn’t take long for the newly-minted genre magazines like Starlog to break the news that Lucas had an entire universe of stories planned. What we’d seen was actually the fourth of a planned nine — NINE! — Star Wars films! Our minds could barely comprehend the bounty we’d been granted.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released, I stood in line for the first showing — a national release this time, thank you very much — arriving hours before the curtain went up. (There was no ticket presale, of course, so if you didn’t camp out in line you might not get in, and that would be unbearable, a shame you’d have to carry for the rest of your life.) TV stations sent crews out to film us standing in parking lots in the sweltering Florida sun. Newspapers sent reporters and photographers to ask lame questions. Mundane citizens going about their lives gawked, shook their heads, and carried on.

It’d been a long three years waiting for that day, years filled with speculation, hype, and… well, okay, real life. But still, release day was a gathering of the tribe. You could talk to anyone around you, because we were united in our purpose. It really was a celebration.

Of course, after the movie the first crack appeared, with some jerks deliberately discussing Luke’s parentage as they walked past the line of people waiting for their chance to worship at the galactic altar. (I have memories of someone being slammed against the stucco wall by an enraged fan, but that may be a bit of wish-fulfilling selective memory.) Still, a strong sense of community pervaded the occasion.

There followed another three year wait — three years of nerdy talk, three years of a growing fandom community, three years of speculation as to the nature of “the other.” Good money was on Boba Fett, but really, pretty much anyone who had an action figure was a candidate. All we knew for sure was that we had absolute faith in Lucas; after all, he’d had this whole thing plotted out for years!

And at the end, another multi-hour giddy wait outside a Miami cinema waiting for the conclusion of the middle trilogy. News crews came back and newspapers sent reporters, but this time they were more likely to be fans themselves. Star Wars had morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, and you didn’t have to be a nerd to like it (but it helped). People in line were threatening to beat the shit out of anyone who gave away the secrets of Return of the Jedi. (They weren’t spoilers yet; that word wasn’t coined until after Jedi was released.) There was a community, but it was already growing a little unwieldy.

And while Jedi gave us the satisfaction of a conclusion to the trilogy, it was also a disappointment. Maybe the intervening years had just taken their toll on our innocence, but so much of it was obviously created to sell toys, and not tell to tell an exciting story. We all knew that the big battle was supposed to be on Chewie’s home planet, because — thanks to the explosive growth of fan press — that had been leaked from early scripts. What was this teddy bear bullshit?! And “the other” turned out to mean absolutely bupkis.

It didn’t stop us from going to see it a few times, but instead of fun, it started to turn a little ugly, like picking at a scab. Sure Star Wars was still great, and we liked to jabber about it, but my interest it was fading fast.

There was some talk about the “prequel” trilogy for a while. It was supposed to be all about the Clone Wars, and take place maybe a hundred years before the first movie. (It still feels wrong to call it A New Hope.) That fell apart, though, and took the rest of my interest with it.

Still, I was honestly surprised when the first prequel was finally announced. Not that they were finally making them — I was surprised that I didn’t care. Many of my friends were getting worked up about the possibilities, but I just felt… nothing. When the first one was released and eviscerated by the fans, I felt simultaneously justified and sad. I’d been hoping that maybe they would rekindle the fond memories I had, that perhaps they’d be a new beginning. Who knows? Maybe if — as with most of my peers — I had a family, some kids with whom to share the experience, I’d have been excited. But no. To date, I’ve still never seen even one of the prequels.

Now it’s time for the post-quels. Social media has taken over the world, and my feeds are full of people I love talking excitedly about tomorrow’s release. I have a smidgen more curiosity this time, I confess, primarily to see the old familiar faces returning to the screen. It feels closer to my heart. Still, I didn’t buy an advance ticket, and didn’t make plans to see it. Strangely enough, though, and cementing the place Star Wars has in general culture, my employer decided that as a holiday gift they’re taking us all out to see an afternoon show next week.


Star Wars Original Soundtrack LP coverA few minutes ago I played a bit of the opening theme, the piece of music which assured John Williams’ place in musical history. The triumphant brass, the soaring strings, the pounding tympani — I didn’t even make it through the fanfare before I broke out into a smile, my heart started swell, and my eyes got misty. In spite of my general indifference toward the current Star Wars zeitgeist, the chill in my heart was blasted away by the force of memory. Once again I was seventeen years old, sitting in the Florida Theatre in Hollywood, being swept away by a tale of spaceships, lightsabers, naive heroes, ominous villains, goofy robots, and a nearly endless supply of corny cliches.

The past is always far, far away. Fortunately, memories are not.