Monday, May 27, 2013

Seeing "Star Wars" for the first time ...

A few months before "Star Wars" started being spoken about I had been uprooted from my classroom in Jackson, MS and with my family we had moved to Hattiesburg, MS in the late fall of 1976.  I had lost all of my friends, I had been put in a new public school already in session during the year, dumped among kids I didn't know and here I was, a stranger in a strange land.

Everyone has a favorite movie in their life.

For some people it is "Gone with the Wind."  For others it might be "The Wizard of Oz" or "Casablanca" or "The Godfather" or "Jaws".

For me that movie was "Star Wars".

"Star Wars" was a movie that will always hold a special place in my heart.

It was 1977, the spring of 1977 and I was in second grade, Mrs. Ross' class, at Thames Elementary School in Hattiesburg, MS, when "Star Wars" came out of nowhere taking me totally by surprise.  

I began to see pictures of "Star Wars" ... early publicity shots, press release photos, just bits and pieces, teasers … The entertainment media back then was primitive ... almost stone age in comparison to what we have today.  Back then you couldn't get on your home computer or your smart phone and look up "Star Wars" ... you had to search for it in periodicals like "People" magazine and "Time" magazine and "Newsweek" magazine.  You had to find these magazines at stores like a bookstore, a news-stand or a grocery store magazine rack and then you had to thumb through them by hand to see if they had any info you wanted.  If these magazines had any info then you had to take what little tidbits they gave you because that was all that you were going to get.  There were no message forums to join and share information, what you held in your hands was it and that was all you were going to get until you were lucky enough for something else to come along your way.

"Star Wars" teased me to no end ... here was some new space action movie that looked hella cool and all I could find out about it was a few pictures that kept getting passed around and printed in magazines and a few paragraphs giving only the simplest of plots and outlines.  “Star Wars” quickly became a runaway train, smashing anything in its path and everyone was getting onboard except me.

On May 25, 1977, "Star Wars" was released in limited theaters and instantly started making waves.  Suddenly there was a movie out there that everyone was talking about ... but it wasn't playing where I lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  I’m not even sure that it was playing anywhere in Mississippi at that time and if it was then it wasn’t anywhere close.

In the summer of 1977 I remember going on family vacation once again to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, just like we did almost every year at that time and just like we did every time that we went on vacation to Tennessee we stopped by my grandmother's brother's house to visit him and his wife.  While we were there, my father wanted a haircut so we found a barber shop and that's when I got my first real taste of "Star Wars" in the May issue of "Time" magazine.  

Already calling "Star Wars" "The Year's Best Movie" and already about seven weeks old at the time, it was still the freshest bit of “Star Wars” news that I had.  In fact, until I read the article in the magazine I had no idea that the movie was actually out at that time.  The two page color spread of X-wings and TIE fighters fighting it out in space, Han Solo and Chewbacca and a group of Stormtroopers all amazed me.  These were new pictures, pictures of “Star Wars” that I hadn’t seen before.

My imagination had just been captured.

I had to see this movie! 

I sat there staring at the pictures and reading the limited text of the article while my dad got his haircut.  I remember the barber was nice enough to let me keep the magazine, because this was July and that was May’s issue, and my dad gave him an extra dollar for the magazine just to be nice.  After we left, we passed by a large cinema on the other side of the road and there, in big red letters, were the words "Star Wars" ... 

"Star Wars" was out!

"Star Wars" was playing here!

The movie that I really, really wanted to see was here, now, playing in the city where we were at!

In Chattanooga, TN!  

And we were on vacation!  

I asked my father if we could see “Star Wars” and he said that we’d think about it.  Later that day he reverted to typical father to child logic of "Let's just wait until it starts playing back home to see it" and that was it.  The only problem was that "Star Wars" wasn't initially taken as a serious movie ... it was in limited, perhaps even cautious, distribution, at first, and once it caught box office fire more and more theaters carried it but it was a slow, unstoppable fire that was just starting to burn.  Even Gene Shallot of the "Today" show had only good things to say about the film and his scathing commentary was normally the kiss of death to many promising movies.  I remember seeing his review of the film sometime after the summer and the short clips he displayed in his segment and my appetite was ravenous for "Star Wars" ... but it still wasn't playing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  From July to September I was teased with bits and pieces of “Star Wars” … I thought I could tell some of the story, I thought I could tell the good guy spaceships from the bad guy spaceships but there was still so much that I didn’t know about the movie, about the story …

Sometime in September I saw my first television advertisement for "Star Wars" ... what people today would call a "trailer".  "Star Wars" still wasn't playing nearby but at least I was seeing the advertisements for "Star Wars" about once a week on the local TV stations, if I was lucky to catch them.  If I was in one end of the house and heard the music and special effects of the commercial you had better not be in my way because I was breaking my neck to get from one end of the house to the other just to catch a few seconds of the commercial / trailer.  

Eventually "Star Wars" did reach Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the late fall of 1977, a good four or five months after it first started playing in major parts of the country.  To sum it up, I first heard about "Star Wars" while I was in mid second grade.  I didn't get to actually see it until I was early into my third grade year at elementary school.  Back then gas prices and inflation were out of control.  You didn’t load up the car and drive 90 miles away to see a movie.  Back then, nobody liked to waste gas or money, in fact, Bell South advertised their phone service with the tag line of “Let your fingers do the walking” meaning call stores or theaters to see if they have what you want before you drive all that way rather than get in the car, drive over there and look and waste gas and be disappointed.

Waiting on "Star Wars" to start playing at my local cinema was like waiting on Christmas to come around again ... all the while knowing that I was going to make out like a bandit when I woke up that morning.  The anticipation of "Star Wars" was palpable, there was electricity in the air and "Star Wars" was generating it all across America.

And then it was here ... “Star Wars” began playing at the twin screen cinema located in our local mall, Cloverleaf Mall.  And what did my dad say when I asked him to go see it the first weekend that it opened?

"That seems to be a pretty popular movie.  Let's wait a week or two ... let the crowds die down so we don't have to fight all of those people just to get tickets and get a good seat."


I felt like Charlie Brown feels when he goes to kick the football that Lucy is holding and she yanks it away at the last second and he goes flying onto his back.  If the Force had been strong with me I would have Force choked my father on the spot … but I didn’t know about the Force or that you could Force choke someone so ...

One week turned into two weeks and the crowds didn’t die down they just got bigger.  Everyone was going to see “Star Wars” not just once but twice, three times, four times … even more!  Long lines at the cinema were common place when we went to Cloverleaf Mall and I used to go stand by the cinema, wishing I could see that movie, looking at the movie poster, seeing all the people standing in line for each and every show. 

Two weeks turned into three weeks. 

My friends at school were all raving about “Star Wars” and one friend had even seen it three times now. 

That was it! 

That was frigging it!

When my dad got home that Friday night I begged him and my mom to take me to see “Star Wars” and for about 20 minutes I was “that child” but I had finally had enough.  It was a movie.  I knew it was more than that but to my parents it was just a movie.  I wanted to see it.  I’d been wanting to see it for about half a year now.  I’d been patient.  No, I’d been beyond patient.  I’d been almost Job-like in my patience but now my patience was at an end, an absolute end.  I think that was the first time that my dad realized just how serious I was about seeing this movie … or what it meant to me to go see it.

And so, about three weeks after “Star Wars” first opened in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at the end of October or the first part of November 1977 I finally did get to see the movie that I’d waited so long to see.   My dad took me, 8 years old, and my sister, 5 years old, to see it on a cold, gray Saturday matinee.  We stood in line for nearly 45 minutes to get tickets and when we did we had to sit near the back of the theater but that was fine with me since it was a really large screen and the speakers were at the rear of the theater.

What waited for me inside that theater was anything but cold and gray.  What waited for me inside that theater was beyond anything that I had imagined or could have imagined.  What was waiting inside that theater was a mental reset for a wonder-filled eight year old boy’s mind.  What was waiting inside that theater was a complete reprogramming of my fertile little imagination.

I remember the first time that I saw "Star Wars" ... mind blowing is too small, too incomplete of a term to describe the experience.  I'd seen movies before ... mostly Disney flicks like "Escape to Witch Mountain" and "Follow that Dinosaur" and the animated "Robin Hood" ... to me, movies were just big shows, a movie screen was just a big TV screen.  You got popcorn and a drink, you sat in the dark and you watched the movie.  Movies, to me, up until that point in time, were just big TV shows without commercials.  That was what was cool about movies … they were just like TV shows that didn’t have any commercials.  Big TV shows.

"Star Wars" was different ...

"Star Wars" wasn't a movie, it wasn't a big TV show on a big screen ... it was an escape from everything that sucked in the 1970's.   “Star Wars” was a ticket to ride to a galaxy far, far away.  "Star Wars" was an experience; it was a two hour vacation of the senses, of epic storytelling, of thundering music, of ear shattering sounds, of eye melting special effects and it transported you to crystal clear vistas the likes of which you had never before seen.  Outer space, vibrant colored planets, a world that was a desert, a giant metal space station the size of a small moon and a lush jungle planet from which our heroes would fight back from.  Screaming blaster bolts, hissing light sabers, whining spaceship engines, booming explosions all carried out to an orchestra background that not only captured perfectly the sense of the action of the movie but a soundtrack that moved your very soul.

“Star Wars”, in short, was pure magic made real.

"Star Wars" became a pop culture supernova ... it was the perfect storm that appeared at the perfect time and America, let alone the world, was never the same after.  "Star Wars" appeared at a time of great doom and gloom in America.  After years and years of political corruption, Watergate, OPEC, problems in the Middle East, energy crises, inflation, pollution, and a whole host of other grim situations America was ready for something that made us feel good, something that we could root for and cheer for.

"Star Wars" was just that.

The nation, and perhaps the world, needed a "feel-good" movie and "Star Wars" filled that need for many, many people.  It was a simple tale of good and evil, of struggle, of loss and ultimately of good triumphing over evil in a classic way but "Star Wars" took it so much farther.  "Star Wars" appeared on the scene and took command of everything ... references to "Star Wars" soon appeared in everything from church bulletins to politics and political cartoons.

 "Star Wars" was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced before ... going into "Star Wars" for the first time obliterated any preconceived notions of science fiction, obliterated any established frames of reference that you may have thought that you had in regard to movies, to visual effects, and to soundtracks.  

"Star Wars" wasn't a movie, no, it was an event … a once in a lifetime event.  It was like being at ground zero of a pop culture supernova.

From the opening title logo scrawl to that first view of Princess Leia's eleven engine ship racing across the screen getting chased by that huge Imperial Star Destroyer that filled the screen and seemed to go on and on forever ... the fierce battles in the corridor of her ship, the secret message being loaded into R2D2, the escape pod, the desert planet, the hunt for the droids, the death of Luke's uncle and aunt, the cantina, the Falcon's escape, the destruction of Alderaan, the rescue of the Princess, the gunfight in the cell block, the garbage compactor, the heroes getting chased through the Death Star, the death of Obi-Wan, the gun turrets of the Falcon blasting the pursuit TIE fighters, the Rebel base in the old stone temple on Yavin, the preparation for the attack on the Death Star, the final battle and the awards ceremony for the heroes.  "Star Wars" was a fairy tale brought to life, torn from the pages of a child's story book and given life by hundreds of talented individuals ... like Disney's "Fantasia" where Mickey Mouse uses magic to animate ordinary items into an orchestra of motion and action, George Lucas used magic to bring to life a fairy tale like nothing ever seen before.
Our first glimpse of what would become an iconic pop-culture starship ... the Millennium Falcon.

Like I said, it was a primitive time of media entertainment ... once a movie was gone it wasn't going to be in stores on VHS or DVD six weeks after it left the theaters ... it was gone for good.  There were no VHS or DVDs back then, laserdisc was just starting to be available but it was super 

(One of my favorite scenes in the 1977 movie. I still prefer the unedited lift-off sequence to the CGI version.  One thing George Lucas should have learned long ago is "just because you CAN change something doesn't mean that you SHOULD.")

Kids today are so spoiled ... seeing a movie in a theater has, even for me, become a rarely used option these days especially with people being obnoxious and rude, cell phones, outrageous prices and the advent of high quality, easily affordable home theater setups.  I'd rather just wait until the movie is released to direct sales and rent a copy from Redbox or Netflix and watch it at home than I would see it on the big screen and pay $40 to do so.  For me, now that watching a movie is an option at home, it makes it more fun to do so.  I can hit the subtitles, I can pause the movie if I need to go to the bathroom or get something else to eat or drink, I can rewind and watch a scene over again, I can even stop the movie, walk away, go to bed and come back later and pick right back up where I left off.  You can't do that if you go see a movie in a theater ... and I guess for a while there that was part of the magic as well.  For a while, "Star Wars" was only available in the theater and you had to experience it that way if you were going to experience it at all.

 If you don't believe that seeing "Star Wars", the first movie,  was an experience, imagine the feeling of sitting there in that theater back in 1977 when the first Rebel fighter begins its attack run on the Death Star trench ... the screen tilts crazily, green laser bolts flash from surface anti-spacecraft guns trying to destroy you, speed blurs everything, space careens around you as you, put into the pilot's seat of the lead fighter for the point of view, scream down out of space, drop into the trench and level off in a dizzying array of aerobatic skill ... you were there for that and it was magic.


“Star Wars” was different because it was made different.  In fact, several technologies had to be invented in order for “Star Wars” to even exist.  “Star Wars” wasn’t just the same old tricks with a new coat of paint, no, “Star Wars” was a whole new breed of film.

"Star Wars" was space opera ... not the dark, gritty, no-nonsense, moral-imposing approach to stories like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" or  the special effects laden tree hugging cult classic "Silent Running" (even though "Star Wars" shared the same kind of colossal special effects as those two movies) , "Star Wars" instead was just good, clean fun.  It was something that you could sit back in the theater seat, grab some popcorn and a Coke, throw your mind into neutral and just lose yourself in it.

“Star Wars” was a first … unlike “Star Trek” and “2001” and “Silent Running” or “Logan’s Run” or “Planet of the Apes”, all of which were science fiction that had to be interpreted or which told a moralistic play and drove home a lesson … “Star Wars” could simply be enjoyed and that, probably above all else, is what made it the success that it was.

“Star Wars” entertained.

It didn’t preach.

It didn’t warn.

It didn’t threaten.

It didn’t try to influence your social or political behavior or change you as a person.

... and it didn't require you to think a whole lot in order to "get it".

“Star Wars” was just space opera for space opera’s sake.  It was fun … for fun’s sake.  When you went to see “Star Wars” you didn’t feel like you had just been shoved down on the front row pew of the church of science fiction and that the preacher was about to make you really uncomfortable for the next two hours of your life … no, when you went to see “Star Wars” you felt like the only thing missing was a seat belt on your theater chair.

"Star Wars" was a movie that was like nothing ever seen before or I'd dare say ever since.  Something like "Star Wars" was a once in a lifetime chance to experience and those who did not experience it like I did are poorer for the loss.

"Star Wars" smashed the box office like the Death Star smashed the planet Alderaan.
Another shot of the crowds waiting to see, to experience "Star Wars."

"Star Wars" wasn't a movie ... it was an amusement ride, a visual and audio roller coaster ride that lasted almost two hours.  Long lines formed to see "Star Wars" and it soon broke all box office records, becoming the highest grossing motion picture of all time edging out even “The Godfather” and “Jaws”.  "

Star Wars" became a hero of a film, setting new records, winning new awards, storming our lives and "Star Wars" seemed to be here to stay.  Week after week the words “Star Wars” were displayed on the marquee of the local theater.  Every day, in the movie advertisement section of the local newspaper was a large ad for “Star Wars”.  Other movies came and went but in Hattiesburg at the twin screen cinema located in Cloverleaf Mall, week after week the title "Star Wars" stayed on the billboard marquee.  It made me happy, as a child, to see that "Star Wars" was still playing week after week at the same cinema.  It seemed like something that I could count on, like an anchor in my life.

Six months "Star Wars" played in the same theater on the same screen.

After six months I soon started to think that "Star Wars" would never leave ... that "Star Wars" would always be a part of my life, that anytime I wanted to go see "Star Wars" that I would be able to do so now or next week or three months from then.  After a year, "Star Wars" was still playing in the same cinema, day after day, week after week, and it seemed like it would never go away.

Oh, while "Star Wars" had played at that little twin screen cinema in the Cloverleaf Mall I must have gone and seen it about twenty-five times, probably on average twice a month and sometimes when I went to see it I just didn't leave ... I camped out in the theater all afternoon.  I went and saw “Star Wars” by myself because “Star Wars” became a personal experience, a personal journey and I didn’t care to share that with others. 

I remember that I would watch one viewing of "Star Wars", stay through the credits, use the bathroom, get some more popcorn, another drink, and I would just sit back down and wait until the next showing began and then I would watch it from start to finish again.  In those days, you could get away with that, especially if you were a little kid.  Not so much today but when you could it was glorious to be a kid.

I would do chores for "Star Wars" money ... I'd cut the grass or do housework or help wash my parents' cars and when I got my allowance I would get my parents to carry me to the mall, drop me off, and pick me up after the show or shows if I was staying all afternoon.  Times were different back then, I wouldn't let my children go to see a show by their selves at 8 years old and just leave them all afternoon but back then you could, at least in Hattiesburg, Mississippi you could.

And then ... one day "Star Wars" left Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

I'm not sure when it happened because it seemed like "Star Wars" had been playing forever but when I saw that the cinema marquee no longer showed "Star Wars" as playing there I felt incredibly sad as a child, like a good friend had moved off and that I would never see them again.  

And like that, "Star Wars" was gone, replaced with something else ... I don't remember what movie finally replaced "Star Wars" because what ever had replaced it had turned that cinema from a shrine of experience back into just an ordinary, boring cinema ... just a big TV screen showing a big television show with no commercials.  When "Star Wars" left Hattiesburg, Mississippi, it took with it something magic, something special, that was never again to be seen or experienced in the way that it had been.

And then it was back!

“Star Wars” was re-released for the summer of 1978 and the magic was there again.  This time, “Star Wars” played at the Beverly Drive-In Theater.  There was a new movie poster and my father, my sister and I went to see “Star Wars” again for my birthday.  The screen was bigger but the speakers that you had to hang from the window of your car, the summer heat with no air conditioning and sitting there in a car all made “Star Wars” not exactly what it had been just six months previously but it was still “Star Wars” and I loved it.  I was nine years old and “Star Wars” was back for a visit on the big screen.

In the summer of 1979, “Star Wars” visited again … this time at the Broadacres four screen theater set way back in a war torn parking lot that was hard to get to and located behind the Woolco store.  That was the time when previews for next summer’s sequel to “Star Wars”, titled “The Empire Strikes Back” were also being shown.  Immediately there was a feeling that the sequel wasn’t as stunning as the original … even the preview, presented to amaze and tease, did really neither.  The characters looked different, the locations were different, the action was hard to follow in the preview and ultimately it felt like someone had just taken bits and pieces of “Star Wars” and thrown them together in new ways.  We were used to the desert world of Tattooine … now we had an ice planet with big ice monsters, we had an asteroid field (was that the remains of Alderaan?) and some city in the clouds.

After seeing the preview for “The Empire Strikes Back” and then watching “Star Wars” again in an enclosed cinema building I felt like I really was saying goodbye to a childhood friend … to my best friend.  I felt that the new kid on the block, coming this time next year, may have been moving into the same house with the same address as my old friend that I was saying goodbye to but this new kid, this sequel, wasn’t going to be the same as the friend that I had spent the last three years with.  The new movie didn’t excite, it didn’t grab me and whisk me off to places I’d never been before and so when “Star Wars” left again, for the last time, in that summer of 1979 a part of me left with it too.

The theater, which had once again become a kind shrine of sci-fi experience, once again became just a building where they showed movies.

I was ten years old.  I’d now seen “Star Wars” over twenty-five times in three different locations.  “Star Wars” and I had been best friends for the better part of three years now.  That’s a long time to a child.  Those were magical years, golden years that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

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