A long time ago, in a valley far far away, a young nerd dreamed of the stars. Summer 1977 proved to be the hyperspace jump into the future in which nerd culture and pop culture would collide and forever change the universe. As the world readies itself for the last installment of George Lucas’s original monumental culture-changing vision for Star Wars, I can’t help but remember, like so many others, my own first Star Wars experience. Steve Spielberg no less recently weighed in on the movie-going experience. Mr. Spielberg said that “people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers. I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.” I couldn’t agree more. Now I love unwinding with Netflix, but some movies are meant to be experienced on a big screen. I have been fortunate to live during one of the greatest periods of film history ever. And in June 1977, I had the greatest movie going experience of my entire life.
I grew up in movie culture, in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s and 1970s, just over the hill from Hollywood. I have been an avid movie-goer my entire life. My father took me to see The Little Prince for a special screening at the iconic Cinerama Dome, which played past my bedtime, a great experience for a star-struck nine-year old. On Saturday mornings in Granada Hills, California, 12 or 15 neighborhood kids, rain or shine, would be dropped off for a Disney matinee at the Granada Theater. The theater had cushy red velvet seats and held 300 to 400 screaming kids. Parents rotated station wagon duty weekly. It seemed there was a new movie every week, both new and re-released titles. They were all new to us, such as Mary Poppins, my personal Disney favorite, The World’s Greatest Athlete, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, and so much more. We loaded up on old-fashioned movie candy — Dots, Jujubes, Milk Duds, Raisinets, Red Hots, Lemonheads, Good & Plenty, Red Vines, Jolly Ranchers, Starburst, popcorn with lots of butter, and soda. Many of my friends would sit in the front, but I liked to sit in the middle of the theater, either in the center or on an aisle. I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, the second movie of a double feature, at the Granada with my best friend David in a nearly empty theater, which had cleared out following the main feature. We were too young to understand Kubrick’s masterpiece. The whirling space station waltzing through the heavens captivated me, but at 7 years old, I just didn’t get it. We left before seeing even half of the movie. Of course, I have watched Kubrick’s enigmatic yet masterful film many times since then. Later still, as the neighborhood aged and kids were now more interested in dating and cars than movies, the Granada theater declined and change management. It tried to lure customers with famous older movies. My hippie brother, 10- years older than me, newly religious, walked to the theater with me one night to see The Ten Commandments. I think there were 6 of us in that sad empty theater. I had learned to love epics, with my mother’s encouragement to watch television events, big movies shown on the small screen, such as Doctor Zhivago and Fiddler on the Roof, long before AMC and cable movie channels. Cecille B. DeMille’s classic was perfect fare for my growing appreciation of the epic genre. We sat through the entire movie, intermission and all, and walked the mile home on a cool spring night after midnight. The Granada suffered the fate of so many neighborhood theaters and grew into disrepair and began offering X-rated movies before the advent of cable and VHS tape revolution. A California DMV office now occupies the building where the Granada once stood.
In 1974 during Hollywood’s love affair with disaster movies, my father took a week off for a vacation at home. Not usually movie-goers, which would prohibit my chimney parents from smoking for two hours, we took in two disaster movies that week in Hollywood, “over the hill” as Valley folk would say. I had never experienced Hollywood. Seeing the famous cement hand and footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the glittering gold and pink stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the magnificent Hollywood sign, my eyes glittered with stars. My parents took me to see Earthquake, in which Los Angeles was cinematically demolished, and The Tower Inferno with an all-star cast and Fire Chief Steve McQueen saving the day. We saw one movie at The Egyptian and one movie at the El Capitan theater, large ornate theaters with large screens and surround sound. During Earthquake, the theater used Sensurround, low-frequency bass sounds that vibrated the seats, a kinetic experience that simulated the feeling of an earthquake, a traumatic reminder of the 1971 Sylmar quake.
But nothing prepared me for the summer of 1977. I had seen Jaws two years earlier, the first mega-blockbuster to kick off the summer movie fest. I loved Jaws, especially now as I studied Moby-Dick in grad school with some eminent scholars and have taken up sailing later in life, but it didn’t keep me out of the water like it did my friends. That summer, we played many pranks on fearful friends, diving deep in swimming pools and grabbing Achilles’ heels while playing Marco Polo, all the while vocalizing the Jaws theme song: Dun duh. Dun duh. Dun duh dun duh dun duh dun duh. Cue shark fin.
Space-themed sci-fi in books, television, and early video games had started to pop up all over. I loved interplanetary travel, terraforming, extra-terrestrial species. A few years earlier, I had been introduced to an early space video game, a version of Spacewar! White dots on a black and white television screen represented planets and stars, while x- and y-axis coordinates helped plot movement between the objects. I had watched enough Star Trek reruns with my brother for my imagination to explode with nebula clouds and electron particle beams and death rays. Of course, it was also the start of the video game revolution and arcade favorites like Pong and good old-fashioned pinball quickly gave way to Asteroids and my personal favorite Space Invaders. Neighborhood friends and I would hang out at the local pool hall near the counter where we would play the few games they had, learning to smoke and curse and do all those things that Professor Harold Hill warned parents about in The Music Man.
Most of my nerdy junior high school friends knew someone or knew someone who knew someone in the movie business. My aunt worked for a producer at Columbia Studios, and every Thursday night, when a new movie was due for release on Friday, employees and a guest could see a private screening for free on the studio lot. My favorite experience at this small intimate theater was Alien, a sci-fi horror movie with only seven human actors but only six human characters and a cat and one of the most gloriously slow-paced movie monster reveals in film history. One night at a screening, I also was able to see the set of a crashed and burning plane for a night time scene shot for the Steven Spielberg movie 1941, starring an ensemble cast featuring John Belushi. What a dream for a nerdy movie kid.
Near the end of the school year in 1977, in a portable building at the far end of the school in a garden where the honors kids and alternative students hung out, in Mrs. Berger’s 9th grade creative writing class, my classmates talked about a new movie that thousands of people had already seen dozens of times. They said its brilliant young creator, George Lucas, had planned to make three trilogies.
“You mean, three movies. A single trilogy.”
“No, I heard three trilogies. Nine movies total.”
“No way. How could that be? Has that ever been done? I mean, if they came out with one movie every 3 years, that would be 27 years. Let’s say the star is 25 years old now. He or she would be in his 50s by the time the movies were over, if they were still alive. That’s old! Unless they kept the amount of years in the movies the same as real years, it would be impossible to believe a 50-year old could be in his mid-20s. He’d be old!”
(To a 13-year old junior high schooler, even 25 years old was old, let alone someone in his 50s. Of course, we didn’t yet know the ways of the force nor the power of Industrial Light and Magic.)
“A trilogy of trilogies. That’s a new one on me. Is there even a word for that? ‘Trilogy Squared,’ maybe?”
Of course, the movie was Star Wars, later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. My friends convinced me to see the movie immediately. I went to the movie with my sister who was 9 years older than me, which was necessary since I didn’t drive yet and the movie was playing in Westwood, “over the hill.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, movie capital of the world, I was accustomed to getting to the theater early to get tickets, stop at the concessions stand, and ensure a good seat. But we were working against rush-hour traffic for an early evening show. How busy could it be? The movie had already been out for 2 weeks. We took our chance and drove to the GCC Avco Center Cinema Triplex on Wilshire Boulevard.
Thirty minutes before showtime, the line extended all the way around the block. People stood shoulder to shoulder from curb to building. We asked if this was the line to buy tickets or to get into the theater. Everyone in the line had tickets already. We bought tickets and walked, and walked, and walked to the end of the line. We followed the line around the corner, down the side street and around another corner as well. We were on the opposite side of the block from the entrance to the theater. Our hopes diminished. There was no way we would get in, let alone be able to sit together, or we would have to sit up front, which I hated because I was prone to motion sickness.
When the previous movie let out, many of the patrons whooped and hollered and made their way to the end of the line to see it again, as if they were getting in line for an amusement park ride. Our line slowly snaked into the theater. I told my sister that I hoped we wouldn’t have to sit in the front, but that if we had to sit separately, I guess that would be okay. There would be no chance to visit the concessions stand.
I had never seen such a large theater. The screen seemed several stories high. We looked off to the sides for seats, in front, in back, no luck. People in the front row were dressed in costumes, and the crowd was rowdier than I had ever experienced prior to a movie. My sister spied a couple of seats in the exact middle of the theater. Someone had “saved” some seats with their coats, but they weren’t expecting anyone. There really was nowhere else to sit. Despite waiting in line all the way around the block, we had scored perfect seats in the most crowded theater I had ever been in, right in the middle of 1,100 excited people.
Just as we find our seats, the lights dim and the cheering begins. I don’t remember previews. Blue words, now famous, appear on the screen. the title blasts in gold lettering accompanied by the most engaging movie music ever, followed by the famous word crawl, three perfect paragraphs to drop the entire audience in medias res, right into the middle of things. The camera pans down to reveal moons and a planet with an earthly atmospheric glow serving as the backdrop for a laser fight between a small fleeing ship and a massive never-ending battleship in pursuit, a David and Goliath space fight. R2D2 and C3PO appear and the crowd erupts in enormous cheers as the rebel forces take their positions. When the stormtroopers blast their way through the door and the volley of red lasers begins, the crowd boos loudly. Finally, through the smoke and littered bodies of rebel soldiers, Darth Vader makes his way aboard. The costumed audience in the front rows boos and hisses louder than any audience I have ever heard in a theater. They have seen the movie at least a couple of times. I am instantly enthralled.
By the end of the movie, I am distraught at Obi-Wan’s death, I root for the rebels and Han and Chewie, Princess Leia, R2D2 and C3PO, and for young Luke Skywalker to make the shot and blow up the Death Star. When the Death Star explodes, popcorn flies in the air and people leap from their seats, cheering and applauding. In the front of the theater, fans dance between their seats and that magnificent screen. Those 1,100 people witnessed the birth not just of a movie series but of an entire cultural movement that would play out for more than 40 years and continue to this day.
On that day, my world changed. I have been to many movie premieres, including the Star Wars sequels, the long awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens, all of the Superman, Batman and Spiderman iterations, the Marvel and Pixar movies, Titanic with a theater full of teenage girls sighing “Jack.” I held out for a long time from seeing Avatar, and finally saw it in a theater still full many months after it was released, and disappointedly wondered at the hype. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings immensely, though I still don’t see a good reason why The Hobbit, the shortest of Tolkien’s works, was diced up into three movies. No movie has held my attention the way the original Star Wars did.
I was an instant fan. To celebrate, I drew a picture of Obi-Wan and Darth Vadar’s famous light saber battle aboard the Death Star, forever immortalized in an issue of our junior high school newspaper.
At 11 years old, J.J. Abrams, a Star Trek and Star Wars fan who has lived the dream of helming two of the most revered space franchises in American cinematic history, saw Star Wars at the Avco Center Cinema, now the IPIC Westwood, an upscale cinema chain with plush seating and dining and cocktail service. Abrams even code-named “The Force Awakens” AVCO, as it was in production, a tribute to a great theater. Spielberg is right to want to preserve the theater-going experience. Without the crowd, without the booing and cheering and whistling fans, Star Wars would not have been the great experience for me and everyone else who saw it that night.
The world has changed since Star Wars: A New Hope. An entire language and culture has arisen from Star Wars. In fact, we should all be sending out droids with the message “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” If L. Ron Hubbard could create Scientology out of his science fiction imaginings, we have a budding religion in Star Wars. There is already a de facto holiday — May the 4th Be With You, a pseudo-religion with the Jedis and the arcane and mysterious Force, and the ultimate underdog “good guy” Rebels vs. the marauding monster “bad guys,” the Imperial Forces. The merchandising machine that is Star Wars is like an Imperial Star Cruiser decimating everything in its path. There are light sabers, storm trooper costumes, t-shirt, posters, Ewok stuffies, Lego sets, candy, stickers, notebooks. As Admiral Ackbar might say, “It’s a trap” to take all of your hard-earned money. Only Mickey Mouse has the power to control the dark side of this merchandising force. We also have “May the Force Be With You,” and the Millenium Falcon, and R2D2 and C3PO, the most human of droids. They may or may not be the droids you are looking for. Obi-Wan, both young and old, is the personification of Jedi nobility and honor. We have the bounty hunters Greedo and Boba Fett. And of course Yoda, there is. When I have struggled to complete anything and thought to give it the good old college try, I am always reminded of Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Of course, the original Star Wars is the plight of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia forever fighting the evil Darth Vadar. Now we have Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and BB-8 to continue the fight for this and future generations.
And now, we’re coming to the end of an era. Star Wars has encompassed 7 presidential administrations, the Islamic Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the thawing of the Cold War, the rise of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and Social Media, Desert Storm, 9/11, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the more recent troubles in our highly polarized American society. More clearly than ever we need the new heroes that only The Rise of Skywalker can provide.
For the next few months, I am watching my health, making sure I don’t step in front of busses, watching my step in the bathroom so that I don’t fall and crack my head. I have waited 42 years for the end of this trilogy of trilogies. Many great fans didn’t have the opportunity to see it from beginning to end. If I do, I will count myself lucky. I can’t wait to see this movie.
I may not see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on opening night, but I have bought tickets already to see it on opening weekend. I will slip into my old Ben Kenobi costume, grow out my now greying beard, and sit in the middle of the theater surrounded by Star Wars fans. Whatever happens to Rey and Finn, to BB-8 and Poe, to R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca, and the rebels, I will watch the conclusion to what has turned out to be the best movie experience of my life — in a theater filled with fans to feel a little less like strangers.
May the Force Be With You.