“Somewhere, in space, this could all be happening right now.” – Star Wars trailer, 1977
Reflections on Episode IV …
In the summer of 1977 I was witness to what was probably the biggest paradigm shift in popular culture that has ever occurred. Granted, I was only 14 years old and had no idea what a “paradigm shift” even was, but I still felt, in the core of my naive, young soul, that a new age was upon us and the world would never be the same. I’m talking, of course, about seeing the original Star Wars film.
I grew up in one of the most isolated and lonely outposts in the Arizona system, the little town of Heber (located near the Mogollon Rim between Payson and Show Low – a burg best known for its very own real-life space adventure, the 1975 alien abduction of Travis Walton), but I had the great fortune of having an aunt and uncle who lived in the comparatively big city of Gilbert (a farming community on the outskirts of Phoenix), and each summer I would get shipped off to spend a week or two with them, usually spent doing what I loved best – going to the movies.
Welcome to Episode VII Days of the Force, a daily series of Star Wars reflections counting down to the release of The Force Awakens!
There were other movies released that summer, films of which I also hold fond memories: like the CB Radio-inspired Smokey and the Bandit, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (which I initially thought was going to be a sequel to The Exorcist), a Jaws rip-off called Orca, with a killer whale instead of a shark, and the other movie that captivated many a teenage boy in 1977, The Deep, starring Jacqueline Bisset and her infamous wet T-shirt — but even that couldn’t match the thrill of seeing Star Wars.
As a kid living literally in the middle of nowhere, we were only able to pick up one television channel out of Flagstaff, which happened to be an NBC affiliate that broadcasted The Today Show; and I got my first glimpse of the Star Wars film when Gene Shalit (the monstrously mustachioed Today Show film critic, who looked like he could be a Mos Eisley cantina character) gave his enthusiastic review of the movie.
The short glimpse of the film shown in Shalit’s review blew me away. I had never seen anything like it before and I couldn’t wait until later in that summer when I knew I’d get to see the whole thing. Fortunately, while waiting, I got to read the first issue of the Marvel Comics adaptation of the film, which whetted my appetite even more for what the publisher touted as “The Greatest Space-Fantasy Film of All!”
Finally the big day came. My aunt, uncle, little brother and I made the trek from the fields of Gilbert to the Cine Capri theater in Phoenix, the only movie-house in town that was showing the film. In the mid-’70s this was a 25-30 mile trip on surface streets, and even though my uncle, who had to drive the route, might have disagreed, the journey was a minor inconvenience compared with the awesome cinematic sojourn we were about to embark upon.
When we arrived at the theater we were shocked to find that even though the movie had already been playing for a couple of months, the line for the next screening stretched all the way around the building. The adults looked at each other with uncertainly and would have easily given up if it weren’t for the enthusiastic glee on the faces of my brother and I, so into the line we went while my uncle went to the box office to procure tickets.
We waited in line for what was probably two hours, though it seemed like several hours in the tortuously hot Phoenix sun; but as the previous show’s crowd left the theater they all assured us that it was going to be well worth the long wait.
Up to this point in my life I had never been to a theater as wonderful as the Cine Capri, and to be honest I don’t think I have since. This luxurious movie house had elegant décor and a huge screen with a giant golden curtain that would open as the show was about to begin. The ambiance of this environment made the event feel even more special than it was already.
The lights went down, the curtain opened and the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare played, followed by that simple but epic tagline, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Then, like a bolt of earth-shattering lighting, the opening notes if John Williams’ Main Title Theme led into the now famous opening text scroll, that, at the time, had no mention of “Episode IV” or “A New Hope.” Nevertheless, that paradigm shift had begun and our galaxy would never be the same again.
Words cannot describe the excitement of seeing this movie for the first time, especially in the time and place that I was fortunate enough to have experienced it, and I was far from alone. The Star Wars engagement at Phoenix’s Cine Capri would go on for over a year – on record as the longest continuous Star Wars run in the country.
Afterwards, before I went back home to Heber, I sought out and spent my meager savings on the original Star Wars paperback book, written by Alan Dean Foster but credit as George Lucas, and the Star Wars soundtrack double album, that I listened to continuously, day and night, for weeks on end. I also went back to the Marvel Star Wars comic, which turned out to have several differences from the film (it wasn’t until years later that I would learn the comic creators had not yet seen the movie when they first initiated the comic series.)
When I returned to my tiny hometown I tried to describe this amazing movie to friends and family, but with my wild stories of hilarious robots, lightsabers, dark villains, Jedi Knights, space battles, the Force and an awesome hero that looked like Bigfoot, I was mostly met with open-mouthed incredulity. This was a film you HAD to experience for yourself.
Writing this recollection, I’m struck by how much my own journey that summer (farm-boy in a deathly hot climate, staying with his aunt and uncle, going to the city for high-adventure) mirrors Luke Skywalker’s origin; but I only got to live the adventure part through the movie – and thankfully my aunt and uncle weren’t burnt alive.
Star Wars sequels (let alone the vast licensing and marketing universe that followed) were still just a twinkle in George Lucas eye and I could never have dreamed that 20 years later, in 1997, I would have the privilege of taking my step-kids to the Cine Capri to see the Special Edition re-release of Star Wars, now called, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” The magic was still there, but there was no way possible that it could ever be as wondrous as it was in 1977.
Several years later, at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, I was lucky enough to meet and interview Mark Hamill about a completely non-Star Wars related topic. In one of the most surreal scenes of my life I learned that this childhood hero of mine was more personable and likable than I could ever have imagined; and I like to think, after shaking his hand, that I absorbed a little bit of the Force that day.
And now here we are, 38 years later, on the eve of yet another chapter in Star Wars’ legendary pop culture life, with our faraway planet anxiously anticipating Star Wars: Episode VII and a chance to see our old friends, now, well… old.
Soon after the release of the initial teaser trailer for The Force Awakens I took a vow of Star Wars promotional abstinence and have consciously avoided news, rumors, trailers and TV spots about the new film. It’s been no easy task mind you, as Star Wars is everywhere we look and I do have great interest in seeing it all. (My wife takes great pleasure in jabbing me for closing my eyes when the trailer plays at the theater.)
My new hope, as it were, is to recapture that magical feeling of seeing the first film for the first time, when I knew so very little about the special gift that awaited me. A gift that, when unveiled, changed everything for the better and made so many of us ask ourselves, “If this is out there, what else is out there?”