Up until June 1977, going to the movies was nothing really special for Alex; it was just another activity, like watching television or passing a football with big brother in his grandparents' front yard. Usually he'd see a flick once and that was it. The Poseidon Adventure, which he saw with in a cavernous movie theater in Zanesville, Ohio, he liked enough; Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster he loved and wasn't afraid to say it, despite the dumb pulp-magazine title. 1975 introduced him to Tommy, a dazzling wonderland that plunged him into a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria he couldn't get enough of. But it wasn't until the summer of 1977 that a movie grabbed him, set a rocket-fire under him, and blasted him off into space.
1977.Jimmy Carter had just been sworn in as president. Elvis was still alive and reigning; he would pass away, God rest his soul, on August 16th of that year. A first-class postage stamp cost thirteen cents. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was riding the charts, and Boston's Foreplay/Long Time and Heart's Barracuda were riding the airwaves. And Alex could buy a record album with a five-dollar bill and get a little change back.
In the heady month of May, the atmosphere in school grew magical with the knowledge of the approaching summer vacation. If you could get past the final exams, you had it made. The last of winter had long faded, the grass green, the flora in full bloom, the air warm and sweet, and everything was set for three months of freedom. He rarely went to the movies, though; who needed to pay admission when you could watch Chiller Theater at home every Friday night and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert every Saturday night?
But now, while fidgeting in English class, Alex received his copy of a digest-sized schoolkids' magazine called Read, and saw something interesting on its cover. It looked like Bigfoot with an ammo belt slung over its shoulder.
His first thought was, well, this is different. Almost like a wolf man from Chiller Theater, sneaking into his school and onto the cover of the dull kids' magazine! He opened it and discovered that this creature was called a "wookie." Somehow "wookie" sounded a whole lot cooler than just Bigfoot, and somehow the tall shaggy thing touched a nerve inside of him -- a nerve he usually forgot he had, that signaled to his brain the discovery of something special, that rarely comes along, although he couldn't understand how.
Along with the wookie, the cover story featured a space shot of two radical-looking spaceships, one chasing the other. The one being pursued looked like a jet, but had four wings; the one in hot pursuit, shooting laser-bolts like the Enterprise's phasers on Star Trek, looked more like a black, mechanical bow tie than a spaceship. The caption said that the jet was "the starship Millennium Falcon" (he later found out, of course, that this was a glaring error, which was good because it seemed strange to call such a small craft a "starship" -- he was used to the Enterprise carrying that title.)
Besides the wookie and the starfighters, the article told of a caped black knight named Darth Vader who had "flunkies" (he loved that word!) called "storm troopers." They worked for "the Galactic Empire" and were opposed by a rebel group which included the last of the "Jedi Knights" (at first he mispronounced this word as "Jed-ee.") The black knight and a noble, robed old man crossed blades of pure light. All this, the story went on to say, were from an upcoming movie called Star Wars.
The title struck him as disappointingly generic, as if the filmmakers had settled on it for lack of a better name. No matter -- by then that deep nerve in him had been touched by the wookie, the fighters, the flunkies, and good and bad guys with the lightning-swords -- that by now his mind was tingling, something telling him that here was something special, something he hadn't seen in all his fifteen years. Words like "wookie" and "stormtroopers" stuck in his mind as he navigated the noisy halls between classes, triggering a subtle excitement. He was catching the movie's spirit, and he began to look forward to the day he could see if, generic title or no.
The article said that this movie was the brainchild of George Lucas, best known for American Graffiti. He talked of success past and hopefully of the future. To pharaphrase: "Audiences connected with Graffiti, and I hope they'll do the same with Star Wars."
The movie opened at just forty theaters nationwide on Wednesday, May 25th. Only two of these were in Ohio: Dayton and Cincinnati. They might as well have been light-years away from Alex's Columbus home. So he had to wait, fussing and anticipating, until it opened at 100 more theaters on June 15. (Later he would learn that 20th Century Fox, caught completely off guard by audience reaction, had to scramble and toil to crank out additional prints. By the movie's peak in August and September, Star Wars was playing at some 1,100 theaters.)
Thus in the middle of sunny June, Alex walked to Raintree Cinemas on Route 161 -- it was maybe a twenty-minute walk through grassy apartment complexes, but a beautiful day for a stroll -- and bought his matinee ticket. He went into the theater and sat down. There was no indication that cinematic history was being made here. The small auditorium was perhaps half full. He would not remember any of the previews; after the show he would have forgotten all about them anyway. The lights went down. The screen lit up, and trumpets blared the familiar 20th-century Fox fanfare with the roving searchlights and rattling snare drums. Then the screen faded to black. Then -- silence.
Slowly, without a sound, words faded onto the screen.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
They hung there, suspended, until they slowly faded back out.
Alex sat and watched, wondering what to expect. He could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium.
Alex had seen no commercials for this film on television, so he'd heard none of the music, glimpsed none of its scenes. He knew nothing save what he had read in the article.
Now it all hit him at once.
An explosion of light and sound! The triumphant horns, the title appearing in that wonderfully symmetrical design, sliding back into the starry background, dragging the opening narration after it as the anthem thundered on: "It is a period of civil war..."
All this propelled Alex over the top by the time the rebel blockade runner appeared on screen. What he saw for the next 121 minutes, in scene after scene, battle after daring escape, only enhanced it: Han Solo's hilariously botched intercom conversation on the Death Star (everyone in the theater cracked up!), the first of many dazzling lightsaber duels, the tie fighter attack on the escaping Millennium Falcon, and finally the great Death Star battle, marvelously choreographed, perfectly resolved as Han surprised everyone to save the day, and Luke slammed home the proton torpedo with the help of the Force to blast the Death Star into the grandaddy of all Fourth of Julys.
Afterwards, Alex floated out of the theater. The music, the fireworks, the humor and the heroism -- all tingled his mind with a movie magic he'd never known before, not from Godzilla, Tommy or anything else he'd seen. No movie had ever thrilled him like this; none had ever captivated him like this. He floated out of the theater, and he would not come back down for hours.
Alex returned to Raintree Cinemas the next day. Maybe yesterday Star Wars had been just another movie playing there, but now the theater had gotten the message.
A theater employee in a STAR WARS tee shirt greeted him as he arrived. The employee asked him question: did he have a promotional pass or something for Star Wars? Apparently the employee's was to screen every arrival this way. And a lot of those arrivals were lined up outside the theater, the line stretching around the corner. Alex, who wouldn't have minded if the line was twice as long, joined them.
Soon afterward he sat in the auditorium, coke in hand, tingling with delight, preparing for blast-off. He would see Star Wars six times that summer.
So as not to drag this out too long, suffice to say that Alex and his best friend got Star Wars tee-shirts and started acting out the Obi-Wan/Darth Vader lightsaber duel (Alex was Darth Vader because he could do the voice the best). Some TV talk show, believe it or not, featured "Star Wars' Darth Vader!" as a guest. Alex saw the commercial for the program, but not the show itself; it seemed like it was cheapening Vader and, by extension, Star Wars itself and everything it represented: heroism was alive and well, the good guys could win, courage and honor counted for something.
And now the years have flown, and the movie has grown into a whole fan-universe unto itself.
The Empire Strikes Backhe saw with his folks just before graduating high school.
Return Of The Jedihe saw in his new white Navy ice-cream-suit uniform, having graduated from bootcamp just in time to catch its release.
When he learned that The Phantom Menace was in the works, his heart jumped with excitement of an old friend returning. And, with the exception of Jar Jar Binks, the film did not disappoint.
And Attack Of The Clones featured the entire Jedi order against the world, with none other than Yoda leading them, driving back the menacing Christopher Lee.
And now the final grand-slam of the whole saga is, can you believe it, just days away. And Alex, who still does gets a kick out of imitating that deep James Earl Jones voice, is all set to blast off one last time into that faraway galaxy of wonders. The time is set, the ticket paid for: May 20, 6:05PM. The Sith might have their day, but that's okay because we know how the story ends in Jedi.
Or does it end there...?