I think the first time I’d ever heard or seen anything about Star Wars was sometime in the spring of 1977. I’m not sure if I’d seen a teaser poster for it outside of a theater or if it was the time when I saw an ad for “Carrie,” another R-rated horror movie, in the newspaper. I’d asked my dad, “Can we see this?” I held up the ad, featuring a blood-drenched Sissy Spacek. “No,” my dad said, “that’s not for kids.” Disappointment. But then he added, “There’s a movie called ‘Star Wars’ coming out soon. We can go see that.”
Not too long after that conversation, I finally did see an ad for this intriguing new movie in the newspaper. It was in black and white, featuring some of the characters. Who were these strange guys and what were they doing?
Some time after that, I saw the novelization in the store. This wasn’t the 1976 printing, this was the one done just in time for the movie’s May release. Back then, movie novelization paperbacks had a section in the middle with color photos from the film. So I flipped right over to the color photos, which listed who all of the characters were. For some reason, I don’t think I read anything more about the movie…I guess I was spoiler-adverse even back then. All I got was a general sense that the movie was about a rescue. But I did try and guess the relationships between the characters. I know that I initially believed Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi was Princess Leia’s father!
Finally, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened at a measly 32 theaters across the country. I’m pretty sure that the X-rated porn classic “Deep Throat” was running in more theaters on that day than the first Star Wars film! However, one of those 32 theaters was right in San Diego: the Valley Circle Theater, located in Mission Valley. We’d seen some other splashy flicks there before, fare like the 1976 remake of “King Kong” or “Westworld.” Back in 1977, most of the time you saw movies at large, single-screen theaters, especially blockbusters. Drive-ins were still common, especially in Southern California. There was a small number of “twin” cinemas with two screens and the multiplex was a very recent invention. But a multiplex in 1977 meant three-to-five shoebox auditoriums with small screens. You really didn’t want to see anything more eye-popping than “The Goodbye Girl” at a multiplex in 1977.
Word-of-mouth on Star Wars spread like wildfire, even in the pre-Twitter age. So in no time at all, there were huge lines snaking around the Valley Circle. The next-closest theater showing the film was in Orange, CA, more than an hour’s drive away, so crowds were coming from all over SoCal as well as San Diego County. I had never seen lines like that before in my life. Every time we drove past the theater on Interstate 8, you could see the crowds packed around it, several people deep.
Of course the lucky ones who got in the first few days after Star Wars’ release couldn’t stop raving about it. The lines weren’t getting any smaller with each passing weekend, so my dad decided drastic measures were needed. Today, moviegoers can buy tickets in advance either in person or on the internet. Neither wasn’t an option back then. Buying in advance meant you showed up at 10 a.m. to buy a ticket for a 1:30 p.m. show and you could only do it at the theater’s box office. Going to see a popular movie took planning. My dad figured it would be easier to get in to see the movie during the week. He would take the day off from work (my mom was an at-home mom) but there was that pesky problem known as “school.” So they concocted a scheme where they would pull us out of school for a “doctor’s appointment.” My brother and I took our notes to our respective teachers and got them signed, giving us formal permission to play hooky.
I don’t know the exact date we went to the Valley Circle, only that it was during the week. My mom says it was around the time of my brother’s birthday or her birthday, which would put it between June 8 and June 11. That makes sense because I remember it was overcast, the typical June Gloom weather you get in San Diego that time of the year. When we got to the theater, there was of course a line–a long line–but it wasn’t nearly as long as the lines we’d seen on Saturdays or Sundays. People were sitting around in lawn chairs, prepared to wait for hours. My dad went and bought tickets for a showing or two later, so we were stuck out there for a while.
At least the wait was entertaining! The atmosphere was like a carnival; I’d never experienced anything like it before or since at the movies. It was a little pre-show party. Guys were going around hawking homemade Star Wars buttons, while there was this one lady who was scouting kids to appear in a commercial. She tried to get my brother and I to show up for an audition, but my mom wasn’t crazy about the idea. Then my dad bumped into a guy who worked at his office. Oops! The nearby McDonalds must have made a mint off of Star Wars; a steady stream of people in line went there to get their Big Macs.
Finally, at long last, we were heading into the movie theater. I remember seeing all of the stills on display at the concession counter and being really excited that I was finally getting to see this mysterious film. We got seats on the left side of the auditorium, in the center section, near the aisle. My mom hates being close to the screen, so it was toward the back. No matter though…the screen was enormous.
I have no idea if any trailers were shown before the movie started. All I do remember is the Main Theme’s fanfare, the yellow words, and the opening scenes to rule all opening scenes. There are extremely few films–even great films–that can sell it in the very first scene. It’s as rare in cinema as the Hope Diamond. But this movie did. Yes, I’m talking about the Tantive IV, Princess Leia’s ship, being pursued by that gigantic Star Destroyer.
The ship looked so huge and it seemed to go on and on forever. And unlike almost every sci-fi movie or t.v. show prior to Star Wars, it looked real. Not only did that scene give you a sense of awe, it also immediately pulled you into a whole new way of presenting a fictitious universe. It sure worked for me. But it didn’t stop there. The next scene that made a big impression on me was Darth Vader’s entrance. The stormtroopers were freaky enough, but Vader was scary and intimidating. The funny thing was my mom jokingly whispered to me, “That looks like Daddy.” If we only knew! I was surprised to see there was no paternal relationship between Ben Kenobi and Princess Leia, as I had first speculated.
On it went for two hours and even now, it’s hard for me to name very many other films where I felt such an instant connection not only to what was going on, but also to the characters. I don’t use the word “epiphany” lightly but that’s pretty much what it was, at the tender age of seven. This was something you not only enjoyed for a couple of hours, you never wanted it to end. You wanted to be a part of it.
Life of course was never the same again.
When we exited the theater, there were even more people waiting outside to see the film than there was when we went in. On the way home, we–especially my brother and I–couldn’t stop talking about it. The first thing my brother and I did when we got home was draw all of the characters and ships with our crayons. Well, at least as best we could remember with our six-and-seven-year-old memories. For instance, we first thought that it was “John” Solo, not “Han” Solo. But to say it made an impression on me was an understatement. Little did I know that one fateful day in 1977 held on and never let go.
Not to say I gave up on Star Trek or anything else for good. But this was a bigger, more overwhelming experience than that, and I think it’s because movies are a more overwhelming experience than television. Trek to me was always about entertainment, while seeing Star Wars for the first time felt like I’d finally come home. Like Luke says in The Empire Strikes Back, there was something familiar about that place even though I’d never been to Tatooine or travelled through space. My brother later sardonically said that every Star Wars planet looked like some part of California, but it was more than that. The characters felt familiar, kind of like how you meet someone for the first time and within minutes it seems like you’ve known each other your whole lives.
I wish I could say that my family went back to the theater the very next day and saw ANH again, followed by weekly viewings well into 1978. But it was not to be. Even now my parents believe that if you see a movie once, even a great movie, that’s the only time you need to see it. So that was the first time and for a long while, the only time. But Star Wars wasn’t done with me or the rest of the world just yet.