Reason Why They Built Movie Theaters #3: ROTJ

1983 started with what I considered then to be a tragedy. It was in January that A New Hope ended its five-year-reign as the biggest box office hit of all time when E.T. The Extraterrestrial inched its way to higher receipts. I know, I know, inflation and all of that but still, it was a sad day. The fact that it was a Steven Spielberg film offered little comfort. Spielberg was practically Star Wars’s uncle, Lucas’s best bud, and the guy who directed another big Star Wars fan favorite, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The movie even had Star Wars references. But it wasn’t Star Wars. And in my humble opinion, as good as E.T. was, it wasn’t as awesome as either A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back.

But there was still Revenge of the Jedi to look forward to!

My first glimpse of the now-valuable Revenge of the Jedi poster was when I was riding in my parents’ car around Miami Beach in November 1982 and we went past a movie theater. There in one of the display boxes was Drew Struzan’s classic image of Luke and Vader dueling in the shadow of Vader’s helmet, the Revenge of the Jedi logo beneath it. We were going slow enough to see the poster but not slow enough to catch when the release date was!

Somehow, I found out later the release date was going to be May 27, 1983. Little did I know that things were subject to change.

One day after school, I’d gone over to a friend’s house across the street to hang out. She had a copy of Dynamite or some other Scholastic kid magazine of that era and the cover featured Superman but there was an article about “Return of the Jedi.” “Hey, they got that wrong,” I told my friend. “It’s supposed to be ‘Revenge of the Jedi.'”

Shortly thereafter, the local paper revealed that the title did change from “Revenge” to “Return.” The given explanation was that Lucas decided “revenge” wasn’t a Jedi concept, although other rumors floated about that fans didn’t think revenge applied to Jedi or whatever. Old fanzines I’ve seen from that era give no indication whatsoever that fans had any problem with the title.

So I had to quickly get used to the new title. Then they bumped up the release date to May 25. Fine by me! It was two days earlier and it was the same day A New Hope was released, an appropriate way to end the series.

After the August 1982 trailer, I never saw another one for Return of the Jedi. The movies I saw in late ’82 and in early ’83 didn’t carry it and there was no internet to tell me where I could see it. I didn’t see the second trailer until I got that same bootleg video with the Empire trailers more than a decade later. I remember going to see a movie from 20th Century Fox, “Max Duggan Returns” with my friend Heather in early spring ’83 and being horribly disappointed there was no trailer. It was from the same studio and I’d gone to the Dadeland Twin (where I saw ROTJ when it was released) to see it! Why wasn’t it there? I didn’t see a teaser poster for the film either, which really disappointed me. Little did I know that the title change meant no teaser posters and the teaser poster ended up being the first release poster!

There was no hiding from the excitement building in the air that spring though. One day I was in JC Penneys, back when it still sold toys in-store, looking over the new wave of Return of the Jedi figures on the pegs. I wasn’t so much interested in the toys as I was interested to see what was from the movie. While I was there, a couple of teenage boys came by and saw in a basket those old-style toy lightsabers. You know, the old Kenner ones that were basically plastic tubes that made whooshing sounds. Each boy grabbed one out of the basket, both were yellow, and started dueling right there while quoting lines from Empire. That made my day.

The media started its rollout too. Magazines started appearing on the shelves and the Today show started promoting its week of Return of the Jedi-related material in early May. That’s not counting the Star Wars-related stories on the t.v. evening news.

Not all of the media attention was good though. Marvel released its graphic novel adaptation in early May. The entire “film” was in that graphic novel, while newsstand comics versions were split up over three or four issues. What should get its hands on the graphic novel than the Miami Herald. Then it splashed right there on the second page of its A-section the movie’s biggest spoiler:

Leia was Luke’s long-lost twin sister!

“And Rosebud’s the sled,” the story added snarkily. I was astonished–another soap opera twist in the saga–but also greatly annoyed with the Herald for giving it away like that. Did these people have any sense of decency?! To this day, I have not forgiven the Miami Herald.

The momentum continued to build. During Today’s Star Wars week, I saw most of the stories about the film while eating breakfast before going to school (I think they chose to air one of the segments an hour later one day, grr). The evening news had their stories as well.

About a week before the movie came out, I started to hear about a guy in New York who was camped out a whole five days before the movie’s release outside of a theater. He’d been mugged once and threatened but he persevered. Five days was a long time back then…the month-long camp outs during the prequel years were unheard of, while most folks who did “camp out” prior to Empire’s release were just there overnight. Entertainment Tonight had done a segment about the line in Los Angeles that was mostly an overnight deal…one couple (in costume) got married in line. I didn’t hear about anyone camping out in Miami. I guess nobody wanted to deal with the sudden rain downpours, killer humidity, and other hazards of being outdoors in South Florida.

That weekend was also special “At The Movies” episode with Siskel and Ebert discussing/reviewing the film. I missed most of it because of a dance recital. Bah.

The Monday prior to Jedi’s release, my friend Noelle came to school with astonishing news: she had seen the movie! How? Her father was an executive at Burger King, a licensee whose HQ was in Miami. She got to go to the local press screening over the weekend. She thought it was really good. My reaction was, “Don’t tell me anything!” The other kids in the class though wanted details, so they surrounded Noelle while she gave them the dish and I tried my hardest not to listen.

By this point, I knew about Leia being Luke’s sister, I knew about Leia spending the first half of the film in a bikini, and I knew about the Ewoks. But if there were any other surprises, I didn’t want to know them. Especially if a major character dies. I continued my tradition of peeking at the film’s novelization in the bookstore, but not finding out any more surprises. I was thrilled to see the ROTJ novelization brought back the photo inserts.

Keeping my non-spoiled status got even harder once the film came out that Wednesday, because more kids at school had seen it. This auspicious occasion wasn’t quite enough reason for my parents anymore to pull me or my brother out of school to see it. Besides, we’ll be able to see it that weekend, right?

The Dadeland Twin had a regular schedule for its movies and that was the schedule we used to plot out when we’d see the movie that Saturday. But when we got to the theater, we discovered one little problem. The theater had “special” times for Jedi on Saturdays and Sundays, meaning we were way way off on our timing. The show we wanted to go to was already sold out and the next show was late afternoon/early evening, which would have cut into a babysitting gig I’d already been set up for.

We decided to try again on Sunday for about 1 p.m.. Of course, we didn’t make it in time and the movie was yet again sold out. Disappointed, I was. A whole ‘nuther week of school before my chance would come again. My mom then said, “Let’s go see that other space movie.”

That other space movie was the recently-released 3D “Spacehunters: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” starring Peter Fonda and a pre-John Hughes, post-Facts of Life Molly Ringwald. 3D movies had enjoyed a bit of a comeback in the early 1980s, although it was mostly among B-movie releases like this one. I’ve often described it as the equivalent of anticipating a trip to Disney World only to find out you’re going to Quilt World instead. So off we drove to The Falls shopping center, home of a shoebox multiplex.

“Spacehunters” was every bit as bad as I knew it would be. Had I been at home on a Saturday afternoon or babysitting late at night, it would have been good for a lot of laughs. Seeing it instead of a Star Wars movie just annoyed me, though I guess they were smart to release it to capture spillover from sold out shows, like us.

When I went back to school on Monday, I unloaded my woes to my friends. My friend Amy, who had been lucky enough to see it over the weekend, suggested going the very first show on Sunday like she did. That worked for me. Noelle was having a birthday party on Saturday, so that day was already out. I had a music recital on Sunday, but it was in the afternoon. I made the suggestion when I went home that day and we decided to try it on Sunday at 11 a.m..

Finally, Sunday was the big day. Somehow I knew in my guts that we would make it this time. I was right. Thank goodness for church, hangovers, and sleeping in! Sure there were still lots of people; the show eventually sold out. But getting there just over an hour beforehand was plenty of time to get tickets and get in line.

The whole time I could feel the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast churning in my stomach from my nervousness and excitement. It was so bad, I was praying I wouldn’t throw up. Especially since I spotted kids from my junior high in line.

We got our seats on the balcony, my parents sitting behind my brother and me. When the theater filled up, then went dark, again, there were no trailers for other films. It went right to the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Everyone cheered, then it got deathly quiet when the words “a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away” appeared on the screen. You could cut the tension with a knife. Someone in the audience yelled out, “How far was it?”, making the audience bust into laughter just as the Star Wars logo came up on the big screen.

The movie was of course amazing and while I was sad to see Yoda go, at least Vader was redeemed before he died. In fact, nothing in the film got bigger cheers than the scene where Vader tossed Palpatine down the Death Star shaft. I was especially relieved none of the Big Three were killed.

That music recital I had that afternoon? I may as well have shown up drunk. My performance was terrible because my head was still in the clouds. Thankfully, it was my last recital ever.

Thus began the summer of Return of the Jedi. I’d only seen it one more time in the theater that August but I normally didn’t see movies more than once while on its original release. There weren’t that many people, since it was the middle of a weekday and the movie had been out for three months. But there was a very enthusiastic father there with his son who cheered on all of the good guy moments. It was pretty entertaining.

For some reason, I wasn’t moping about the fact It Was All Over. Maybe it was because I wasn’t at all convinced It Was All Over, particularly since Lucas had made noises for years about continuing the series at some point. We just didn’t know when.

But things had changed from that first Summer Of Love in 1977. I was almost 14 years old and in the past, I’d only gotten a few things from each movie because my folks weren’t the kind of people to inundate you with whatever was hot at the time. Now that I had a little money from babysitting, I could’ve bought myself a few things here and there. But most of the moutains of merchandise was aimed at little kids and I wasn’t one anymore. At that age, I was interested in clothes, makeup, and buying cassettes. The only things I got were the novelization, the infamous Marvel graphic novel for my 14th birthday from my brother, and for Christmas that year, a 1984 wall calendar, and a stuffed Wicket doll, which I still have it to this day.

While we’re on the topic of Ewoks, let me be clear. I don’t mind them and at the time the movie came out, most people were fine with them. It was as the so-called Star Wars Generation got older and adopted the irritating cynicism that plagues it to this day that it became outrĂ© to bash Ewoks and dismiss the whole movie as a Muppet toy marketing ploy. It was not the majority opinion at that time.

However, I was old enough to notice some critics of Star Wars were around and it surprised me. One nasty piece in South Florida magazine made me furious. I’d figured some in the media were simply trying to be contrarian or had tired of Star Wars’s uncanny success. There is a tendency of the press to like you when you’re new, fresh, and novel but when you maintain success for a while, then they tire of you and try to knock you off the pedestal they put you on in the first place.

Also, don’t forget that the people made Star Wars a success. The media came long later.

Return of the Jedi finished out that year as the biggest box office hit, ending the first trilogy on a blaze of glory. But when that blaze burned out, the era known to fans as The Dark Ages began.

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