Happy Birthday, STAR WARS

Jonathan Stryker (Facebook); Jonathan Stryker (Twitter)       

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Jonathan Stryker (Facebook); Jonathan Stryker (Twitter)       

May 25, 2013, 8:0 AM

It is hard for most of us to believe but STAR WARS, George Lucas's seminal space opera fantasy, open 36 years ago today on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. It was the day before George Willig, a toymaker in New York, ascended the twin towers in lower New York City like Spiderman. I often think of the movies I have seen in terms of Before STAR WARS (BSW) and After STAR WARS (ASW), simply because there are few films that made such a tremendous impact on me as this singular motion picture did.  My childish pursuits BSW included the Harlem Globetrotters, "Casper the Friendly Ghost," Dr. Seuss, Saturday morning cartoons, "Davey and Goliath," "The Patchwork Family," "Gus was a Friendly Ghost," "The Ghost of Windy Hill," WINTER OF THE WITCH, Matchbox racing cars, "Happy Days," etc. All that changed in the summer of 1977 when my father gave me the novelization by George Lucas (ghost written by Alan Dean Foster) of STAR WARS.  John Berkey's stunning cover art was the first visual I saw of the film and it left me wondering what it was all about. 

There were a whole slew of color photographs inside the book and I remember taking it to Show-and-Tell in our sweltering classroom.  Our church carnival took place that summer, and one of the operators of a ride saw my STAR WARS T-shirt and told me that he wanted to buy the novelization, but lamented that the $1.95 cover price was too much.

The thing that most people remember about the opening weekend of STAR WARS were the enormous lines of moviegoers waiting to get into the theaters. Unbelievably, the film only opened on 32 motion picture screens on that fateful Wednesday. When movies open on the order of 2000 or 3000 screens today, this miniscule number is almost impossible to comprehend.  However, STAR WARS had mostly unknown actors in it and science fiction was considered to be box office poison.

One of those 32 movie theaters was the Menlo Park Twin Cinema on Parsonage Road in Edison, New Jersey. Demolished in January 1992 to make way for Romano's Macaroni Grill which still stands today, it was the place for Central New Jerseyans to see the science-fiction epic. The film also played in a handful of movie theaters in New York City. By the time my family got around to seeing the film in either June or July, it was slowly starting to make its way across the country in larger engagements. I remember standing in front of the theater waiting to get inside.  It was the first time that I'd waited for a long period of time with a large group of people. The college-themed comedy FRATERNITY ROW was playing next door. The matinee cost $1.50 per person.

We sat down in our seats, and they showed trailers for Irwin Allen's ROLLERCOASTER and Peter Benchley's THE DEEP. These were movies that were due out soon or or were playing at other General Cinemas at the time. I remember being freaked out by the trailer to THE DEEP.  It seemed very intense.

We sat in the balcony, I can still see myself sitting there. When I walked out of the theater, I felt like I had experienced an out-of-body experience, much the same way that Roger Ebert described in his review of the film. I think if there is any one singular ingredient in the movie that is truly responsible for the film's success, it is indubitably John Williams triumphant and exciting film score. Without that music, I honestly don't know that STAR WARS would have become phenomenon that it is today.

The film is referenced in countless films, most notably in the BAD NEWS BEARS rip-off HERE COME THE TIGERS from 1978 when the team sees the film at a local theater, and in 1978's LASERBLAST where a sign for the movie is destroyed. 

Thirty six years went by light speed!


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