I first saw Star Wars on its opening day in the summer of 1977. I was there at the beginning, and I was 11 years old. Several weeks later I would read a largely negative review claiming Star Wars was aimed primarily at 11-year-old boys. That critic was being dismissive, but I couldn’t agree more. I was the target audience, and to the 11-year-old me Star Wars wasn’t just the greatest movie I had ever seen, it was a life-altering experience.
Those who remember the summer of 1977 know what I’m talking about. Star Wars was a cultural juggernaut. At Camp Notre Dame that year, everyone was talking about it, even the “cool” kids who wouldn’t ordinarily be caught dead watching science-fiction movies. I remember an older camper saying Star Wars was even better the second time you saw it, that you could really understand the schematics for the Death Star during the pilots’ briefing on Yavin IV. Kids were boasting about how many times they had seen Star Wars, but I had yet to see it a second time. The idea of seeing a movie more than once at a theater seemed like a luxury to me. But I had seen it opening day. That gave me some bragging rights.
OPENING NIGHT DELIGHT
I saw it that first night with my friend and next-door neighbor Don Hullenbaugh. We wanted to go because Star Wars had received a big write-up in either Time or Newsweek. The text didn’t matter as much as the picture of the X-Wing fighter at the top of the page. A couple of burgeoning nerds, we were suckers for cool spaceships. Don was into Star Trek while I favored Space: 1999, but after that night only Star Wars mattered to us. Halfway into the movie, probably when Chewbacca did something awesome during the rescue of Princess Leia, we looked at each other and simultaneously shouted, “Wookie power!”
I rode that high for the rest of the summer. I got a yellow T-shirt with the Hildebrandt Brothers’ version of the poster art — the same image that adorns the water bottle that sits in front of me as I write this — and I swear I was wearing that shirt unless it was in the washing machine. I bought every magazine that had Star Wars on the cover, and in the summer of ‘77, every magazine did have Star Wars on the cover. I cut up pieces of black electrician’s tape to spell out the Star Wars logo on my bedroom wall. Decades later, my parents were able to paint over the residue of that tape.
I was not alone in my enthusiasm. The entire country was Star Wars mad that summer. While it was the biggest blockbuster of the era, it was not the first. In the preceding years people lined up around the block to see The Godfather, The Exorcist and Jaws. But those movies belonged to the realm of the grown-up (OK, Jaws was on the borderline, but I was still too young for it). While not billed as a kids movie (like another attraction that summer, the G-rated Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which strangely enough featured a naked Jane Seymour) Star Wars was a movie that reawakened the kid in everyone. It was George Lucas paying tribute to his own childhood space idol, Flash Gordon. In doing so he created another set of immortal heroes in Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia, and in Darth Vader, he created a villain who blew Ming the Merciless out of the galaxy.
SEQUELS AND PREQUELS
My Star Wars ardor didn’t last forever. A little more than a year later I watched James Bond ski off a cliff when The Spy Who Loved Me premiered on HBO and I had a new cinematic obsession, one that has lasted to this day. I was still excited to see The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. My new friend George Gifford and I arrived at the Millcreek Mall theater at 7 a.m. on opening day because we wanted to be first in line. We weren’t. Two people were already there and one of them, AnnMarie Puzarowski, became another of my best friends. Although I now acknowledge Empire as a great film and probably the best of the series, I was disappointed that day. I felt let down by a cliffhanger ending that wouldn’t be resolved for another three years. I saw Return of the Jedi the same day I graduated from high school, so by then I watched it with a sense of nostalgia. I enjoyed it well enough, but, oh! those damned Ewoks.
Like most Star Wars fans, I hoped to like the prequels even though I had little interest in Darth Vader’s boyhood. And like most first-generation fans, I watched The Phantom Menace shell-shocked, not believing this bloated mess came from the same George Lucas who wrote and directed the streamlined original movie. When R2-D2 showed up in Phantom Menace I nearly wept because he was the only tangible connection to that movie I loved a long time ago. The second film, Attack of the Clones, was even more of a slog but Revenge of the Sith was a partial redemption because Lucas finally got around to the story we were waiting for, the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader referred to so many times in the original film.
After that I doubted any Star Wars news would excite me again. I was wrong. This Tuesday J.J. Abrams confirmed what we already knew for more than a year, that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher would reunite for Star Wars: Episode VII — Subtitle To Be Determined Later, set for a December 2015 release. And not just the big three, but Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker would return as Chewbacca, C-3P0 and R2-D2 (by now they must have a fully automated, radio-controlled R2-D2 that doesn’t need a dwarf inside, but it wouldn’t be the same without Kenny Baker, would it?). Disney released a photo of the cast, which includes a healthy does of newcomers, doing the first table read of the script, and right there over Harrison Ford’s shoulder is R2-D2 in a crate. The photo made me a little giddy. A big reason I didn’t care for the prequels is that I would rather have seen another round of adventures with Luke and Han and Leia and the gang. Now that we’re getting one, the 11-year-old inside me is smiling and hoping the winter of 2015 brings back the spirit of the summer of 1977.