A Long Time Ago...

May 29, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

So, what was I doing on May 25, 1977? Frankly, I have no idea. The date is unmemorable to me. If it was warm out, I was probably skateboarding. If it was raining, I was probably curled up in a chair reading. Or maybe I was unpacking boxes (we had just moved into a new house the week before). One thing I can say with certainty is that I was not at a movie theater. In May 1977, I had never heard of Star Wars. Nor, for that matter, had most of America. The film opened in relative obscurity on May 25, but it didn't take long before it went from a little picture Fox didn't know what to do with to a phenomenon that re-shaped the way big-budget movies were made and marketed.

Eventually, the summer of 1977 would become the summer of Star Wars. The 30-year retrospectives were last weekend, but most of us (at least those of us who were old enough at the time to see the movie) haven't yet reached our three-decade anniversary. That will come in the weeks and months ahead. Over the 1977 Memorial Day weekend, Star Wars was playing in a small number of theaters. It would expand throughout the summer on an almost weekly basis as word-of-mouth, newspaper and magazine articles, and TV features escalated its popularity.

I don't remember the first time I heard about Star Wars. It may have been when my next-door neighbor showed me an issue of the comic book adaptation of the movie. (Back in the '70s, they converted movies to comics. Now, they do it the other way around.) Or maybe it was when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel provided a glowing review on their syndicated PBS Sneak Previews TV show. Or perhaps it was when I purchased the novelization. Whatever the case, between May 25 and the my last day of fourth grade, I was aware that there was a movie out there called Star Wars that I wanted to see.

At this point in my life, I was not much of a movie-goer. I watched lots of films on television - mostly Saturday afternoon monster movies. If there was a Universal or Hammer horror classic eligible for TV broadcast, I had probably seen it. My first visit to an indoor theater was only a half-year before, when I saw the Dino De Laurentis King Kong during mid-December 1976. Since then, I had not yet been back, although I was less than a week away from seeing The Rescuers. (1977 would be a big movie year for me. In addition to experiencing Star Wars three times, I also saw The Rescuers, Oh God!, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

I can't say for sure exactly when I saw Star Wars. It was during the early part of the summer, perhaps the weekend before or after the fourth of July. I went with my next-door neighbors, who packed up the station wagon on a spur of the moment and went to a drive-in. It was my second of three drive-in experiences. The first had been Jaws, and I slept through the entire movie. The third was also Star Wars. It was a warm, sticky night and the bugs were out in force. We arrived for the 9:00 showing at 7:30, which gave us over an hour to kill. My friend and I explored the area, shadowed by his older sister, who had been given the duty of watching to make sure we didn't get in trouble or get lost.

After spending some time at a playground which featured some sort of spinning ride that nearly caused me to lose my dinner, we headed back to the car. So it was that my first encounter with George Lucas' galaxy far, far away was from the back of a station wagon in a lot full of cars in Atco, New Jersey. Star Wars and drive-ins - both things that generate powerful nostalgic yearnings all these years later. It would be almost Labor Day before I would finally get a chance to see Star Wars in an indoor theater. But in the memories of my mind's eye, I still see it on that towering screen with fireflies winking all around.

As was true of almost every boy my age, the film captured my imagination. I began hoarding Star Wars memorabilia: posters, official fan club newsletters (I won a subscription through a newspaper contest - the only time in my life I have won anything...), comic books, and trading cards. The action figures would come later. I didn't realize it at the time, but this feeding frenzy for Star Wars-related merchandise was not only lining George Lucas' pockets but it was establishing a precedent for summer movie tie-ins that still rules today.

Movie historians argue whether Star Wars was good or bad for the industry. There's no doubt that it changed the direction of Hollywood. Suddenly, every studio wanted their Star Wars and teenage boys became the key demographic (because they bought tickets, went back many times, and purchased all the merchandise). Adult dramas became less desirable. Special effects ruled the day. Blaming Star Wars for the "dumbing down" of motion pictures is hardly fair, though. If it wasn't this movie, it would be another. Close Encounters was pretty much finished around the time Star Wars had its first screening. Star Trek: The Motion Picture might owe its existence to Star Wars, but Spielberg's aliens-on-Earth story did not, although Star Wars certainly primed the marketplace, making it an easier sell.

For a nine-year old boy (going on ten), these concerns were irrelevant. I didn't care about how Star Wars was impacting cinema. I just cared about reliving the experience and expanding upon it. So it was that, as the summer of 1977 passed into the fall, one of my chief interests was looking ahead to what would eventually become known as The Empire Strikes Back.

(I would add my wife's reminiscences to these, but she wasn't born in 1977. She first saw Star Wars in the mid-1980s on videotape and she was able to watch all three movies at the same time. She also admits to having liked the Ewoks as a kid. We all have our flaws.)