In the summer of 1977 I saw STAR WARS (Episode IV) in the Cricket wireless store at the corner of Markham and Barrow Road in Little Rock, AR. Except in those days it was not a cell phone store – it was the ABC Twin Cinema.
That summer my oldest brother and his family were in the middle of a cross-country move and were staying in Little Rock with my parents. I was living there as well because that’s what most 11-year-olds do. In those days Johnny, my brother, was the arbiter of pop culture in my life. He knew what was current and cool in movies, music and TV and he had a pretty good sense of what was in the pipeline. His knowledge was impressive – especially when you consider that there was no Internet and our phones were so dumb we had to keep them tethered to the walls in our houses.
I guess you could say in the summer ‘77 Johnny was my Yoda – even though it would be another three years before we knew who Yoda was. Johnny would probably prefer I told you he was my Obi Wan. Anyway, if it had not been for Old Johnny Kenobi, I shudder to think how long Star Wars might have stayed off my radar.
I distinctly remember hanging out in the den of our house on Echo Valley Drive one late June afternoon. The national network news was on TV. My Dad was watching from his recliner where he also read the afternoon newspaper. You see, kids — in those days there was a morning paper (The Arkansas Gazette) and an afternoon paper (The Arkansas Democrat). And we subscribed to both. Ok… You see, kids – in the old days they used to write stories about what happened the day before and print them on big sheets of paper. Then they would roll those papers up and drop them off on our porches every day. If you listen closely you can still hear it happening in the pre-dawn hours on some streets in your city. It happens at my house every day and I hope it always will. But back to what was on the evening news that day…
The news anchor — I’d bet a few dollars it was NBC’s John Chancellor – was talking about an entertainment phenomenon that was starting to sweep the country. He said it was an old-fashioned adventure movie set in outer space and it was breaking box office records everywhere it played. My brother’s ears perked up and I clearly remember him saying something like, “I’ve heard a lot of great things about this movie and we’re going to go see it this week.”
The evening news story featured b-roll of long lines standing outside Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and it showed a couple of tiny snippets from the movie. I remember seeing a great aerial dogfight – except the fighters were spaceships and the guns they were firing were lasers. A bunch of smaller spaceships were attacking a larger one. There was a youngish looking guy in a laser gun turret that fired on and destroyed an attacking fighter. He shouted, “I got him!” Then the camera cut to an older, cooler looking guy in another turret. He shouted, “Great, Kid! Don’t get cocky!” I had no idea what was going on but I was hooked. I had to see this.
By the summer of ’77 I’d gone to see a dozen or so movies in my brief life but I’d never before had to stand in line for an hour – hoping to get in. But there we were in a queue that twisted and turned down the sidewalk and parking lot of the ABC Twin. (Three years later THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would open on the most prestigious screen in Little Rock. The Cinema 150 was a true movie palace that is sadly no more. We stood in line at the 150 several times to see EMPIRE.)
We did get into the theater that day. We took our seats and then a few blue words on a dark screen told us we were about to see a very old story. We wondered how anything that took place in space could have happened a long time ago. John Williams’s score exploded and a written prologue told us we were already in the middle of a very troubling story. A rebel blockade runner darted past us and we were delighted. Then an Imperial Cruiser giving chase filled the screen and just kept coming. That’s when we knew for sure this was going to be a ride unlike anything we’d ever been on before. STAR WARS was a game changer for the art of movie storytelling and the commerce of the movie business. If JAWS was the first summer blockbuster then STAR WARS was the one that cemented the summer as the coveted release window for an event movie. None of that mattered to me when I was eleven. That day I felt like what I imagine audiences must have felt like in 1939 watching THE WIZARD OF OZ for the first time: We’re not on Tatooine anymore. Or something like that.
This past week director J.J. Abrams and the producers of STAR WARS Episode 7 announced the cast of the new film (due in 2015). A hopeful fan base began to cautiously celebrate with our inner 11-year-olds as we spotted Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker among the freshly assembled cast. It doesn’t hurt that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan is sitting next to J.J. Abrams as Abrams chats with Harrison Ford. That’s a strong veteran bench.
Today is Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you.”). That coupled with the cast announcement this week got me thinking about that June day a long time ago in a city close, close by. It got me thinking about the house I grew up in, the family I love and the moments we’ve shared. It got me thinking about how movies were the lingua franca of my youth. Now that I think about it, not much has changed. Happy Star Wars Day.
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Tom Hanks shares his Summer of ’77 Star Wars story at the AFI Tribute to George Lucas: