30 Years Ago At A Theater Now Gone: Star Wars

The Original Cine Capri, 24th Street & Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ

It’s Tuesday, May 24th, 1977 and my luck has taken a turn for the worse. The good side of my luck was winning two passes from a radio station for a sneak preview of some film called “Star Wars”, but the bad side of my luck is that I can’t get anyone to go with me. Work, prior commitments, general disinterest, and other excuses are all given and they leave me disheartened: who will I discuss the film with if no one will go? Finally, after nine “no’s” I get a “yes” from Curt Stubbs, a literary science fiction fan I’ve worked with on several conventions. Curt meets me at the biggest single-screen theatre in Phoenix, the Cine Capri, and we settle into the plush seats armed with popcorn and soda pop. Nearly two hours later, the lights come up and Curt comments, “Not bad, but the aliens were too anthropomorphic.” Being a less discriminating nineteen year old, I simply sat there with my mouth hanging open, mind completely blown by the film I’d just experienced.

1977 saw the beginning of the blockbuster special-effects films and the movie industry would never be the same. The January 31st, 1997 release of the Star Wars: Special Edition demonstrated that audience interest hasn't flagged: Just eight weeks of Star Wars box office returns captured $60 million (from 1977-1984 Star Wars grossed $400 million in worldwide rentals).Total returns for The Empire Strikes Back equaled $290 million, Return Of The Jedi has grossed a respectable $306 million dollars, The Phantom Menace has earned $926 million, Attack of the Clones $311 million in the U.S.A. alone, and $380 million in U.S. grosses for Revenge of the Sith, to date.

It's hard to argue with success, and the Star Wars films (and subsequent DVD sales) are nothing if not successful. Not only are they the first films thought of when a moviegoer talks about "blockbusters", but they are the champs when merchandising revenues for toys are tallied: Between 1977 and 1984, Kenner and the other principal Star Wars toy manufacturer, MPC, sold over 300 million toys based on the films. The marketing blitz continues to this day with books, graphic novels, comic books, coloring books, trading cards, pinball machines, board games, video games, computer games, and the ever-present toys not only based on the original three films, but also the second trilogy beginning with The Phantom Menace and (possibly) concluding with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Since then, the soon-to-be released Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a game designed for next-generation gaming systems and the tentative, (but possibly definitive) “Grand Saga” DVD/HD-DVD/Blu-Ray set will continue the Star Wars merchandising juggernaut. The United States Postal Service hopes that “The Force” will be with it as they release a fifteen-stamp-pane on May 25th celebrating the 30th anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope. In addition, for only the second time in its 256-year-history, the U.S. Postal Service has invited the public to vote on a favorite stamp, with the winning stamp becoming its own stamp sheet.

"Where did you see Star Wars?" is probably one of the most asked questions when fans discuss the film. At a Fantasy and Science Fiction seminar in Scottsdale, Arizona, several authors spoke about that very subject. Author of Lady of the Glen, the Sword-Dancer series, the newly released Karavans, and a contributing author to the anthology, Star Wars: Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, Jennifer Roberson: "I spent the summer of '77 at the Cine Capri Theater in Phoenix. I remember I was standing in line for the first regular showing on the first full day when I commented to a friend that they would have to go quite a ways in order to beat Star Trek. A young man in line ahead of us turned around and said, 'Trust me, it is better.' I recoiled and said, 'You've seen it already and you're back in line THIS SOON?' 'Yep!’ he said. After the showing I walked out of that theater and said, 'I have been saved!' I spent that summer finding people who hadn't seen Star Wars and hauling them to the theater so that I could enjoy it vicariously all over again. I think I saw it twenty-three times that summer." The Cine Capri Theater, exclusive location for Star Wars that summer, closed in 1998.

Author of Midworld, The Howling Stones, the soon-to-be-released Patrimony, and universally acknowledged as the writer/adapter of the 1976 paperback, Star Wars: from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Alan Dean Foster: "I wrote the paperback, so my story is a little different, but this is the version that I usually tell. I saw it first at the cast and crew screening at the old Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening theater in Los Angeles. It was the first time that a lot of the people who had worked on the picture had seen the completed film. There were people who had done modeling and people who had done costuming and nobody knew what it would look like. I had seen a few pieces of the rough cut, but very few. I was making small talk with the producer, Gary Kurtz, telling him that it would be neat if they ran Duck Dodgers in the 24th and ½ Century before they ran the film. He shrugs, so my wife and I go sit down and she nudges me. 'Do you know who's sitting behind you?’ she asked. I look around and there's this geeky looking, long haired guy sitting there. 'No, who's that?' 'That's Alice Cooper!' And I said, 'Who's Alice Cooper?' I knew very little about rock music at that time, I was a classical music buff. She explains it to me, waits a little while, and then says, 'Well, say something to him!' I said, 'I don't know the guy, I don't know anything about him, if you want to talk to him why don't YOU talk to him?' Well, she can't talk to him but she gets me to talk to him. Apropos of what I'd just discussed with Gary Kurtz, I asked Cooper if he liked old Warner Bros. cartoons. 'Oh yeah, you too?' So for the next six minutes before the film came up we talked about old cartoons, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery. After the film ended, we're walking out of the theater knowing that cinematic history has been made and my wife gives me a hard elbow to the ribs, POW! 'What'd you do that for?’ I asked. 'You spent six minutes talking to Alice Cooper and all you could talk about is cartoons!?’ she said. By the way, they did show Duck Dodgers before the film to lighten up the crowd, because many careers were riding on the success of Star Wars. Of course, Gary Kurtz didn't give that away while I was suggesting it."

Author of the series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, The Man Who Fought Alone, and the soon-to-be-released Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson: "You know it's interesting, but there are ways in which I remember the first time I saw Star Wars better then I remember any of my marriages. As it happens, it was in May of 1977 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and it was very nearly my last official act as a resident of the state because I had just sold my first book and I used the money to move away from New Jersey. But, before we left, Star Wars was opening and we all drove up to the Cherry Hill Mall to see the show. It was a transcendent experience, in a certain kind of way. We had seen movies with stunning special effects before. I certainly remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that film seemed more about the special effects and part of what I loved about Star Wars was it had all of the special effects in the world and they were still subordinate to the storytelling, they never got between you and your vicarious enjoyment of the action. That seemed pretty special to me."
Author of The New World: Book Three in The Age of Discovery, Dark Tide: New Jedi Order series, and the Star Wars: X-Wing series, Mike Stackpole: "I grew up in Vermont, which is, in many ways, still in the 1950's, so science fiction serials were not unexpected then. My brother, my best friend and I had a tradition of shopping the day before Christmas. You could shop much faster, the selections were smaller, and consuming the morning doing that, we would kill the rest of the day by going to see a movie. We saw The Gauntlet and while I remember very little about the movie, I remember the trailer that opened it was Star Wars. I was stunned. The next day I took one of my presents, a gift certificate for the Little Professor Bookstore, and bought the paperback, read it, so by the time the movie opened in May, I was primed. A co-worker and I left work early, went to the 11:00 a.m. showing, and sat in the theater with about seventeen other people. And I remember that the first time I saw that Star Destroyer with that wedge-shape being driven down and across the screen, it was like a wedge being driven into my brain, blowing it wide open."

Each of these authors had a different, but overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film that began a cinematic dynasty. Like any dynasty, some members of the line stand out as giants and benefactors, some as petty dictators, and some as fools. Fortunately for George Lucas, Star Wars: A New Hope and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark are sharp in the memories of their fans while Howard the Duck and Willow grow dim and fade away. Jar Jar Binks will remain on film, a failed experiment in computer generated characterization (barring any “Special Edition” by Lucas), while N Sync’s appearance in Attack of the Clones will remain “what might have been.”

1997 was the year of the Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy and it saw the beginnings of The Phantom Menace. While he briefly toyed with the notion of 12 Star Wars films, Lucas seems to have settled for six films. While the new trilogy may not have inspired theatergoers to make as many return trips to the box office as did their predecessors, I do know that the comradeship of standing in line for hours with your best friends, swapping rumors with strangers, and feeling that electric rush as the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” appear, isn’t the same for me now, thirty years later. The hype that the Star Wars marketing machine has created was an artificial excitement that could not be justified by The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, nor Revenge of the Sith. I hope that someday George Lucas will be able to rekindle the sense of wonder I felt back in 1977 and if that happens I want to be sitting next to some kid as the lights come up who’s first comment is “WOW!”


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