Friday, May 24, 2013
Wednesday at the noon matinee in a small city, far far away; a personal memoir of geekdom, many years ago.
This 25th of May is the anniversary of the premier of Star Wars. Weirdly, it is celebrated on the 4th of May due to some interesting misunderstandings or mistranslations of “May the Force be with you”. The real general release date of the first Star Wars movie was 25 May 1977, which was a sleepy Wednesday when just another SF film was released without much fanfare in the middle of the week for a sultry noon matinee. Yes, there were previously other private screenings and previews. I’m talking about the full release to the general public.^
Anyway, I was working at GameScience, a company that designed and sold wargames during the developing period of the modern wargame industry during the 1970s. We sold wholesale and retail and the famous Lou Zocchi GameScience catalogue had the most diverse listings of anybody in the industry. Additionally, were also the first and only domestic makers of polydice, at the time.
Most, if not all the employees, were SF fans and gamers. Many were involved with CoastCon as well, during the planning stage for the first CoastCon in later in 1978. + Things were a bit slow, so we took a long lunch to watch this new movie at the cheap matinee price at noon. We didn’t hold up much hope that it would be really very good and the general consensus was that it was just riding on the coattails of bad TV science fiction fare of the 1970s. We expected to at least get our two bucks worth.
We few took our seats and there weren’t but 20 or so people in the whole place, including us refugees from work. The music and the credit crawler started, in the style of old movie serials and the lively music boomed: maybe this won’t be too bad after all and worth a few chuckles. By the time the Imperial battleship had slid over the screen, we knew this film was a cut above the usual SF Hollywood exploitation film. It had classic elements, at times lovingly campy at others, new and rich. We were hooked and vowed to see the film again later that night after work. It’s rare for a film to surprise me and I sure got my two dollars worth on this one. We decided to see it again.
Word still hadn’t gotten around yet about this obscure film and the evening show was fairly well attended, but no real crowds yet. Remember this is the days before twitter (flash crowds were science fiction fare), before personal computers, before cell phones (only Star Trek had them). The only instant news we had was radio or the TV, if you happened to be close to a set at the time. Within days, word of mouth had gone out and lines for Star Wars became as long as those for Jaws (1975), the only other precedent we could cite for the phenomena.
The lesson here is not to sell things short, even when the Hollywood hucksters don’t have much faith in a film. Yes I was one of the few who actually saw the regular release of Star Wars the first time around. But the secret was out very soon and within a week you couldn’t hardly get near a theater for the lines and the mousey little SF flick tossed out too the summer fans, ended up being the fox that roared.
Those us, sitting in Wednesday matinee seats in small theaters all over the country were witnessing history. Yep, we were there and that, with a couple of bucks might buy you a cup of coffee (hold the foam). Years ago, I met a woman who saw Dracula when it was a first-run movie in 1931 and I was envious at her attendance at a historic cinematic event. After 24 May 1977, I was no longer jealous.
In my generation, the touchstone used to be “Where were you when your first found out that Kennedy had been shot”? I’d like to propose a much happier touchstone of memory and remembrance, “Where were you when you first saw Star Wars”? It really doesn’t matter if you saw it first run, or a month later, or even a few years back the first time. They can’t take away that first time, especially if it was in a theater.
Star Wars: alive and well. I just came back from MobiCon XVI and there was a healthy showing of Star Wars Fans in attendance. Now Star Wars is mainstreamed, shown on TV and generally taken for granted. SW clubs are still abundant and many are getting new members. There are many Star Wars oriented groups now, both rebel and empire some are even neutral like the Mandalorians. Star Wars has even jumped genres and become Steampunk. Let’s face it, for better or worse, Star Wars is mainstreamed and become an integral part of our culture. Right now there are budding anthropologists are writing Master’s theses about esoteric subjects in the Star Wars universe and its impact on us. For those of us who remember a pre-Star Wars Era, the remembrance of that distant period will fade with our generation. But who knows, a contemptible little film may premier out some boring Wednesday as summer fare, attended by few to be another culture-changer like Star Wars and a new generation will have their cinematic touchstone.
Footnotes for those that care and the overly detail-oriented (or the just plain bored)
My apologies to Herman Wouk for appropriating (kind of) the title to War and Remembrance, well not really. BTW, the fellow is still kicking around, thanks for the stories about your generation!
*Yeah I know, it premiered 36 years ago, this is the 35th anniversary.
^Yup, I know there was a pre-premier on 1 May and I know there were other private and closed screenings. I’m talking about the hoy polli of fandom, not the elite, not the insiders, not industry people. In any case, those early, closed screening must not have generated much interest, because the pedaling of Star Wars was a pretty pedestrian trailer and no real follow-up hype.
+Yes, Wikipedia says the first CoastCon was 1977 … it’s wrong. CoastCon incorporated in mid 77, and the first convention was in 78.