Come along for the story of a fan who was there from the beginning. Sit in the theater seat in 1977 and experience what it was like to see the birth of Star Wars legacy as it began.
The movie Star Wars and I have a very intertwined relationship. As has been the case for so many fans over the years, it changed everything for me. That said, I’m writing now because I have a perspective on the film that’s becoming more rare with each passing year. I claim a shared cred with this story that is exclusive to my generation and I love to say the words, “I WAS THERE”. You see a long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away with my father at my side, I experienced a movie that redefined cinema for those my age (and many that followed). Everything, quite simply, was completely different once you’d seen Star Wars. This is my story and it’s a personal one.
The year was 1977 (of course). The first film had been out a little over a month and buzz was starting to build. Not so much in the media but more between my friends at school. It was really the first cultural moment I encountered in life, and it felt like I had to be part of the experience. It was the first time I felt like I might be missing out. You could just feel the sense of wonder and awe that was moving through my friends with each passing day like an infection. I quickly noticed a growing division between the kids who had seen it and those who hadn’t, and I was sitting on the wrong side of that fence.
I was just 7 years old (on the verge of turning 8) and I had recenly wrapped up first grade. It was June and summer was now exciting in a way it had never been before. It was my first summer break and the first of what would become an annual series of “soon-to-be-legend” trips with my dad all over the United States. Over the next 11 summers we would spend time in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, but that is a tale for another time. For today, the focus is a single drive from Portsmouth, OH to Orlando, FL. I had a meetup with a certain mouse planned but a pit stop along the way would be more impacting than anything Disney had to offer.
We had been on the highway for much of the day and I believe we were somewhere in the Carolinas as dad loved to drive along the coast as we went south. I’ll never know the exact location but we spotted a movie theater and I saw the words “Star Wars” on the marquee. Dad noticed me looking and walked me over purchasing two tickets. I mean, I’d only been talking about wanting to see it for most of the day so what choice did he have? The theater was packed, it felt old, we were well back from the screen, and I had a massive tub of popcorn I didn’t eat. The moment the film began to the moment it ended, I didn’t move (and I may have breathed even less than that).
After it was done, there was a strange sense of pride (somewhere akin to a first dance or first date) for having seen the film. This felt life changing, and I know I had never seen anything like it. My friends described it as “cowboys and indians in space”, but that just didn’t prepare me for the film. Sure, I had been watching reruns of the original Star Trek series for years, but this just felt different. It was bigger, bolder, and the characters felt more iconic. There was a heroism here that was larger than my eight-year-old brain could contain. I suddenly wanted that Star Wars universe to be my universe. I wanted Han and Chewie to pick me up in the Falcon and even had a dream or two along those lines in the nights that followed. I had liked Star Trek, but I fell in love with Star Wars.
As my dad and I left the theater, it was clear he was also blown away. We walked together, side-by-side, in complete silence. I remember looking up and he was smiling. Back at the car we simply began driving south once again. He had been kind enough to buy me a keepsake booklet in the lobby. From there to Orlando, I didn’t put it down, even when we found ourselves unable to stop discussing the film. I still treasure that booklet today as it’s a physical memory of my dad’s enthusiasm for life especially in those years.
From that point forward, I talked about nothing else. My parents also bought little else as product after new product hit the market and I begged them to get it. I mailed away for those first Kenner action figures. I about burned out the grooves on The Story of Star Wars album and each product from the film dominated my Christmas wish lists each year. This was especially true when it came to the action figures, which allowed me to grow up playing and dreaming about fighting the Empire and all the aliens I first spied in that captivating cantina. It wouldn’t be long before I had a Star Wars themed bedroom (blanket and sheets still packaged away in my mom’s attic) and the table I would use as a desk until the day I left for college as a sheet of glass over two chrome sawhorses. Everything was space or looked like it. Star Wars became a love only comic books and caped superheroes would eventually replace.
If you were born after 7-25-77, what I think is so important to realize is just how much of a change this was for film and for our expectations of movies. Everything felt grounded and very real prior to that point. 70s cinema had a lot of grittiness and cynicism to it. We were ready, as a culture, for something to change and I think in many ways Star Wars did just that. It, quite literally, opened up a universe of new ideas and challenged my generation to dream just as the trekkies of the 60s felt emboldened by Star Trek.
Even more to the point, you have to realize that Star Wars arrived in a time before home video existed. When a movie was gone, it felt completely gone. I think that is something that was influencial to early fan devotion to this series. When I mention burning out the grooves of the record above, I did it not just out of love for the film, but because I knew that was the only way to re-experince it. Memory, audio albums, and oral history (unless they ran the film with commercials on television or there was a theatrical rerelease) were our only windows to experiencing it again. Once it was gone I just wanted it to return. That sense of loss only made the film more important to me, especially when it did begin to return to my life and be re-experienced in increasingly better ways over the years.
It was that desire to keep myself in the wonder of that first moment in the theater that sent me looking for my first Doctor, kept me glued to my seat for every generation of Trek, and still has me tearing up at every new Star Wars film trailer. There has hardly been another moment so full of cinematic wonder as that first viewing of Star Wars and I think, in a way, I’ve been looking for it to return ever since.