May the 4th is widely celebrated by fans all over the world, but today is the actual day Star Wars was first released on an unsuspecting public. And the lines were not around the block.
Not at first, anyway. The first screening was a sneak screening on the previous day at the AVCO Center theater in Westwood, California, and it had only three screens. There was no line because nobody had any idea what was to be unleashed. The other movie, releasing the same day, was The Car, a cheesy movie about a haunted black sedan shot for a buck and a quarter on location in the Mojave Desert along Route 66.
We went inside, and the theater was nearly empty. The theater had perhaps 300 seats at most, and the admission was $3. We hadn’t bothered with the popcorn. We had seen the trailer at NASFIC, the North American Science Fiction Convention the previous year. We knew this was going to be big. Nothing – nothing – could have prepared us. We had just been through the previous summer’s films. Logan’s Run, Futureworld, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and King Kong ranged from ambitious to titillating to thought provoking. The lights went out. And from that point forward we were in another universe. That now famous orchestral phrase rendered in immortal energy blasted us back in our chairs, and we thought, they couldn’t possibly justify a fanfare like this, could they?
But they could. That opening shot with the blockade runner fleeing from the Imperial Star Destroyer could not have given us a better introduction to the new universe to which we had just been invited. With that one scene, the world was changed forever. The story that followed was a primal tale of good versus evil, pure heroism versus villainy of the highest order, and it fueled the dreams and imagination of a generation. We went back and saw it the next day, and the next, and the next, and by that time the lines were quite literally around the block at what was then called the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
As the story goes, George Lucas had been in Hawaii with his friend Stephen Spielberg working on ideas for Indiana Jones because he was sure Star Wars was going to flop, and he didn’t want to be around to see that happen. When he came back a couple of weeks later, Lucas was having lunch at Hamburger Hamlet on a second floor across the street from the Chinese, and looked out the window wondering what all the crowds were about. It was only then that he realized he had a hit movie on his hands.
Star Wars would stay in theaters continuously for more than a year. Some theaters just kept running it, and had the film the entire time. And why not? The crowds kept coming. Some people went to see the film hundreds of times. I didn’t consider myself one of the more avid fans (I had friends who were) but even I saw it 27 times in the theater.
Think about this: approximately half the human population alive today has never known a time when there was no Star Wars.
Today there are no fewer than eight films in the series. George Lucas’ original vision has, either directly or indirectly, spawned tens of thousands of careers. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world claim “Jedi” as their stated religion on census forms. Lucas proved that the imagination of one man can change the world.