A long time ago — 40 years to be exact — a movie premiered on this day that changed everything.
The Force was strong that day, but you had to go far, far away, or at least to the Dayton Mall as the closest destination as it would take another month until Springfield got “Star Wars,” before they called it “A New Hope” or “Episode IV” or anything other than that title, which I’ll always refer to it as.
It was a different time in pop culture. Most movies didn’t premiere in hundreds of theaters opening day, only the big cities. And few if any multiplexes existed. Springfield had just the Regent Theatre, State Theatre, Upper Valley Mall Cinemas I and II and four drive-ins.
On May 25, 1977, film choices here included George C. Scott’s “Islands in the Stream,” “The Greatest” starring Muhammad Ali, “Rocky,” which came out the previous December, “The Car,” “Silver Streak,” “The Seven Percent Solution” and “Bound for Glory.”
Sci-fi was mostly the stuff of B-movies back then that nobody took seriously. Some of the better films of the ’70s had messages behind them as well as special effects. The message of “Star Wars” was pure entertainment, going back to one of the oldest themes, good vs. evil, with a villain dressed in all black.
Without an internet, social media or the E! Network, there wasn’t a lot of advance word on “Star Wars.” I loved sci-fi and monster films back then as a 10-year-old and saw just scant info about the film in the magazines back in the day. It was my uncle, Jeff, who bought the Marvel Comics adaptations of the film first and told me about them.
A “Star Wars” commercial on a Columbus television station talking about “a boy, a girl and the universe” made it even more of a must-see. But when?
My family immediately took off for two-week vacation when summer break started. Before handheld video games, tablets and portable DVD players, reading comics was my entertainment escape on those “are we there yet” trips. The most intriguing were the first two issues of “Star Wars.”
Meanwhile, the News-Sun reported in the June 19 paper that “Star Wars” was coming. The description gave Peter Cushing top billing and a somewhat misleading description: “The science-fiction film, scheduled to open Friday, revolves around a princess in a far-off galaxie (sic) who attempts to overthrow the ruler of that planet.”
“Star Wars” blasted into the Regent on June 24, replacing the Jodi Foster version of “Freaky Friday.” There were five showings that day including one at 11:45 p.m.
The paper’s film critic, Joe Smith, gave the movie three kernels (his equivalent of stars), calling it “A fresh, gimmicky, G-rated Flash Gordon-ish tale,” and “Maybe the film’s appeal is in the lack of fresh-scrubbed film fantasies available to us in a time that cries for them.” He got it immediately.
We got back from our trip on July 1, and two days later was the big day. I was excited, but had no clue as to how just how powerful “Star Wars” would be for myself, Jeff and my brother, Andy.
The “A long time ago” beginning followed by that blast of the John Williams theme and the logo, the crawl and that overwhelming first shot of a star destroyer absolutely consuming the screen in the first few minutes were overwhelming.
Then came Darth Vader, Tatooine, Luke Skywalker, Jawas, twin suns, landspeeders, Sandpeople, Obi Wan, lightsabers. This wasn’t a film, it was a culture.
I also met one of my all-time favorite cinematic characters. Han Solo immediately appealed with his swaggering confidence — he shot first after all — and his sense of humor, which was another key to the film’s mass appeal aside from the great FX.
By the time the Death Star was blown to cosmic dust and Williams’ theme played, I didn’t walk out the theater, I skywalked. The film industry was changed forever.
We got a program from the concession stand on the way out. It was a modest beginning to what became a merchandising empire. Within a few weeks, Andy and I were collecting the Kenner action figures, and “Star Wars” mania seemed to grip everybody.
My dad took us back for an October showing and influenced him to do a “Star Wars”-themed Thanksgiving play at his school. I don’t recall much about it, but it couldn’t have been any worse than the “Star Wars Holiday Special” on network TV the following year.
After 20 consecutive weeks, “Star Wars” left the Regent on Nov. 4, replaced by the George Burns/John Denver comedy “Oh God.”
That Christmas I got a “Star Wars” digital watch and a lightsaber wannabe that was a flashlight with a transparent tube attached. And I would enjoy many other such moments over the years.
“Star Wars” gets blamed for making the blockbuster film Hollywood’s main focus, and one seems to come out weekly. But I can count maybe a handful that will ever come close to that first trip into hyperspace in 1977.
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