While I didn’t see Star Wars on its opening day, I can remember the first time I saw it back in the ‘70’s very clearly. Like so many fans, I can still recall how it felt to sit in my seat, the moment the Star Wars logo and fanfare burst on the screen, immediately grabbing your attention. Once the opening crawl started rolling, my father whispered what it said into my ear. Then came the moment that blew us all away when we first saw it, the enormous endless spaceships that were roaring so loud, it felt like they were about to land inside the building.
As anyone familiar with the history of Star Wars knows, the film was barely released in 32 theaters that first Wednesday (May 25th 1977, in case you forgot), but it quickly exploded from there, becoming more than a movie, but a phenomenon. I recently learned that a friend of mine was one of the lucky ones to see it opening day, and he graciously shared his memories of that legendary day with me. I also found a handful of other people who fondly recalled being at ground zero when Star Wars was first unleashed on the world, and they were more than happy to relive this moment in sci-fi history with us.
Neal Cammy and David Masten were both in their first year of college when they went to see Star Wars opening day in New York. Both were science geeks, and they usually went to whatever science fiction movie was coming out. (In fact, Masten was one of many fans who participated in the mass mailing campaign urging NBC not to cancel Star Trek in the late sixties.)
Cammy knew that Star Wars was coming out, even though the film didn’t get much advance publicity. “There was some buzz in science fiction fan circles that this was going to be a decent movie,” Cammy says. “A friend of mine in college read the novelization, which came out before the movie. He’d also seen the trailer for it, and thought it would be a good movie. He was the one who told me about it.”
“There was some buzz in science fiction fan circles that this was going to be a decent movie.”
There was so much schlock sci-fi throughout the ‘70’s that Cammy didn’t go in with high hopes. “I’m an engineer, and we used to critique the sci-fi movies we went to go see,” he says. “The movie to critique against all others was 2001. I saw it when I was eight years old, and it was the most realistic version of space I had seen. The effects in so many other movies were so cheesy, so my expectations were low.”
Cammy and Masten saw Star Wars at Loew’s Astor Plaza in Manhattan, which was on 44th Street and Broadway, and it was the full Star Wars experience in 70mm and six track Dolby stereo. The first show was early in the morning, 10 or 11, and the theater was pretty much empty.
When Cammy and Masten settled into their seats, the Star Wars fanfare began. “We didn’t have time to sit into our seats and prepare for it.” Cammy says, “That first scene, I remembered thinking, 'Wow'. Then you realize that’s the puny spaceship! Then the imperial cruiser shows up.”
Masten loved 2001 as well, “and it was obvious that Star Wars had taken it to the next level. You didn’t sit there thinking you were watching special effects. You were in the movie. You were immersed in it.” As Cammy recalls, “Star Wars wasn’t realistic, but the special effects were so much better. ‘Wow, look at that. How’d they do that?’”
Two hours later, the lights came up and Cammy said, “We gotta see that again. This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.” After Cammy and Masten sat through the film a second time, Cammy ran across the street to a record store and bought the soundtrack album.
“We knew right away this was going to be popular,” Cammy continues. “We told our friends, and I probably saw it ten times that summer. It was a ritual. Let’s take the afternoon off and see Star Wars.” And even though sequel-mania hadn’t kicked in yet in Hollywood, Masten knew from that first screening that there would be another movie down the line. “It was obvious from Darth Vader surviving at the end there was going to be a sequel, and we were both jazzed by that.”
Robert Vancel is one of the lucky few who caught an advance midnight preview of Star Wars in Tennessee. Vancel won tickets through a radio contest on a local radio station, WRIZ, and as he recalls, “I was excited to go see it because the Marvel comic had been out a couple of weeks before the movie was released, and I thought, This is gonna be good.”
The audience was dead quiet when “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” came on the screen, but once the fanfare hit, “It was like, whoah!,” Vancel says. “The audience was in awe. Spaceships coming behind us from overheard was something we’d never seen before. We were stunned, and then it was being followed by something bigger! The audience didn’t make a sound the entire movie, but when they blew up the Death Star at the end, everybody just went nuts. They were on their feet during the closing credits.”
Like many who were blown away by Star Wars, Vancel vowed to see it again as soon as he could, and he was back opening day. “There wasn’t much of a crowd but it did sell out,” he says. “I think most of the people who were there were from the preview before.” Star Wars had tremendous repeat business, and Vancel likes to joke he saw it 416 times that summer. “It might not be an accurate number, but it felt like it!,” he says.
“With spring break coming up, I saw it every day,” Vancel continues. “I’m out of school, and at least my parents knew where I was. I existed on popcorn, candy and soda. The eighth or ninth time I saw Star Wars, I could hear the servomotors of C-3PO. First you get the big picture, then you start seeing all the little details and forms.”
You have to remember that before Star Wars became a phenomenon, it was not cool to like sci-fi. Sci-fi fans were considered dweebs, twerps, nerds, and as Vancel recalls, “I was such a geek in high school, even the glee club beat me up!” For many people, Star Wars practically came out of nowhere, but quite a few geeks had their radar up for it, and with the success of the film, science fiction crossed over to people of all walks of life. As Vancel continues, “When Star Wars was coming, it was like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be cool. They’ve written this for me, and all these other people too.’”
In a CNN report on the opening day of Star Wars, Chris Balduc, a fan from Southern California, recalled, “I was a geeky student in high school when Star Wars premiered. I belonged to a science fiction fan club and was therefore branded a loser along with the other fanboys in my school. At lunch we would browse glossy magazines and newspaper clipping to feed our interest in George Lucas’s new movie. For a generation raised on the clean-cut future of Star Trek, the gritty worlds of a universe ‘a long time ago and far far away’ signaled a paradigm shift in our imaginations.”
As August Ragone, another fan who saw Star Wars opening day, says, “You didn’t talk out loud about science fiction in school or you’d be shunned. Then with Star Wars, it became an open thing where you could come out of the nerd closet.” Before Star Wars came out, Ragone recalled a bit of a groundswell for the film building in San Francisco. Ragone and his sci-fi friends were loyal to the genre, and would go see every new sci-fi film that came out, no matter the quality, or lack thereof.
“We believed in seeing all these movies, and even if Star Wars faded into obscurity, we still would have gone to see it,” Ragone tells us. “Pre-internet, we sought out information. It didn’t fall into our laps. Some fans had sci-fi clubs, we were haunting comic book stores, buying Famous Monsters, Starlog magazine had just come out, and we were aware of Star Wars because we were fans of these movies.”
Ragone saw the first Star Wars trailer (“Coming to Your Galaxy This Summer”) on Creature Features, a local TV program that showed old sci-fi and horror movies, and they showed the trailer months before it was regularly playing on television. “I remember seeing that trailer for the first time and saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to see this,’” Ragone says.
Ragone recalled he had no expectations for the movie except he wanted it to be cool. He and several friends all ditched school to see Star Wars on opening day. “We forged notes, ‘I’ve got an orthodontist appointment,’ and we headed down to the Coronet Theater for the first screening that Wednesday.” Ragone and his friends were the only kids in the theaters, the rest of the people who came to see the film were a handful of senior citizens and retirees who had time during the day to go the movies.
Like Neal Cammy and David Masten, Ragone and his friends were completely blown away, and they stayed for the next screening. “Let’s watch it again man!” “Yeah, let’s watch it again!”
All these fans were at ground zero for what was no longer a movie, but a cultural phenomenon, which grew by good old-fashioned word of mouth. Chris Balduc went to see Star Wars its second day in theaters, and by this point the word was out. When Balduc and friends arrived at the Mann Chinese theater in Hollywood, the line was already snaking down Hollywood Boulevard and twisting around the block, and news helicopters were hovering overhead, filming the crowds.
Before Star Wars, you could sit in a movie theater all day and watch a film over and over again without getting kicked out, now the ushers had to clear everyone out to make room for the fans waiting outside to see it.
Before Star Wars, you could sit in a movie theater all day and watch a film over and over again without getting kicked out, now the ushers had to clear everyone out to make room for the fans waiting outside to see it. “Star Wars started clearing the theater for the next performance as a permanent policy,” Ragone says. As one fan told CNN, he hid behind the theater curtains at the Mann Chinese with a friend so they could watch Star Wars twice in a row.
Unlike today where a movie can play on multiple screens simultaneously, Star Wars would usually play on one screen, and there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of people outside, waiting for hours to see it. (The average wait for many theatergoers was two hours to buy your tickets, then at least an hour to get in.)
Ragone says he saw Star Wars twenty-four times that summer, and it wasn’t long before people showing up to the movie in costume. The audience would cheer when the lights went down, they would go nuts when the Star Wars logo appeared onscreen, they’d boo Darth Vader when he first appeared, and it happened at every single screening Ragone went to for months.
“People started making their own bumperstickers: LET THE WOOKIE WIN,” Ragone says. “Science fiction was now becoming popular.”
Many of the old guard sci-fi writers hated Star Wars, calling it a mindless adventure film for kids, “and they hated that Star Wars legitimized sci-fi,” Ragone continues. “But at the time we needed Star Wars. We had a recession, we had an energy crisis, and we needed some serious escapism. It was the perfect adventure movie for a kid, and the kid in everyone.” Ragone says, “It’s cliché to say it, but it was a moment in time, and a shared experience that happened in cities all across America. It’s weird that there’s all these people that are all connected by Star Wars. It caught everybody off guard, and something like that hasn’t happened since.”