Monday, December 19, 2016

Theater Roots, Star Wars Edition: Notes From the O.G.

With Rogue One opening in theaters this week, it's an excuse for my favorite symbolic Star Wars-fan story:
In 2005, as the days led up to the big May 18 opening for "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", the news covered the traditionally symbolic straw-man images of devoted core-cosplay Star Wars fans, with Jedi robes, Stormtrooper armor and plastic lightsabers, camped out six weeks ahead in front of Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theater (to even dare properly call it the current "TCL Chinese" is an insult to movies and theaters) to be first in line for tickets.

There was just one problem:  Episode III WASN'T opening at the Grauman's Chinese.  In a break with tradition, it was opening at the newer Hollywood Arclight theater, some distance across town.
"At a movie theater not so far, far away", LA Times, 4/8/05
"Yes, we know it's not opening yet, and yes, we know it's across town," one representative fan wearily explained.  The issue, they claimed, was not so much that the Arclight had more modern cineplex ticketing and different sound from the Grauman's, but that, well, opening at the Grauman's should be traditional!  They hoped that their camping out in front of the theater would be a statement that would inspire distributors to change theaters at the last minute.
When it, um, didn't, the fans in costume tried to portray their doomed vigil as a Fans For Charity stunt, getting sponsors to fund their marathon campout to raise funds for Starlight Children's Foundation...It wasn't about tickets, they explained, it was about celebrating the unity of a worldwide fandom!  Finally, on the big day of the premiere, the event concluded with legions of fan Stormtroopers rounding up the "Rebel scum" and leading them on a big charity parade across town to the Arclight opening.  Which was meant to be a big display of fan unity, but to the non-fans, came off as "Well, after all that, maybe you might like to go see it where it's actually playing, doyyy..."
The mainstream public's reaction in 2005 wasn't quite what it was in the glory days of 1977 and '78--Most '05 teen moviegoers looked at the diehard fans putting their spare time aside for the Glorious Cause and stared, "Dude...who stands in line anymore?  Why didn't you just buy your tickets online six weeks ahead at Fandango, like everyone else?"
It was thirty years too late to try and win back their hearts and minds for the days of Stunt Fandom to get the word out.

I have to admit, I love that story.  I may spend a lot of time saying what damage the Rise of the Multi and Mega-plex may have done to moviegoing in the 21st century, but I side with the "That's so 90's!" kids. Whatever else the plexes have corrupted the audience mentality with--now that every movie opens in every town, and your local shopping-mall 15-screen can serve all your one-stop needs, all day--worrying about getting tickets for a movie is one thing I do not miss anymore.

But y'see, I have a reason for that.  I'm a grizzled survivor of that sometimes revered, sometimes mocked, remaining audience of what the Star Wars fans call the "O.G."--Original Generation.
I DIDN'T grow up watching the Original Trilogy on VHS in my jammies, or first see Jar-Jar Binks on a Phantom Menace DVD.  I was thirteen when Star Wars opened at the big-city theater in the summer of '77 (in those days, it wouldn't hit the suburbs until a few weeks later), and I was IN those lines that the New Kids like to decade-mythologize about.  Ohh, was I ever.
And if I don't sound happy about it--proud, yes, wistful, maybe, but not happy--it's because it wasn't the myth that everyone thinks it is.   But it was something you don't see anymore.

Actually, I didn't line up in May, and I didn't go to the Hollywood Grauman's or NYC Ziegfeld, like all the iconic photos show. 
See that, over there?  That's the Boston Sack Charles, just down near the Charles River and Longfellow Bridge, just across big Cambridge St. from the old red-brick townhouses that led to the Public Gardens.  It was Boston's most cavernously elegant Cinerama theater back before the day, but now a strip-mall/office complex, still with the big wide-widescreen main theater, but split into cineplex mini-screens on the lower floor.  All the downtown commercial-chain theaters were owned by the Sack company, later bought out by Loew's, and with 1-3 screens each, which movie would be playing where was a matter of neighborhood real-estate reputation:  The movies that got the big audience would probably playing the Charles, or the Cheri next to the convention hotels, the snooty Oscar-bait would always play the Paris, across from the Prudential building, and the not-so-fortunate might be playing underground at the Beacon Hill across from New City Hall, or in a parking garage at the Pi Alley on Washington St.  
Suffice to say, the entire Original Trilogy played one by one at the Charles.  The location became such a local tradition (especially once the '77 movie played there for a year), it somehow didn't seem right to stand in line there for anything else.

Our family didn't move to the Boston area till June, after school let out, but Dad had already moved there in May for work, and wanted to take us in on the MBTA train to show us all the Boston-insider sights.  That meant a big movie night, and by that point, three or four weeks later, the little movie that Fox wanted to "bury" had become a hot ticket for the feel-good sleeper discovery of the summer, at least until the next 007 movie would come along in August.  (According to legend, theater-distributor demand had originally been so low, Fox resorted to illegally "block-booking", ie. blackmailing, theaters into booking Star Wars in late May, if they wanted to book the surefire best-seller adaptation of "The Other Side of Midnight" two weeks later.)  The press articles, quick to jump on stories about Francis Ford Coppola's discovery, the new young breakout American Graffiti director, homaging a sci-fi movie, played up all the "Tribute to old 30's cinema" angles, to make the movie look as if it was some Hollywood-genre labor of love to Flash Gordon...So even regular city-folk who hadn't bought the "secret" posters at sci-fi conventions were standing in line.  I'd never seen a three-screen cineplex before, and hoped that we wouldn't hear anything from "Exorcist II: the Heretic" playing downstairs.
And we stood in line for a very important reason--We were trying to get tickets.  It was playing on ONE SCREEN out of three, and if you weren't in line early enough, the movie would be Sold Out.  In fact, you weren't even realistically trying to get tickets for the next show, you knew that you were standing in line at 3pm trying to get tickets for the 9:45 show.  People about ten yards ahead of you would be the last to get 7pm.  Nobody was in costume, for one rather logical reason:  We didn't know who was in it, or what the heck it was about, apart from the fact that it was "old-fashioned" sci-fi.  I had some familiarity with the characters after a readup in a Scholastic children's magazine trying to target some underground hype, while every other upscale movie fan was looking for cineaste comparisons to John Ford westerns or The Wizard of Oz.  (Because Luke Skywalker came from a farm just like Dorothy, y'see, so that made C-3PO the Tin Man and Chewie the Cowardly Lion...)

Right up there, in that second-floor glass hallway over the CVS Pharmacy, was the line (which extended all the way down to the bottom of the escalator, or down the chair-ramp to the street out back).  With twenty minutes before the next seating, and trying to keep the midnight-show ticket lines from getting too long, the theater let the next-show audience into the lobby to keep down the crowds.  All we could see of the earlier show, still going on behind little glass panels in reasonably soundproofed wood and aluminum doors, was the climactic Death Star trench battle--Or rather, just isolated peephole bits and pieces of explosion sparks and cockpit closeups, at least, that's what they looked like.  A jam-packed crowded lobby of puzzled, impatient, stand-weary folk heard one Dolby-booming explosion after another coming from the inside theater with the sparks, and with some of the explosions...audiences cheering.  Okay, that was just strange.  We hadn't heard audiences mass-cheer anything for a long time, especially not during the gritty 70's Golden Age (okay, maybe Rocky Balboa after the fight), but whatever those lucky folks ahead of us had gotten to see, something had gotten them pumped.  

And in the Carter malaise of 1977, anything that could pump you to feel optimistic and happy enough to say that good things had happened to movie characters that deserved them was something that had come in from some magical Elsewhere.  This was NEW.

Oh, and as one of the ultimate Elite O.G.'s himself, James Earl Jones, points out, when we O.G. folk first saw Darth Vader give Luke the big news about Anakin Skywalker in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back"...we knew exactly what we thought, and so did Jones when he first got the script.  And oh, how we LOVE to frustrate N.G.'s that the "Big moment" wasn't quite what their fantasized nostalgia likes to dream it was:
(As you can see, like most New Generations, the fanboy YouTube argument has since devolved into a nitpicking argument over whether the line was "No..." or "Luke..."--Even though we're clearly justified in remembering "No, Luke,..." muffled by '97 re-edits.)
And yes, Han Solo DID Shoot First.  That was because Han always shot first, it was his answer to everything.  No one appreciates that better than an O.G. who first discovered Harrison Ford in the seventies, when the future granite-face of "The Fugitive" and "Air Force One" still had a working sense of humor.

You may notice, in the YouTube clip, that most in the 2005 Sith-fan Parade are, it is safe to hazard a guess, under the age of 28, and most with a ticket for Rogue One are under the age of 39.  Star Wars had always been around as a Thing since literally before they were born, like the rocks and trees, and jumping onto the phenomenon was just something everybody geeky-cool did, sooner or later, like your first sip of Coca-Cola.  
The current generation's fan-love is an attempt to wish for something they were born too late to do.  It's a wish to see their favorite childhood DVD on the bigscreen, and try to capture Something Their Parents Did, just like 50's Grease-themed parties, or Civil War re-enactment societies.  If you dress up well enough, maybe, through some wishful miracle of time-travel, you'll have been Born Back Then too, even if you weren't.  
Even the attempt to bring "Star Wars: the Force Awakens" back to the "spiritual feel of the original", and bury the goofy George Lucas atrocities of the Prequel Trilogy, is essentially a story of a teen heroine too young to have seen the battles, against a teen villain who hero-worships a Vader-helmet relic, and snotty young new Death Star trainees trying to be Peter Cushing...A reverent New Generation dress-up movie for a reverent New Generation dress-up audience, until gray-haired old Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill show up for real.
Speaking for all us mad old grizzled O.G. hermits in the desert, it's not about Dressing Up.  It never was.  For Star Wars to be mentioned at all in the media in the fall of '77 (look, network TV's going to do a Holiday Special!) was validation that our little secret, which we called "A new hope", was finally starting to take hold with a grownup moviegoing society who were paying more attention to Vietnam-vet movies and Woody Allen comedies.  Hope for saving the Alliance went hand-in-glove with hope for discovering that Movies Were Fun Again, and our going to Star Wars was our trying to celebrate how much fun our grandparents must have had going to the Flash Gordon serial every Saturday.

The Boston Sack Charles?...Oh, that.  It isn't around anymore.  The downtown theaters all closed one by one in the 90's, to be replaced by the Loews' Boston Common 20-screen on Tremont St. (and some highway cineplexes in the Cambridge suburbs), and nearby Massachusetts General Hospital added six more floors to the future Richard B. Simches Research Center. When I went to MGH for a specialist appointment a few years ago, nobody I talked to could remember that Charles River Plaza North had ever been anything else.  You'll notice the CVS Pharmacy is still there, though.
Me, I can still remember a couple of Boston books I bought at the plaza bookstore nearby (not there anymore either), because to my Old Geezer memory, Star Wars was never a "franchise", a "phenomenon", a "Jedi religion" or a "fan lifestyle".  It was a movie night out with my folks in the big city, and even standing in the stupid line turned out to be worth it.

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