A long time ago, science-fiction was kid stuff, and cinema and television were a vast wasteland relieved only by the occasional Twilight Zone or Lost in Space. For the most part, if we wanted sci-fi or fantasy we had to turn to novels by Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Tolkien, Burroughs, and many others. For TV viewing, our choices were, for the most part, cheap, campy, and short-lived. Then came Star Trek. Airing in prime time, it told stories about people and ideas and possibilities. There had been nothing like it before, and it would be years before there was anything like it again.
|The 1968 poster for 2001|
In the early 70s I was a pre-teen looking for adventure and escape. I was an avid reader, but movie watching was something we did for the most part on our little black and white television. It seemed we never lived anywhere where a kid could walk or take a bus to a movie theater, and my parents were not avid film-goers. We hit all the major Disney releases and re-issues, and the occasional other odd film. Back in those days a mom could drop off her kids at a matinee double-feature without a qualm and grab a few hours of kid-free shopping or whatever mom did when we weren’t underfoot. Mom wasn’t always on the ball when it came to reading the movie listings in the paper. This could result in some surreal outings, like the day my little sister and I, aged around seven and nine, ended up at an inexplicable double feature of Disney’s The Song of the South preceded by Blue Water White Death, the classic documentary about great white shark hunters. I loved the shark documentary, but poor Cheryl was a bit restless until the Disney flick rolled.
Even if we had lived near a theater or been old enough to drive and spend our allowances on movie tickets, there just wasn’t a lot for a sci-fi fan out there. I was only five when 2001: a Space Odyssey had hit the theaters in 1968. One of the first blockbuster serious sci-fi films, it blossomed in that genre wasteland like a glorious oasis. Maybe it was just too far ahead of its time. It was re-released to theaters in 1974, and this time at eleven years of age I was old enough to notice. Unfortunately, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to more than sci-fi fans, the studio gave it the groovy tagline “The Ultimate Trip”. My mother, most definitely not an Arthur Clarke reader, took one look at that poster art in the paper and told me it sounded suspicious. I went back to my nightly Star Trek viewing. Thanks for nothing, studio suits.
I clung tightly to whatever genre viewing I could get. I subscribed to Starlog Magazine for all my sci-fi and fantasy news. When Space: 1999 was announced I was thrilled. It aired on Sunday afternoons, and I almost never missed an episode. When our parents made noise about us maybe moving to Lake Chelan in Eastern Washington, I went into a panic. The local TV station there, in the middle of nowhere, didn’t have Trek or Space: 1999! I saved up my allowance and bought an LP with a sort of radio theater version of the first two episodes of the latter on each side, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Luckily that move fell through. Instead, in early 1976 we packed up and moved from Vancouver, WA back up to the Puget Sound area from whence we had come. I was leaving my dear friend and fellow sci-fi nerd Renee behind, but we promised to write. We sent each other drawings and terrible short stories that would probably fall into the “fan fiction” genre today. Sometime late in that year we started to hear rumblings via Starlog and the occasional entertainment segment on the news about a new sci-fi film in the works: Star Wars. There was something about the breathless reports that caught my attention. This was going to be big. My response was my usual one for back in the day. I went to the book store and picked up the novelization. Nobody talked about “spoilers” back then. We were made of sterner stuff.
The story had it all: action, adventure, a relatable hero or two, a scary bad guy, big politics that were way over my head which made everything seem even more real and serious and important. I couldn’t wait for the movie to get to our little corner of Kitsap County.
On our family vacation late in the summer of 1977 we tripped around California, including a visit to San Francisco. I had no idea that Star Wars had already been released, albeit to limited cities, in May. Out in our benighted corner of Washington State it hadn’t really made the news, and definitely not the theaters. By August of ’77 the studios finally realized what a goldmine they had and re-released Star Wars with actual hoopla, premiers, and other fanfare. When we stepped off the cable car near a huge department store, I was astounded to see that the window display was entirely Star Wars themed, including a glamorous mannequin version of Princess Leia complete with impossibly long tresses being done up by another mannequin dressed as a hair stylist. Star Wars had gone big.
Back home in Kitsap County, I re-read the novel and scanned the newspapers for any tidbit about the film. When the Seattle Times ran a special photo spread covering the entire plot of the film, I cut it out and made it into a booklet. It’s in one of my old albums somewhere. Special Star Wars themed glossy magazines showed up at the checkout rack at the grocery store. I bought them. One morning I was almost late for school because I’d heard on the news the night before that Good Morning America was going to do a Star Wars spot the next day. I was mesmerized.
|From the Kitsap Sun archives|
Finally, the big day came. Star Wars had come to the Roxy Theater in Bremerton, and mom was going to take us right after dinner one evening. I was so pumped I could barely eat. I was worried we’d be late, but poor mom was trying to finish dinner then wrangle me and my two younger siblings into the car for the forty minute drive to the theater.
When we arrived, a bit late, the opening crawl had gone by and we walked into the darkened theater just in time for the blockade runner to roar over our heads…followed by the impossibly huge star destroyer. By the time our butts were in seats I was fully entranced. When the first quiet moment in the story rolled around, probably with R2 and C3P0 landing on Tatooine, I noticed I still had my paper dinner napkin clenched in my hands. It was shredded.
Up until Star Wars, I hadn’t really had a favorite movie except maybe Gunga Din (1939). Not only did Star Wars supplant it, but it took over my imagination and fueled years of short story writing, early costuming efforts, and dreams of escape from the mundane. My mother had always kept our hair short for expediency. In 1977 I rebelled and began to grow it out, determined to have long hair like Princess Leia. Except for a brief period in 1988 when I chopped it all off in a fit of depression, my hair has been long ever since. I built blasters out of bits of wood and metal. I decorated my room with posters of X-Wings and Y-Wings, and papered the ceiling with star charts. I built a little “control panel” box with switches and lights and levers and put it in my bedroom window to make my room into a spaceship. For Christmas that year my thoughtful Uncle Dennis bought me the double LP of the score by John Williams. I pretty much wore that out after a few years of constant use, then switched to cassettes, then eventually to a boxed set of special edition CDs in the 90s.
I read the subsequent novels, including two or three Han Solo adventures. Eventually I fell off the wagon of reading the related novels, but when The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi premiered, I was there, this time with friends in downtown Seattle waiting in long lines. When the prequels were released after many years of no Star Wars, having avoided the spinoff stuff, I was super jazzed then kind of bewildered by the results. So much to love, so much to groan about. My love affair with George Lucas was pretty much over. I will forever be grateful that he gave the world Star Wars, but I’ve learned over the years just how many people made that first project what it was despite Lucas’ best efforts, and much of my gratitude has transferred to them.
I never dressed up as characters from the films. These days it’s called “cosplay” and I’ve never been into that. I have, and still do on occasion, dressed as myself if I were in some fictional world or other. I don’t want to pretend to be somebody else. I want to go have adventures myself.
I was fourteen when I saw the first Star Wars film. Back in ’77 I had to make cut-and-paste books of pictures and buy magazines to relive the movie. I would play the tie fighter sequence music, sit in a rattan swinging chair with my feet propped in the windowsill, and pretend I was operating one of the Millenium Falcon’s quad laser guns. A few years later, a post college, older me, driving through the Cascade Mountains at night to a remote Medieval reenactment, put on a motorcycle helmet and cranked the asteroid belt track from The Empire Strikes Back, swooping around mountain curves in the darkness with a sky full of stars overhead.
It’s late at night as I write this, on December 13, 2017. Tomorrow I’m going to Seattle once again for the opening night of a Star Wars movie, this time a fabulous double feature of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi at the Cinerama. Now I’m fifty-four, and this will be episode eight. Eight! These days we have it easy. I can just pop in a disc or stream one of the films any time I want on a huge, flat-panel TV with amazing sound. Fourteen-year-old me, sitting in a theater with a shredded paper napkin in her fist, would have been beside herself with impatience had she foreseen the ready availability of media in 2017.
What a great way to put a cap on the past few months. Earlier this year I found my birth father and a couple of siblings I never knew I had. A few months after that, my father suddenly passed away. I was only able to meet with him twice, but even that was amazing. My mother passed away far too young in 1984, so I never met her. The silver lining is my two brothers, both great guys who have welcomed me into their circle.
They’re both sci-fi geeks, too.
We’re all going to see Star Wars together tomorrow.
I’ll try to leave my napkin at home this time.