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Wookie Nights

The year was 1977: Lapels were wider, Burt Reynolds was thinner, and 'Star Wars' was opening minds.

May 09, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

On "The NBC Nightly News," anchorman John Chancellor told viewers that if they didn't know what a 100-year-old Wookie was, they'd learn soon enough, and noted that "he or it" was the hairy creature depicted on a photograph right behind him.

The June 13, 1977, newscast showed long lines of people standing outside movie theaters in which a new film called "Star Wars" had opened only weeks before and reported that the $9-million film was expected to make "10 times" that amount.

A reporter in the field then intoned: "It's old-fashioned escapist entertainment, pure and simple, with no morals and no messages. And it appears this is what just about everybody in the country is in the mood for."

The week the movie opened, Time magazine reported that kids had screamed in delight at an advance screening in San Francisco. The magazine also took note of the buzz among sci-fi fans, reporting that 6,000 color transparencies from the film were stolen from the production offices and were selling for more than $5 each.

And, driving down Wilshire Boulevard that first weekend the movie was in theaters, Sid Ganis was getting a glimpse of what was to come. As he headed with his kids at 8 o'clock on a quiet Sunday morning to see the new 20th Century Fox film, Ganis saw the street littered with trash left by fans who had stood in line for tickets Saturday night.

"There were cups and popcorn bags and food containers all over the street," recalled Ganis, who then headed advertising at Warner Bros. "Everything else along Wilshire looked so pristine and beautiful that morning, but here was this sea of trash."

It has been more than two decades since moviegoers sat in awe as an Imperial destroyer firing laser blasts at a smaller Rebel Alliance spacecraft appeared at the top of the screen, dramatically introducing director George Lucas' space yarn. Two decades since moviegoers were first introduced to a strange and colorful array of characters named Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Han Solo, the 8-foot Wookie called Chewbacca and those two humorous droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO.

But unlike today's big action films, which arrive each summer with all the fanfare studio publicity machines can muster, the original "Star Wars" saw its success born, for the most part, from the greatest publicity machine of all: word of mouth.

In Los Angeles, librarian Victor Adagio and his wife, Heidi, recalled how they were dazzled at the film's special effects--the kind of special effects they had not remembered seeing since Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" nearly a decade earlier.

"What I remember most was Darth Vader and the light swords," Heidi said. "Outside of '2001,' I don't think there had been anything like those special effects. Just to see so many flashed at you simultaneously when you had never seen anything but '2001' was just mind-boggling."

Everything about the movie seemed unique, they recounted, like the hovercraft with heat seemingly rising from the sand. "And the hovercraft was not made of bright, shiny metal," she noted. "It looked dirty, used, like a space jalopy. Before that, all you had [in science-fiction films] were gleaming, white, pure flying saucers."

Rick Jewell, the associate dean of USC's School of Cinema-Television, remembered seeing crowds snaked around the block outside Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in those first weeks.

"I remember [the theater] had already scheduled [director] William Friedkin's film 'Sorcerer,' " Jewell said. "He was a big director coming off 'The Exorcist,' and they had him scheduled to come in right after 'Star Wars.' But they had to kick 'Star Wars' out of there. I'm sure they were just dying because it was doing such a gangbuster business."

Leilani McHugh of Pasadena, who with her husband attended USC's film school at the time, recalled how she and her classmates reacted during an advance screening of "Star Wars" held on the Fox lot.

"We were sitting in the theater, and as soon as that [Imperial destroyer] first appeared, everybody broke into a cheer, yelling and screaming and just going nuts," she said. "And we were film students. We thought we knew it all. Then here comes this thing over our heads with this sound that really shook us."

Afterward, the college students spent hours talking about what they had just seen, only later kicking themselves for not having bought shares of Fox stock.

As it was, the price of shares in 20th Century Fox more than doubled in the month after "Star Wars" was released, and sales of "Star Wars" merchandise soared.

In Colorado, 14-year-old Dan Madsen had never heard of "Star Wars" until his older cousin, a sci-fi buff, put the youngster in his car and drove him to the local movie house and told him to stand in line. It would change Madsen forever.

"I clearly remember the culture of standing in line and the camaraderie that was created among the 'Star Wars' fans," said Madsen, who today runs the film's official fan club.

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