Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

FLASHBACKS 5/25/1999: Watching people waiting to watch Star Wars

(front page headline: “Hordes feels the Force as new Star Wars opens”)

Mixed feelings about the film aside, I’m happy to have had this experience: being among the hundreds of Hermiston residents, mostly young people, lined up hoping to buy tickets to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace one cloudless and vaguely breezy evening in May 1999. We took over a good portion of the town movie theater’s front walkway and the parking lot, talked about the films and our lives, played with and showed off toys, and stayed warmish. A kid from the local high school interviewed me and others for a student-made document of the event. Someone else set up a combo TV/VCR near the entrance and showed highlights of the original trilogy.

Maybe my favorite overheard comment of the night was “In every Star Wars novel, Luke is always having his ass handed to him. He’s always just barely getting away! He should be kicking ass and taking names.” I thought Ah, you want Star Wars as directed by John Carpenter.

Here is my feature article about the experience:

I had to do it. I was drawn to do it. I’ve been looking forward to doing it. Always in motion is the future, I know, but months ago I knew for sure that I would try to see Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace as soon as I possibly could.

So it came about that last Tuesday [5/18/1999] I grabbed money for my ticket, a pillow for my bottom, and a bunch of Star Wars-related magazines and books when I went to the Hermiston Cinemas and had the complete line-waiting experience.

Complete with not actually getting in.

I guess singing that song “Chewbacca” or knowing the real reason George
Lucas named his short little astromech ’droid R2-D2 wasn’t enough to earn myself a place at the head of the line.
* * *

But still, it was worth it just to soak up the ambiance created by a bunch of my fellow Star Wars fans as they hung out together, held a tailgate party in the parking lot, ate pizza from Star Wars-style Pizza Hut boxes, spouted trivia, played with their new toys and displayed their vintage toys. Star Wars has almost always been about fun toys – my brother and I still have boxes of them – and some of the people in line had original action figures and laser rifles.

“This isn’t a cheap piece of plastic,” one guy said in reference to his new toy light saber, “this is a really expensive cheap piece of plastic!” And he smiled. He was enjoying himself.

Some others had even made an R2-D2 lookalike. It stood near the very front of the line, surrounded by the first fans to get seated – mostly Hermiston High students, some of them dressed up in Star Wars-style costumes.

That little fake ’droid sparked my first trivia question of the night. I asked the people at the front of the line how creator (some would call him Creator) Lucas had come up with the name R2-D2. It’s actually an editing term: each movie is made up of several reels of film, and each film reel requires several separate reels for dialogue. Lucas was editing American Graffiti in 1972 and needed the second dialogue reel from the second movie reel…so he asked his assistant for “R2-D2.” And he liked the sound of it. He most definitely did not have a bad feeling about that.

See what I just did? I was doing that a lot Tuesday night. I found myself working Star Wars dialogue into what I said while waiting – “Well, a Jedi does use the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack” – and I also did a couple of the Star Wars-referencing lines from Clerks. (I even did the Chewbacca growling parts from that film’s song, [Supernova’s] “Chewbacca,” while others in line sand “Whoooooa, whatta Wookiee!”)
* * *

This doesn’t rank up there with Han Solo getting frozen and taken away by Boba Fett, but…

I was about 10 or 15 people away from the front of the line when a theater employee came out with the news. The 251 tickets for Tuesday’s midnight showing had sold out in less than 10 minutes. They had gone on sale at 10:30 that night; I had been in line since 6 o’clock.

The grumbling had commenced before we learned the news, because the people ahead of me could sense the change in the atmosphere. People near the front of the line were allowed to buy up to 12 tickets at once, and some did – just enough to throw our chances into a cocked hat.

(Though on balance, it’s not as bad as in that Simpsons episode where Homer is second in line to buy tickets for an event – and the one man in front of him buys all 10,000 tickets. With what amounted to an I.O.U.)

What us jilted Line People found more obnoxious was that the ranks in front of us had swelled during the hours leading up to the start of the sake; not that we could prove it, but people were very likely cutting.

That was the only annoying thing about the evening.

I did what I could to be philosophical about not making it into the midnight show – while of course making sure to buy tickets for a screening the next night. (Tuesday night the theater sold about 60 tickets for Wednesday.) I made sure to thank one person in line for her restraint, because she had bought midnight tickets just for her and three co-workers who wouldn’t be off their shift until 11 p.m. Doing that for your friends, I could understand. But 12? That’s more like hoarding.
* * *

There almost certainly wasn’t a 12-ticket limit the first time the people of Hermiston ran into Star Wars.

The original film came to a much different Hermiston area in October 1977, over four months after its blockbuster release in the bigger cities of America.

The Mor Theatre in downtown Umatilla – which was a theater that had seen big lines a few years before because people had wanted to see the infamous film Deep Throat – opened the movie on Wednesday, Oct. 5th and played it until Tuesday the 18th.

This is what was different: Star Wars – along with being a single feature instead of the theater’s then-standard double feature – played a two-week engagement (!) instead of the standard one-week showing.

By contrast, The Phantom Menace is guaranteed to run in Hermiston for at least six weeks, more likely eight. Movies have changed; Hermiston has changed. (This was back when the paper had ads for disco dance lessons.)

At that time in October ’77, according to the Hermiston Herald, the Hermiston High School parking lot was possibly going to be paved, the Umatilla Police Department was about to open a 24-hour dispatch center, and the Hermiston Board was hoping to pass a school bond for about $7 million to serve the district’s 3,000 students. (There are 3,927 of them – a one-third increase over the course of 22 years.)

Also at the same time, Kentucky Fried Chicken was selling a meal of two pieces of chicken, cole slaw or mashed potatoes with gravy, and a hot roll of 99 cents. Prices at Hermiston Warehouse – at the address of what today is Coast to Coast Hardware – included beef roast for 59 cents a pound, carrots at 19 cents a pound, and apples for the equivalent of less than 15 cents a pound.

But the Herald’s phone number was already 567-6457, as it is today. Some things stay consistent.

The movie ran for two weeks – with the Star Wars ad running in the Hermiston Herald in two issues – and then life continued. The films that opened at the Mor Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 19th, 1977 were Airport ’77 and The Shootist with John Wayne.

When was the last time you saw those movies?
Tags: flashbacks, star wars

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