Sunday, December 13, 2015


Yeah, I know it's been a long time between entries, but Force knows when I'll be in the mood again, so let's get on with it...
Above is a picture of one of the finest movie theaters I've ever been to, the Eastwood on 6800 Pendleton Pike in Indianapolis, IN. Today, it stands an empty husk, abandoned in the midst of a Menard's lumberyard, forgotten by all but those who went there. But in the summer of 1977 for at least two months, it was the only theater in the Hoosier state where you could see STAR WARS. And for those of us who showed up that first weekend, absolutely unaware of the nature of that movie, it was a moment that would change our lives forever.

But first, let's zip back to the summer of 1976, when I picked up my first issue of Starlog, issue #2, during a camping trip with my grandparents. Buried on Page 7 of "Log Entries" was a mention of "20th Century Fox's latest science-fiction blockbuster" and that critics who had already seen the film said that the movie had "everything in science-fiction you've always wanted to see on the screen but knew no one would ever put there."

It was a curious thing, but I immediately moved onto the Star Trek and Space:1999 coverage.

Well, more and more things started coming my way on the Star Wars trail. The novelization came out shortly after with that gorgeous painting by Ralph McQuarrie, designed when the original first draft was called "The Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller". Still, that awesome black armored helmet of the character destined to become the most iconic sci-fi villain of all time drew me to buy the book at our local bookstore. To date, I've never finished that book. Maybe one day....

Then just a couple of weeks before the movie was to open, my latest comic shipment arrived with Marvel Comics' adaptation of Star Wars. To say the least, I wasn't impressed. The artwork by Howard Chaykin was a real rush job and was honestly coming off to me like the various movie adaptations Marvel was producing at the time... which were pretty bad.

Now, in full disclosure, they were working under a handicap... Fox had only sent Marvel a bunch of stills, the basic script (minus the cuts they made of Biggs and Luke's pals), and a nearly impossible deadline to keep. And, considering the artwork did get considerably better in the following issues (Chaykin got some decent inkers), I'll cut'em a lot of slack.

Anyway, so I put it out of my mind until the following week, when I opened the Indianapolis Star and was struck dumb by a full two-page spread in the movie section:

Okay, that got my attention.

So now I'm wondering just exactly what kind of movie this was going to be. It certainly didn't look like another cheap pile like the Edgar Rice Burroughs movies by American-International. But I've seen movies with fantastically-rendered movie posters that dragged you into the theater and turned out to be the cheapest celluloid bile. The previous year I got skunked by Logan's Run, which bore resemblance to William Nolan's novel only in that there's a guy named Logan and he's running because he's reached the age limit. After that...

And then there were the awful Edgar Rice Burroughs film The Land That Time Forgot, which probably left ERB spinning in his grave. Finally, that Christmas, gave us the much-ballyhooed remake of King Kong. Wanna know what the difference is between that movie and the worst Godzilla Man-in-Suit flick ever made? Rick Baker. Despite the horrible campy script by Lorenzo "Comics are Trash" Semple, Jr., the even worst directing, the amateurish acting by young Jessica Lange (the money she made off this film afforded her much-needed acting lessons and later an Academy Award), and the complete lack of dinosaurs on Skull Island, Rick Baker's amazing Kong suit and him in it made everything else... less intolerable.

So, smoked three times in '76. What good could come from a barely noticed small film from the guy who did American Graffitti?

That Friday, I woke to my usual dosage of Good Morning America and eagerly awaited Rona Barrett's review of the film. I knew my friends Mike, Rick, Rick, Terry, and several others were heading up Saturday, but, of course, I was working until Memorial Day, so I'd at least get an honest opinion from them.

Rona practically slobbered all over herself singing praises over the movie, declaring it a surefire nominee for Best Picture of 1977 at the Oscars and describing it as our generation's Wizard of Oz... a film that embraces pure imagination on a scale never seen on the screen before.

As if I had to tell you, my Spidey sense was tingling off the hook.

Saturday evening, I got a call from Mike, usually the calm, yet cynical, voice of reason. Not so much this time. He avoided doing any spoilers, just telling me "Oh, God, Mark! Oh my God! It's a Marvel comic book come to life!"

"Of course it's a Marvel comic book," I replied. "And not a very well done one at that."

"Oh, screw that comic! They got it right! Oh, my God, they got it right! You gotta go see it!"

So, on that ringing recommendation (that I'd trust over a dozen movie critics any day), I started trying to figure out how I could get to the Eastwood.

Our first big problem would be transportation. The old '66 Lincoln station wagon was okay for trips around town and maybe a trip out to Newburn to pick up Deena for a date, but a fifty-five mile trip to upper Indianapolis? Probably not. Being Memorial Day weekend, Grandma and Grandpa were in Edinburgh at the campgrounds along the river with our camping club and out of contact. No cellphones in those days. Universal communicators were still the fictional plaything of Star Trek.

So I started the cunning plan that six years later would be rivaled only by Ralphie's ultimate plot to possess that B.B. rifle by Christmas. I would pick up Deena in the morning and we'd head up to the campgrounds and try to talk Gramps into loaning us his Ford pick-up for the afternoon to get to the theater. Sounded like a great idea... until I told Mom what we were going to do.

"Take your brother with you."

Words that, any other day, would be the death knell of a date. But Dee was okay with it, and Kenny, now at ten years old, was at an age where he could love a film like Star Wars, no matter how good or bad it might be. And he might just get a glimpse into why I was such a fan of comics and science-fiction. A giant step into a larger world.

Huh? Where did that come from?

So Monday morning, I picked Deena up at her home in Newburn, ran by my mom's house to grab Kenny, and we headed up to the campgrounds.

We lucked out. Gramps trusted me to take care of the pick-up, so we jumped in and headed up to Indy.

About an hour later, we found ourselves exiting 465 onto Pendleton Pike, and moments after that we found the AyrWay plaza and, sitting just a few dozen yards away from a Dairy Queen in the parking lot, was the Eastwood Theater. We arrived about 12:30 PM for the 2:00 showing, as I had already heard there could possibly be a line.

Well, there were a couple of folks sitting at the curb, but no massive gatherings, so I figured maybe we could all grab lunch before any serious folks arrived.

No sooner did we get a table and our Brazier burgers did the cars start arriving. And right before our eyes, those two or three folks on the curb become 20-30 in no time at all. We slugged down our food and hurried over just as the line became a little over fifty. And still with over an hour to go.

Now, it's necessary for folks here to understand: there was no cosplaying or toy blasters, T-shirts, or any of the things we've all come to expect today at gatherings such as this. Fox literally had no idea what they had on their hands, and, in fact, had structured the film's finances as a sort of tax write off, in case, as they suspected, it would bomb big time. So, unlike Paramount's overblown King Kong movie. there was no massive effort to supply stores with tons of paraphernalia. Not one action figure. Not one toy. Nothing. In fact, it wasn't until February of that year that an inner office memo from one of Fox's distributors who had seen the movie clearly encouraged the studio to put an increased effort (and more money) into publicizing the film.

To wit, they did put out a few T-shirts and produced a handsome program book to sell at the theaters. But other than that...

What we didn't realize until many years later was that we were seeing a fandom growing right before our eyes, the likes of which was destined to be unparalleled. Bigger than Star Trek, Bigger than maybe even Jaws. None of us had a clue to what we were about to watch, and how it would effect us. Today, so many of you whipper snappers out there (assuming my old grouchy neighbor voice now) talk about first seeing Star Wars on television. By cracky, we had to spend money and stand in line for hours to see the gull-danged thing, and we were thankful after that! (spit)

Anyway, we finally got inside and got our tickets. I bought the program book, which was colorful and insightful about the film. And, low and behold, this theater had another feature that I'd never seen before... free refills on your popcorn and soda. I wondered if the Columbus downtown mall's cinema had heard of this, those money grubbers.

So then we headed in, and what we saw blew our minds.

An auditorium that seated about 600 people, at the end of which was a gigantic curved screen. Behind it were two story-high speakers, and just above us, along the sides were smaller box speakers lining the edge of the ceiling. Whatever was going to be in this flick, it was going to be wired for sound.

So we kicked back, still about a half hour to go, and we watched the crowd come in until every chair in the joint was filled. In very little time after that, the lights dimmed and, without any real previews or bumpers, the 20th Century Fox title and fanfare filled the theater, along with a plain blue logo designating it as a Lucasfilm Ltd. production.

One little aside... now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise lock, stock, and barrel, any new films will, of course, be sans that magnificent Alfred Neuman fanfare. It's going to be strange walking into a Star Wars and not being greeted by it.

Anyway, you all know what followed that. "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

That explosive first note of John Williams' immortal score and the Star Wars logo filling the screen and vanishing into the stars rattled everyone in the theater, actually getting a smattering of applause. Kenny, Deena, and myself were hanging on for dear life to the backs of our chairs. Then came that wonderful roll-up, obviously a nod to the old chapter recaps from the great movie serials of yesteryear, Finally, the pan downward of starry space, the bare surface of Tatooine at the bottom of the screen. Then... the Princess' shuttle zipping into space, trailed by that breathtaking Star Destroyer, which kept going on and on and on....

At that moment, I was aware of a mass pants wetting going on behind me, and we actually had to raise our legs to allow the flood of pee to come down the slope. Whispers of "Oh, my God!" could be heard everywhere.

And for the next two hours, we were thoroughly caught up in this fantastic, otherworldly adventure with the most colorful heroes and villains ever seen on the screen. The Star Wars theme was ringing in our heads as we drove back home. And the next day I called my friend Mike and told him, "That was the greatest movie I've ever seen in my life! And it ain't gonna make a dime!"

Well, what else could I say, given that all three of the major sci-fi movies of 1976 crashed and burned (though for King Kong I was roasting marshmallows on that sucka). What could this movie do to reverse science-fiction's fortunes?

Well, by August it had surpassed Jaws as the No.1 box office champ and there was still no end in sight of the masses returning to see it again and again. The Eastwood theater kept the film for a full year before finally letting it go. By the end of 1977, Star Wars was on the lips of every man, woman, and child with a flicker of imagination.

And me? I ate an exquisite cuisine of crow and delighted in every morsel.

So how did Star Wars change my life? I mean, I was already a sci-fi, horror, and comic book fan, How much more could it change a character like me?

It made me appreciate the efforts that were made at every level of film producing, from the writing and the direction to the art department, the set building, the kind of cinematography used to film on the sets and the location shoots. It made me realize what a vital part music plays in the momentum of a film's narrative, and what better teacher than the master himself, John Williams? After Star Wars, I couldn't wait to get the latest scoops from Starlog Magazine or SFX on production of the next episode and so many other films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (yep, 1977 was a double whammy for guys like me), Alien, Superman the Movie, and so many others. Remember, this was a long way from the Internet, and fan magazines were our only real connection to the behind-the-scenes details. I also became aware of names like Kurtz, Spielberg, Baker, Winston, Matheson, Kasdan. And when I heard them, I paid close attention.

But mostly, it made me really want to be a part of this incredible rise of fantasy fandom and wonder what in the world the future would bring us next. And while I doubt I will ever see the unbelievable success that the above-mentioned folks have had in their lifetimes, I can honestly say they inspired me to some of my finer moments in life. And for that, I am forever in the debt of George Lucas and Company.

Tune in next time when we deal with The Empire Strikes Back and learn how not to spoil a movie.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up on the Indiana/Illinois border just south of I-70. What many people have forgotten is that when "The Empire Strikes Back" came out, for the first month, it only was shown in the handful of movie theaters that did a first run of Star Wars. For me, the choices were Saint Louis, Chicago, and the Eastwood in Indianapolis. I took my nephew on the back of a Yamaha 175 Enduro and made the 4-hour round trip. It was the most awesome theater I have ever been in. Years later I went back to find it and on 38th and Pendleton Pike and it was sort of hard to find. Most of the parking lot had been cordoned off by a huge fence fo the new Menards. It was sad to see the Eastwood no longer in operation, but I am glad I got to experience it at the peak of it's hey-day. It remains the most wonderful theater I have ever been in.