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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The release of Star Wars: You never forget your first time

At last: Ads like this announced the long-awaited 
opening of Star Wars in the UK regions

I don't suppose anyone has ever forgotten the first time they saw Star Wars.

My first viewing was one Saturday in what was then the Gaumont cinema in Bournemouth, England. It opened there on February 9 1978.

By that time, we had been hearing for about eight months about this science fiction movie that had conquered America's box office.

The last few weeks of waiting to see the movie had been agony.

In our family, my uncle had been given the task of taking four children to see it, but it had been decided that we would leave it a while – until the lines for the film got smaller. Personally, I would have gladly joined one of the blockbusting queues we had seen on the news.
An ad for the first showings
of Star Wars in Bournemouth, February 9 1978

Finally, one Saturday afternoon, we stood in line at the Gaumont. In an unprecedented move, both the big auditoriums there had been given over to the same film. The waiting seemed to go on forever, but I stood there patiently looking at the lobby cards posted in glass cases outside the cinema, with their images of Tusken raiders, Princess Leia,

C-3PO and the Rebel spaceship hangar, as we waited for the box office to open.

I've long ago forgotten what the supporting film was that day. (These were the days when every film shown in the UK was preceded by a usually dreadful 20-minute documentary or travelogue.) What I do remember is that the Gaumont plainly wasn't used to dealing with full houses, because there were still plenty of people queuing at the side of the cinema for ice cream when the lights dimmed and the Twentieth Century-Fox searchlights appeared on the screen.

I'd not seen the Fox logo and heard Alfred Newman's Fox fanfare in the cinema before, only on television. It was a familiar, old-fashioned image which seemed suddenly new and striking on a big screen – the perfect curtain raiser to what was to follow.

I remember registering surprise that the film's opening title music was not the version I had on a record at home. (Meco's Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band single had been in the British charts for a while.) That surprise over, I settled down for a life-changing movie experience.

I had never before seen anything as intensely exciting as this film. The sheer exoticism of the galaxy George Lucas created – its aliens, its scenery, its robots – was unlike anything depicted on screen before.

The key elements of the story could have come from a hundred different adventure yarns – the mission to rescue a princess, the journey into the enemy base in disguise – but they were made fresh and new in a movie that looked and sounded like nothing else I had experienced.

Yet there was an emotional resonance to the film too. What boy could fail to relate to Luke Skywalker, the loyal young farmhand who yearns for adventure? Who wouldn't want a big brother figure like Han Solo, the gun-slinging rogue who was always going to turn out to have a heart of gold?

About 90 minutes into the film, the heroes had rescued the princess and fought their way out of the Death Star. I remember thinking to myself: That was a great movie. If only it could go on a little longer. In my excitement, I'd forgotten that the Rebels still had to deal with the small matter of destroying the Death Star. We were heading for 20 of the most exciting minutes in film history.

After we came out of the cinema that afternoon, the ordinary world seemed unreal and sort of smaller. We had spent the afternoon in another universe. I knew that I'd had a profound experience. I probably had no idea I'd still be going on about it thirty-five years later.

What are your memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time? Where and when did you see it, and with whom, and what do you remember about the day? I'd love to hear your memories. Please comment below.


Gary Dalkin said...

I saw Star Wars the day it opened in Gaumont 2 in Bournemouth. School got in the way of seeing the first showings, and I'm sure nothing that happened at school that day was as important or memorable. So I saw the 5.15 performance.

Like you I can't recall what the supporting show consisted of, but I'm sure it was dreadful. Those were the days when not everyone felt the need to see a film the day it opened, so there were probably only around 50 people in that 1114 seat auditorium. I saw it with my dad. One of the last films I ever saw with him. We both loved it. The moment the star destroyer appeared and seemed to come from behind us and over... amazing. The whole experience, and it was an experience, was astonishing. I already knew that as a 15 year old I should have been too old for it, that really it was a children's film. But it was just so thrilling and brilliantly done that I was swept along. I even knew it wasn't 'real science fiction, because that was stuff like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was still wonderful. I saw it four more times that year, and six more the year after... It can't have been too bad.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Gary. How weird that the cinema was nearly empty on that first afternoon, after all the months of publicity. I'm guessing things would have been very different at the evening performances, and certainly at the weekend.

john white said...

My dad brought me to the matinee in a small cinema in the local town in Ireland around Xmas '77. It was the first time I was to go into a film on my own. I was only 9.

As I queued outside with dad, I tried to get him to go in but he said he'd prefer to save the 50p and wait until it came on TV! He went for a walk. By the time I emerged I must have been a changed child.

I probably raved about it all the way home. When I got there, I grabbed pencils and paper, and started drawing right on the sitting room floor. Probably trying to record as much of what I'd seen as accurately as possible! Here it is:


john white said...

Oh, the supporting feature was about - of all things - the Shah of Iran! Lots of parades, tanks, missiles. So I was happy. I seem to remember that it was a flattering documentary as if they were showing us the royal family of Monacco or something!

Darren Slade said...

Thanks John. Interesting that the film came to Ireland so early -- even the big provincial towns in the UK didn't see it until January or February '78.
I think your Star Wars Age 9 site brilliantly captures what it was like to be obsessed with Star Wars in those days, and to try and reconstruct it from the various sources that were available (the comics, novels, records etc). Of course, most of us just reconstructed it in our imaginations, whereas you drew it, which must have been quite a labour of love. Thank God you kept it!

Darren Slade said...

The Shah of Iran ... that's truly bizarre!
I had a vague idea that the support film I saw was a documentary about kids on scramble bikes, but it's possible that was the support film to something else.

johnnyivan said...

I swear to god they kept calling him the Shah-an-Shah. I'd no idea who he was at that age.

johnnyivan said...

It's just occurred to me that there's something mythological even in the very fact that it was passed on by word of mouth - fragments pieced together from various pieces of 'evidence'. Almost biblical in a way.

There's a much to be said for an experience or work of art which lives on an grows and grows in the imagination long after.

Gloops said...

Great article, Darren. As someone who also saw STAR WARS for the very first time in Gaumont 2 in Bournemouth back in '78, it brought back a lot of memories!

I remember that the much smaller Galaxy Cinema in Westover Road showed STAR WARS later that year. I clearly remember my mum taking us kids to see it again and her grumbling about how it was a pound - a whole £1 - a ticket there!

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for the comment Gloops. Great to hear from someone who saw it on the same screen as me.
I conducted a concerted campaign to be taken to see Star Wars a second time when it came to the Galaxy, but it didn't happen. I remember at one point the family were considering seeing Smoky and the Bandit, but I was still lobbying in vain for another viewing of Star Wars.
People I knew used to deride the Galaxy as a flea-pit, but when I finally saw films there years later, I thought it was OK.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Andy. Apologies that I didn't notice your comment before. Yes, those dates are right -- I went through the papers week by week to check! The West End of London got it on December 27 1977, but everywhere in the UK had to wait until it started rolling out to the regions in January.
Ah, the excitement of having a film so big that it played on both screens!

Anonymous said...

Saw it in the Gaumont Bournemouth - I think it had been open a few days. Went with my mum after school. I was 7. We got there a bit late - missed the crawl and the star destroyer appearing - got in just as Darth Vader was appearing. Sat totally engrossed for the next two hours. Those were the days of continuous performances, so my memory of it is that we just stayed in the cinema until the next showing started so we could see the very start again. Went again a couple of weeks later, and then saw it at the Tivoli Wimborne on its rerelease, I think.

Gary Dalkin said...

I realise now that when I saw Star Wars on opening day it wasn't the 5.15 performance, because from the advert its clear that was in the smaller Gaumont 1, and there was no way we were going to watch it on such a 'small' screen when, if we waited we could see it on the truly vast screen in Gaumont 2. So we must have seen the 7.30pm performance. Which makes it even stranger that so few people were there.

As for the showings at the Galaxy ... Star Wars played for three months at the Gaumont, then disappeared for two months. It reappeared sometime in July 1978, this time at the Galaxy, where it ran for seven months continuously, three showings a day. I saw it four more times while it was there.

I don't think The Galaxy was so much of a fleapit as it was small. You could comfortably sit on the front row to get a good sized image filling your field of vision. It did seem a massive come down from the majestic Gaumont 2.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Anonymous and Gary. Of course, that kind of cinema run is unimaginable today. The Force Awakens seems like it's been playing a long time -- and it certainly has by today's standards -- but it's not even been three months, and by four months it'll be on DVD and Blu-ray.

steve said...

I remember being existing to see it that summer of 1977. My cousins had already seen it and were instantly fans. I remember my cousin Kevin telling me things about it. We must've saw it in August I'm guessing. I remember it was in a shore town called Brick, NJ not far from where we had a summer bungalow. I really don't remember much beyond that. I do know I was instantly a fan as well. I think I had a shirt before I had even seen it. But the thing I remember most after that is that nearly every time my family went to the movies they would go see whatever the latest movie was and I would always go see Star Wars again. Yup, I was one of "those" kids. Even though all the rereleases. I'm sure I saw it 15 times in the theaters. Which I know doesn't sound like a lot compared to some of those kids. But when you think about it, that's a lot of times eyeing the same movie in the theaters.