I was in high school in May 1980 as the release of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back loomed. I had been a hardcore part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor since my mother took me to see Star Wars on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1977. Watching the events of a long time ago unfold on the big screen blew me away (Sorry, Alderaan). I became a fanatic. I bought the action figures, comic books, and pretended to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra as the incredible soundtrack thundered in my room. Now, I counted down the days to return to that glorious galaxy far, far away. My plan for enjoying Empire with my friends to the fullest involved three simple steps; seeing it the first Saturday, being the first on line, and staying all day.
May 24, 1980 dawned as a clear, comfortable Long Island morning. My viewing destination was the Loews Theater, adjacent to Nassau Mall, my go-to spot for buying comic books at Heroes World and playing Joust and Defender at the arcade. My mother dropped me off 3 ½ hours before the first show. There was no one else on line. Perfect. Everything was going according to plan. However, I sensed a disturbance in the Force as I approached the theater doors, for on the concrete, where I was going to stand, being first on line, was a brown paper bag containing soda and snacks; the recognized symbol of a saved spot. There was no one around, except for one guy with his head under the hood of his car in the middle of the empty parking lot.
“Hey!” I yelled, “Are you on line for Empire?”
“Yeah, I’m first!” he replied.
Three and a half hours early and I was second? It turns out this guy arrived 4 ½ hours early and was using the time to change his oil and work on his car. I wasn’t angry or disappointed. To be honest, I actually thought it was cool he was putting the time to good use. I had not planned anything as productive. I didn’t bring a book, and cell phones and tablets existed only in science fiction. So I stood there, second on line, and pondered the latest campaign in our Dungeons & Dragons game, thought about the girl I liked but was too anxious to ask out, and wondered when my friends would arrive.
A long black limousine pulled up to the front of the theater during this time. The tinted rear window lowered, revealing several Japanese men in suits. One asked me if I was seeing Star Wars. To which I replied, “Yes.” He asked if I knew how it was doing. I told him the lines have been around the theater since opening day. He relayed this information in Japanese to the others. They spoke back and forth for a few seconds, then thanked me and drove off.
Car Guy finished shortly thereafter and took his place at the head of our line of two. I told him about the limo and he figured maybe they were thinking of buying the Lowes theater chain. There was a lot of talk of the Japanese buying everything back then.
My friends showed up an hour or so later, and then other people started arriving. The line grew fast. As the fated hour approached and our excitement reached its zenith, the theater doors opened to great fan fare, and a gentlemen in a shirt and tie stepped out. This was the theater manager and he declared in a loud voice, “There will be no repeat viewings for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back! If you want to see it more than once, you have to buy another ticket!” He also announced the theater will be emptied between shows, and no one will be allowed in fifteen minutes after the movie started.
I was devastated. My plan was to see Empire over and over until it soaked into every nerve cell of my brain. How can I see it only once? I had to think of something, but I didn’t have time as the doors opened and we headed inside. My friends and I didn’t bother with the snack bar. Instead, we shot straight to pick out the best seats to get the full field-of-vision screen effect and best sound, mid-theater and back a bit from center. I am not going to talk about the movie. It was Empire. It was awesome. However, as the end theme soared, and the credits rolled, and the lights came back on, I knew a moment of truth was approaching as certainly as the usher.
We decided to stay in our seats and just play it cool. When the usher said we had to leave, I replied, “Oh, we just missed the first ten minutes. We just want to stay to see the beginning.” She didn’t bat an unimpressed eyelash, “No. Everyone has to leave the theater. You have to go.” Feeling the icy grip of defeat like a wampa’s paw around our hearts, we walked out of the theater and down the hallway, past the roped off line of people waiting for the next show. They all looked so happy.
The manager stood at the point where the hall emptied into the lobby, watching everyone come and go from the theaters. There were a lot of people to watch. In that moment, I hatched a plan, so crazy, so improbable, it just might work. I told my friends, “Stay Follow me.”
I put on my more sincere smile, and like Han flying into the asteroid field, I walked right up the manager, and in my most respectful voice asked, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where the line for The Empire Strikes Back is?”
Without even looking at me, he pointed to the side and said, “The line ends right over there.”
“Thank you very much, sir,”
We quietly freaked out as we joined the line, and followed it past the manager, and into the theater for our second viewing. We didn’t see him around when we existed again, but played it safe with a different tactic. We went to the Men’s Room, spent a little extra time in the stalls, then strolled over to the far end of the snack bar for treats, and got back on line.
We went home after the third show, but returned again on Sunday. Monday in school, whenever anyone asked me, “Did you see Empire over the weekend?” I responded with a triumphant, “Yep. Five times!”
My friends and I saw Empire another three times the following weekend and then sporadically. I have seen many movies before and since that day, and while some of those experiences were memorable, nothing comes close to the adventure of seeing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back that Saturday morning forty years ago.
It will live with me forever.
Thanks for dropping in to Deep In the Keep and may the Force be with you, always.