“Coming ToYour Galaxy This Summer,” blared the lobby posters like a John Williams trumpet cue.
It was early 1977, and anticipation for a curious coming attraction called “Star Wars” was building slowly but steadily. Twentieth Century Fox wasn’t sure quite what it had on it hands – this effects-heavy space serial by young George Lucas was so unlike anything Hollywood had seen before. Plus, after private screenings in January and February of that year, some studio execs and fellow directors saw flaws, and openly questioned whether the film – then still in a rough state – could succeed.
Two men, though, were early believers. “I loved it because I loved the story and characters. I was probably the only one (in the room) who liked it, and I told George how much I loved it,” recounted Steven Spielberg of a screening for a handful of Lucas friends, as quoted in “George Lucas: A Life,” last year’s biography by Brian Jay Jones.
And one month earlier, during a screening for a few studio suits, Fox executive Gareth Wigan “wept with joy,” Jones writes. Wigan told his wife that night: “The most extraordinary day of my life has just taken place.”
Thursday marks the 40th anniversary since “Star Wars” landed in the pop-culture galaxy, forever altering film history in countless ways – especially given how the movie served as a launch pad for so many Lucas-related cinematic and technological innovations.
Yet prior to May of 1977, even the studio was hedging its bets.
First there was the matter of the release date. Initially slated for weeks later, “Star Wars” was moved up to May 25 to avoid being gobbled up by the glut of midsummer movies.
Then there was the strategy over location, location, location. Last year, for comparison’s sake, the eighth Star Wars feature film in the franchise, “Rogue One,” opened on more than 4,000 screens. On May 25, 1977, though, “Star Wars” – which would only later add “Episode IV” to its title – opened on fewer than 40 screens, all carefully selected by Fox.
One of those theaters was the Avco Center Cinema in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, where lines formed by morning and all seven opening-day shows sold out.
It was at the Avco that summer that actor-writer Greg Grunberg would see the film – four decades before he would appear in a Star Wars film (“Episode VII”) himself. “I saw it several times” there, Grunberg tells The Washington Post, “and loved it every single time.”
Meanwhile, across the country, another one of Fox’s chosen few opening-day screens was the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. There, the lines “wound into surrounding neighborhoods, angering residents who found the air thick with pot smoke and their yards strewn with beer cans,” writes Jones, the Lucas biographer. One neighbor called the “Star Wars” lineup “an invasion.”
Filmmaker David Silverman was a 20-year-old animation student at the time, transferring to UCLA after two years at the University of Maryland. He vividly remembers the impression the original “Star Wars” film made on him that summer.
“I went with a group of friends, and we sat in the balcony at the Uptown, right in the center,” says Silverman, a veteran writer-producer on “The Simpsons.”
“The first thing that struck me was the music – that opening theme by John Williams. It was so grand. I was into symphonic film scores anyway,” continues Silverman, who 30 summers later would direct “The Simpsons Movie.”
“Then there was the Star Destroyer overhead – the length of that shot,” he says. “I’d never seen effects like that before, except maybe in ‘2001,’ but that was so austere.” (Coincidentally, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” had its world premiere at the Uptown Theater, in 1968.)
Silverman had seen a trailer for “Star Wars” at the Uptown months earlier, he notes – before a screening of “Network” – and had been particularly unimpressed. “The trailer looked cheap and the editing was still choppy,” he says – so he was especially unprepared for how thrilled he was by the final product.
Silverman, whose “Simpsons” (now celebrating its characters’ 30th anniversary) has memorably spoofed the “Star Wars” franchise, also remembers appreciating the original film’s sense of frisky joy.
“‘Star Wars’ was a lark. I thought it was like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – Luke and Leia were Dorothy, C-3PO was the Tin Man, Harrison Ford was the Scarecrow and Chewbacca was the Lion,” he says. “It took Spielberg and Lucas to help bring the fun to a decade of serious movies like ‘The Conversation.’”
“I felt like I’d seen a game-changer,” Silverman adds. “I remember being excited that I was going off to UCLA – ‘Star Wars’ made it seem like something exciting (in filmmaking) was going on out West.”
Another child of the East Coast who relished “Star Wars” in 1977 was Tom Angleberger, who today is the bestselling author of the “Origami Yoda” series.
“I was 6 and saw it in Blacksburg, Virginia,” Angleberger says. ” I remember watching the trash-compactor scene and having no idea what was going on. In fact, I don’t think I understood much. Luckily, I got got to see it twice more and got it all sorted out.
“And then the Star Wars toy mania set in!” the author continues. “Star Wars really defined my childhood – and my adulthood, for that matter – but it was a little while before the toys really got cranking and I got my beloved cassette tape of Roscoe Lee Brown narrating the story.”
For Grunberg, too, “Star Wars” has had a profound impact on his life – particularly when J.J. Abrams, his friend since age 5, directed 2015’s “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” Four decades after Grunberg went to the Avco Center Cinema that magical summer, the echoes continue.
“When we shot ‘Episode VII,’ the production call sheet read, ‘AVCO’ as the fake production name because it was such a top-secret project,” the actor and “Dream Jumper” graphic novelist says.
“I thought it was so cool that they used the name of the theater where it premiered when I was a kid.”