Hot Dogs, Orange Julius, and Jedi
Best. Opening Night. Ever.

May 2007 marked thirty years since the original theatrical release of Star Wars. In May 2008, Return of the Jedi reaches the quarter-century mark. John Booth, who at age six converted his thumbs and index fingers from cowboy shooters to Han Solo-inspired blasters, is raking together his memories of the saga in a series of essays for Field's Edge.The series begins here.

My movie-going experiences peaked when I was twelve years old.

Notice that I’m not saying that when my mom and dad and brothers and my friend Mike S. and I went to Return of the Jedi on opening night that I saw the best movie ever. (Although if you’d asked me right after, I’d have probably said just that.)

What I’m saying is that as an overall movie-going experience (scored using a formula of three years of anticipation plus best friend coming along plus pre-movie meal and line-waiting in the mall plus insanely-excited crowd multiplied by being a pre-teen Star Wars nutcase), seeing Jedi on May 25, 1983 makes an awfully damn convincing case for my top spot.

First of all, you’ve got to remember the build-up: Three interminably long years before, we’d all staggered out of theaters having been slapped with the most insane cliffhanger ever – Han Solo frozen and Luke wondering if Darth Vader’s his dad.

In the meantime, I’d filled the gaps as best I could: Between 1980 and 1983 is when I read the first two of Brian Daley’s Star Wars novels, “Han Solo’s Revenge” and “Han Solo at Stars’ End.” I read them in the wrong order, and for some reason, I don’t think I read “Han Solo and the Lost Legacy” until several years later.

There was also “The Jedi Master’s Quizbook,” which came out in 1982. I learned about it when they profiled the then-11-year-old author on the TV show “That’s Incredible.” A couple days after it aired, Dad took me to the Waldenbooks at Belden Village and I remember feeling silly asking the clerk if they had the book, like they would immediately know that I had just seen it on television. (I also remember thinking some of the trivia questions in the book weren’t exactly fair, like the ones that asked when all the Star Wars’ actors’ birthdays were.)

It was a long three years between movies, and a lot went on between third and sixth grade, mostly forming a John Hughes-worthy blueprint for dorkdom: I got glasses, watched my best friend move away, learned to play the clarinet (never very well, though), wrote my first long story (15 pages! With pictures!), finally read all the way through “The Lord of the Rings,” started noticing girls for real, started being ignored by girls for real, and made it to a regional spelling bee.

In a weird way, I now kind of realize that having been the perfect age – six – when Star Wars came out, I was also at the perfect age for the saga to be closing. By spring of sixth grade, I was pretty much too old for Kenner’s toys (with the exception of my Y-Wing, I think all the old Jedi toys I have originally belonged to my little brothers), and I was already nerdy enough without keeping up a teenage Star Wars fan-face in the social meat-grinder of junior high.

At the same time, though, I was still a twelve-year-old boy, so lightsabers and spaceships and stormtroopers remained fun ideas, and if you’re going to put Princess Leia in a metal bikini, again: Perfect age for it.

I don’t remember what movie I went to see at the Gold Circle Cinemas the night I first saw the Return of the Jedi trailer. Heck, I can’t even honestly remember if I saw the fabled original Revenge of the Jedi  version. I do remember telling all my friends about it (we were almost all still Star Wars fans on some level, though I feel confident in saying nobody had it as bad as I did), and specifically talking about the shot of Chewbacca picking up a stormtrooper and throwing him backwards into another trooper, which seemed to me the very definition of awesome.

So it’s late May, 1983, and Jedi is set to open.

On a freaking Wednesday night.

Arggh! That’s a school night, George! What are you thinking?! I can’t go to see a movie on a school night! You’re killing me!

Did I ask my parents a few days beforehand? I honestly don’t know. If I did, they hadn’t given me a concrete answer, because otherwise I’d remember bragging at school about going.

Opening day, I got home from school around 3:30, and the pestering began. “Can we, Mom? Dad? Please? Can Mike – this would be Mike S. – come along if we go? CanweCanweCanwe?”

Sweet God, they said yes. Mom, Dad, my little brothers Nick and Adam and I piled into our Ford conversion van, drove up to Hartville and picked up Mike and then headed down to Canton to Mellett Mall.

I seem to think we got to the mall around 5 oclock for something like an 8 oclock showing.

Pulling into the parking lot, nothing was seemed out of the ordinary. Mellett Mall’s Twin Cinemas’ only entrance was from inside the shopping center, so the giant movie marquee outside hung on a big plain brown brick wall. No flashing lights, no mass of fans gathering in front of the theater. Just “Return of the Jedi” in big plastic letters. Remembering what it was like to see that sign still tightens my chest a little bit.

When we went inside it was quickly clear this was not an ordinary night at the movies. A line, two and three people wide, led from the theatre’s entrance out past the novelty T-shirt shop next door, past Casual Corner and the Little Professor Bookstore and on down the concourse toward Montgomery Ward. I'd never seen a line like this outside of Cedar Point or Disney World.

And there was an energy to it.

This was 25 years ago, and as far as I can remember, this was before costuming for movie premieres was something people did, so it's not like when the prequels came out and you could count on seeing a dozen Jedi and twice as many stormtroopers and maybe a Boba Fett or four hanging around and comparing stitching patterns and authenticity of lightsaber grips. Nope - just a crowd of people in a long line, everybody talking and excited and ready to find out how this whole thing was going to end up. (Did we know it was going to be the wrap-up to the saga? I can't imagine otherwise, but then, I can't exactly recall thinking that I was going to see the last Star Wars movie ever, either. I mean, there were nine or twelve chapters, right?)

So, here we were. Hyper. Frantic. Psyched.

And facing a three-hour wait until showtime.

That's right - no advance ticket sales here, people, no weeks-ahead-of-time point-and-click buying the ducats and just picking them up on opening night. Noooooooo, nonono - this was good old-fashioned get-in-line buddy, tickets go on sale maybe an hour, tops, before a showing, wait your turn and have a friend hold your spot if you have to pee.

Mom, Dad, Nick, Adam, Mike and I parked ourselves at the end. People piled in behind us pretty steadily, so we weren't at the end long. Mike and I ran up to the front of the line to look at the movie posters and the accompanying photos in their lit-up glass frame, pointing and wondering and yammering about how cool this was and how great it was to be there.

We ate dinner in two shifts: Clutching money from Mom and Dad, we ran down to the hot dog shop – it might have been called “Carousel” – and the Orange Julius next door. (That was, I’m pretty sure, all the food choices Mellett Mall had to offer. Food courts wouldn’t reach Stark County, Ohio for another few years.)  It felt neat, being twelve years old and kind of on our own. Sure, my family was right down the mall, but these were pre-cell-phone days, and there was a sort of freedom in the air as we ordered our own food, found a place to sit, talking and joking while we ate (what else?) our hot dogs and Orange Julius.

Then we held the spot in line when Mom and Dad took my brothers for dinner.

It’s funny how much of the next few hours I don’t remember from that May evening in 1983.

I don’t remember the line eventually creeping forward, or the moment our tickets came spitting up through the little slot in the counter, or finding our seats, or the lights going down, or the previews.

I don’t remember the tense anticipation brought on by the 20th Century Fox fanfare or the chills on the back of my neck at the blast of sound when the Star Wars logo slammed onto the screen.

What I really remember is a feeling.

I’ve never seen a movie in an atmosphere like that again. Packed houses on opening nights with hardcore fans, sure, but never again like this one.

We were there.

All of us were there in the Tatooine desert, screaming and whooping when Artoo launched Luke’s saber through the hot, wavering air. We were in the cramped, firelit hut when Yoda confirmed Vader’s secret. Yes, we even joined the Ewoks’ battle cries, feeling the ground shake under the thundering fall of an Imperial Scout Walker.

(Digression: Remember the final duel, when Luke lets his anger get the best of him, and he just wails on Vader and then cuts his hand off, and then looks at his own black-gloved hand with the realization of what he could become? I’d forgotten that he’d put that glove on after getting shot in the hand, and I remember thinking somehow that Vader’s limb had actually grown onto Luke’s arm, an actual physical transformation instead of the metaphor that was suggested. Anyway…)

God, I was so excited to go to school the next day, because this time, it was me who’d gotten to go see the next Star Wars movie first, and I couldn’t wait to talk about it and see if anyone else had been to opening night. Funny thing is, nobody had. Not only that, nobody seemed as caught up in the whole thing, at least not the way they’d been a couple years before about Empire. Guess that’s what three years, especially those between third and sixth grade, will do.

Somewhere in the years after Jedi, it became cool to sell the movie short, mostly because of the Ewoks, but also because of the whole Luke/Leia-brother/sister coincidence, and the flip dialogue and the re-hashing of the Death Star battle. And even though a lot of us first-generation fans recognize those things, I’d bet very few of us felt that way right after seeing it. Weakest of the original trilogy? No doubt – but I don’t remember a single person coming out of that theater saying the Ewoks sucked or that they felt ripped off or that Lucas had gotten lazy.

Because what I remember most vividly about that night is the moment of triumph when Vader is turned at the last, swooping the Emperor up in those armored arms as John Williams’ score assaulted our ears. A wave of awestruck adrenaline rushed through the theater, and the audience actually stood in unison and cheered, caught up in the climax. I’d never seen that happen before, and Ive never seen it happen since.

That’s my favorite movie scene ever. Even a quarter-century and a thousand watches later, it still manages to spark whatever cells hold the faintly-vibrating echoes of that night. For the shortest of blinks, things around me go dark, and I taste popcorn and hot dogs and Coke and my throat and guts get tight and Mom and Dad and Nick and Adam and Mike are there beside me and we’re in a crowd that’s wide-eyed and applauding and grinning in the movie screen’s flicker.

It always passes more quickly than I hope, but as long as those seconds still happen, somewhere I still get to be twelve.

Here are the links to the rest of Remembering Star Wars:

Part I: Summer, 1977
Part II: The Droids We Were Looking For

Part III: Perfect Hibernation
Part IV: Into A Larger World
Part V: Collect All 21!
Part VI: A Certain Point of View
Part VII: A Pack-A-Day Habit

Part VIII: Size Matters Not
Part IX: Along A Different Path
Part X: There is Another
Part XI: Bounty Hunting

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