What You Take With You: Return of the Jedi – Opening Night ’83 (Part 2)

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Image: John Booth
Image: John Booth

Editor’s note: This is part two of an edited version of the chapter “What You Take With You,” from John’s book Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek. Part one appeared on GeekDad yesterday in anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the release of Star War Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which hit theaters May 25, 1983. As this post opens, 12-year-old John and his family are at Mellett Mall, three hours before showtime on opening night.

No advance ticket sales here, this was good old-fashioned get in line, 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 some 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 Canton for another few years.) It felt neat, being 12 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.

Then we held the spot in line when Mom and Dad took my little 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 lightsaber 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.

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 disappointed.

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’ve never seen that happen at any other movie screening.

That’s my favorite movie scene ever. Even three decades 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 hot dogs and Orange Julius and popcorn and Coke and then my throat and guts do a Jell-O shiver 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.

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2 thoughts on “What You Take With You: Return of the Jedi – Opening Night ’83 (Part 2)

  1. Fantastic! Here is my account of that magical day:

    May 25th, 1983, thirty years ago today, was a day I’d literally waited years for; the conclusion of the Star Wars trilogy was at hand. I’d made Mom promise to take me to see the film on opening day, even if that meant traveling 40 miles to Lacrosse, Wisconsin to see it. Winona wasn’t getting the movie during its first week, so LaCrosse it was.

    Though I’d read the Return of the Jedi storybook, which contained most of the plot details a few days before, seeing the return of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and company was going to be a rousing way to bring in the summer.

    Mom took all five of us kids along. As we took the river road from Winona to Lacrosse, DeBarge’s “All This Love” played. I asked Mom if she could stop at ShopKo when we got to town so that I could buy the “Jedi” soundtrack on cassette. As I purchased it, the cashier asked if I’d seen the movie yet. I said I hadn’t, but that we were heading to the 7pm show.

    Next, we went to Wendy’s for a bite. This was when Wendy’s tables were filled with advertisements for various products from the 1920’s and 1930’s. This fit in with their old-fashioned burger theme. I got a kick out of those ads.

    Next we headed to the Hollywood, a theatre that seated a thousand. This was back in the old days where you waited outside and the line could go for blocks. We’d experienced a similar circumstance the summer before in Waterloo, Iowa, while waiting for a sneak preview of “E.T.” A gentleman who worked nearby came by and said that he’d seen the movie earlier in the day and that it was a winner.

    Once we were let in, I was pleased to see various “Jedi” memorabilia for sale. I purchased three small buttons and the Jedi Official Collector’s Edition. Not wanting my experience to be compromised in any way if I could help it, I sat a good ten rows in front of my family, nearer to the screen. You know how kids can be. All these other souls were seeing the movie unsullied while I’d practically already seen it.

    One surprise was when the film cut out when Luke and Leia were talking on the forest moon of Endor. There were some titters, but it turned out that the break was intentional. There was to be an intermission, something I don’t really recall having experienced before. I’m sure this helped with concession sales as people who’d been too into the movie could take the opportunity to get some more goodies. During the break, I looked back at my family. I noticed something on the floor and picked it up, a can of Pepsi. Just then, an usher came by and asked if it was mine. I said that it wasn’t and dropped it to the floor.

    I took the last few minutes before the movie started again to look at the Official Collector’s Edition that I’d purchased. It gave a plot rundown of the early parts of the film, but stopped at just over the halfway point. Good idea, I thought, so that no one could accidentally get spoiled on some of the later plot points.

    That last hour was full of action and pathos. I was moved by the funeral pyre Luke made for his father. Just as my childhood was ending, so too, was Vader going off into the nether. Though I did not know it, that night was one of the last joyful ones I would experience before heading toward an uncertain future.

    1. Thomas –

      Very cool story, especially the unexpected intermission! (Hardly seems a long enough movie for that, but you’re probably right about it boosting concession sales.) I also remember those Wendy’s tables, and I still have my RotJ “Official Collectors Edition” – as you can see up there in the photo. 🙂

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