What You Take With You: Return of the Jedi – Opening Night ’83

Return of the Jedi trailer image via YouTube.com/StarWars

Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of the chapter “What You Take With You,” from John’s book Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek. It has been adapted into a two-part post for GeekDad in anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which hit theaters May 25, 1983.

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

Notice I’m not saying that when my mom and dad and brothers and my friend Mike 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 it was.)

I’m just saying that as an overall movie-going experience, seeing Jedi on May 25, 1983 makes an awfully damn convincing case for my top spot. (This is scored using a complicated 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.)

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 in carbonite and Luke wondering if Darth Vader’s his dad.

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 a shot of Chewbacca picking up a stormtrooper and throwing him backwards into another trooper, which seemed to me the very definition of “awesome.”

So now 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.

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

And 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 o’clock for something like an 8 o’clock showing.

Pulling into the parking lot, nothing 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, all-capital 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 theater’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. Not the kind like we saw in the prequel era, when people came out in costumes and you’d see fully-armored Stormtroopers and robed Jedi and maybe a Boba Fett or four, but just an anticipatory thrill, everybody talking and excited and ready to find out how this whole thing was going to end up.

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

And facing a three-hour wait until showtime.

Look for part two of this post tomorrow on GeekDad. Collect All 21! is available in paperback and in an Expanded Electronic Edition.

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