If you had told me as I stood in line with my dad to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977 that I would take my own son to see the seventh installment of the franchise thirty-eight years later, I would have said you were crazy. There was no such thing as a franchise series in 1977. Sequels were rare, and movies almost never continued beyond a second installment. It was that realization today, as I prepared to take my family to Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, that got me thinking about how much has changed in the moviegoing experience since that day in the summer of ‘77.
Oak Park Theater in Minot is just a vacant relic now, has been for years, but I remember it as crackling with electricity on those summer nights in 1977. The Empire Theater was the premier theater back then, a grand old movie palace with a huge screen, a red velvet curtain, and a balcony, but Star Wars was not expected to be a hit, so it was initially relegated to the secondary theater in Oak Park, which then became the place to be.
I stood in a line half-a-mile long with my dad to see the movie on a Friday night. That doesn’t happen today, because you can buy your tickets online, in advance (and if you’re smart, that’s how you do it); no waiting in line. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, sold out before we got within a football field of the ticket window, though. My mom had dropped us off at Oak Park Theater with plans to pick us up after the show, so we didn’t have a ride when we found out the show was sold out. My dad used a payphone to call my uncle Ray to come pick us up, and we returned the next night.
I partly remember standing in line with my dad at Oak Park Theater for a less-than-pleasant reason. Likely due to the short attention-span I had as a seven-year-old boy, I accidentally bumped against my dad, who was holding a cigarette in his hand, and burned my arm. At a time when you could smoke almost everywhere–in hospital waiting rooms, in supermarkets–this was one area where going to the movies was the same as it is today. It was against the rules to smoke in most movie theaters, albeit due to fire risk concerns as versus secondhand smoke. So my dad, like most smokers, had to get his fix before going into the screening.
We made it to the ticket window that second night; a tiny booth right off the sidewalk with a small circular hole in the glass. Today the ticket booths are inside, but back then you stood in line outside, in whatever weather, and purchased your tickets before entering. My dad said something like “One adult and one child,” when it was time to pay for our tickets, but he didn’t say “to Star Wars,” because there was only one screen, only one movie showing, and the cashier knew what movie you were attending. The multiplex was still a few years away in small-town America at that time. Dad paid cash because you couldn’t swipe your card.
We entered the theater and got in line for concessions. Today, the movie theater lobbies are crowded with ATM machines and ticket kiosks where you can pick up your pre-purchased tickets without even dealing with a live person. Cardboard standees the size of dump trucks depict coming attractions in every corner. Back then, it was just bench seating and snacks in the lobby.
The concession counter was a glass-topped showcase of the delicious in 1977, with a printed overhead menu board. It’s a far cry from the flatscreen video menus we have today with snack combos you can order by number, and loyalty programs that earn you points for every dollar you spend. Although you can have pizza or mini donuts or a variety of other treats in the movies today, I would give anything to have some of the goodies of my youth back in the case. I’ve noticed you can still get Sno-Caps, Milk Duds, and Junior Mints, but I’d love to snarf a Slo Poke, some Boston Baked Beans, Sugar Babies, or any number of other things. I will say, I do love the self-service soda fountains we have at the theater now. I mean, if we have to pay for a fifty-five gallon drum of soda, I want my fifty-five gallons.
When it was time to take our seats for Star Wars in 1977, we chose where we wanted to sit based on availability and how early we arrived. The center block of seats in Oak Park Theater, between the two aisles, seemed like it was fifty seats wide to me. You were smart to pee before you sat down, because if you were sitting in the middle, it meant stepping on a lot of toes to get out during the movie. Sorry. Sorry. Excuse me. Oh! So sorry about that.
When I took my family to Episode VII today, we had reserved seating. A video board in the hallway outside the theater showed which seats had been purchased and which were available, and our seats were overstuffed, red leather recliners. As much as I like the old days, I’ll take the recliner seating over a stadium seat, with a six-year-old kicking the back of my chair for the whole movie, any day.
There are so many differences, but for me, the magic of seeing a movie with your family has not changed. The beauty of a fantastic movie (and Episode VII is fantastic), on the big screen, has not diminished. As the lights went down and the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on the screen, a hush fell over the crowd. You could have heard a pin drop. John Williams’ incredible Star Wars fanfare blasted from the digital sound system as the logo appeared on the screen, and my son bounced in his seat and high-fived me. My wife said he grabbed her arm and squeezed so hard she thought he would leave a bruise. That is what it’s all about.
I won’t give you any spoilers in this post, but I will tell you this: The Force Awakens thrilled my son, deeply impacted my wife, and left me surprised. I was not ready to feel the things I did. I did not realize how emotionally invested I was in the characters of The Star Wars universe, and if you’re a Star Wars fan from my generation, you’ll know what I mean when you’ve seen it in a magical place called the theater.