I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, the weird wonderland of Star Wars mania in 1977/78.
You couldn’t be blamed these days for being a little tired of seeing Star Wars everywhere. If there’s a flat surface or article of clothing with room on it, Disney has made sure the words “Star Wars” appear on it in some fashion. If The Force Awakens doesn’t set box office records, it sure won’t be from lack of awareness. Even I, an unabashed Star Wars fan, had to roll my eyes a bit when I saw a box of cereal with the Trix rabbit dressed up as Princess Leia. It can seem a little overwhelming.
But even this onslaught doesn’t feel the same as the mad rush in the wake of the original film’s release in the summer of 1977. Even with one-tenth of the media channels we have now, it felt like you couldn’t turn around without spotting some kind of Star Wars reference. The difference though was back then, it felt less like ubiquitous marketing campaign and more like fervent love affair. We didn’t roll our eyes at it. We lapped up every bit of it.
The freshness of Star Wars undoubtedly had a lot to do with it. We hadn’t had time to be sick of it yet, and we were wrapped up in the rush of this shiny new thing that we couldn’t watch at home in a couple of months. You had to see Star Wars in the theater, and the only way to take that experience home with you was to dive into the sea of merchandise the inevitably followed.
The Planet of the Apes films and Star Trek had already dipped their toes in those waters, but Star Wars cannonballed in and started a tidal wave. George Lucas sensed it was possible; he famously and wisely held on to the merchandising rights and basically secured his ability to never have to work another day in his life. And we devoured all of it. We bought the t-shirts. We bought iron-ons so we could make our own t-shirts. We bought an empty box for Christmas because Kenner didn’t have the action figures ready yet. We put the soundtrack album in the top ten. We made a disco version of the main theme the #1 song in the country. This wasn’t just a movie that people liked a lot. This was a nerve being touched.
Because nobody was really making fun science fiction back then. Star Trek probably came closest, but we hadn’t had new Trek in eight years. In that time, sci-fi was mostly the realm of somber dystopias like Soylent Green and Silent Running and Logan’s Run. Even the Apes films started from the premise that humanity was ultimately doomed. This was the era of Vietnam and Wategate. Nobody was in the mood to be hopeful. But then Star Wars (with more than a bit of an assist from the jubilant Jaws a few years prior) came along and it felt like it was okay to have fun again. And not only that, it was okay for the good guys to win. No caveats, no ominous repercussions, just hope triumphing over fear. Of course we lapped it up.
But it was more than just seeing the movie a dozen times and buying everything in sight. Star Wars seeped in. Late night talk shows made reference to it. Magazines couldn’t get enough of it. Editorial cartoons embraced Darth Vader for whatever evil government department was being skewered that week. The stars made the rounds on everything from Donnie and Marie to The Muppet Show.
And for an eight- and then nine-year old, seeing something I loved get that much love from everyone else was an incredibly reassuring thing. I wasn’t alone. I belonged. I can still remember that little thrill I’d get when I’d hear someone or something mention Star Wars. I was finally in the cool club.
Star Wars was this omnipresent thing that we didn’t mind having around. It was new and shiny and wonderful, unlike anything we’d seen before. And for nearly a year and a half, the buzz of the film permeated everything, surrounding us, binding the world together. It was a dizzying feast that kept us going back for seconds.
Then came the Star Wars Holiday Special, and we sort of guiltily looked around the table and decided maybe it was time to push back our chairs and take a break.
All right, maybe that special didn’t pop necessarily put the cork in things. But even die-hard Star Wars fans could tell some kind of saturation point had been reached. And while it had dug in too deeply to completely go away, the light of Star Wars never really burned as brightly as it did in late 1977 and early 1978. Because by the time 1979 rolled around, we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The sequel was already on the way. The film had been re-released (at least in those places where it wasn’t still on its initial theatrical run). We didn’t have to love it that fervently. We were committed.
The last film I’ve seen come close to that kind of all-encompassing mania was Titanic back in 1997. But that didn’t inspire a swarm of Jack lunch boxes and Rose action figures. Maybe it’s my own personal bias, but those two summers in 1977 and 1978 will forever be unique, a warm, shining time when this simple space opera made everybody feel good, and started a party everybody was invited to. For a lot of us, 1999 was about chasing that feeling again. And learning we couldn’t go home again. But that’s for another time.
The Twelve Days of Star Wars