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What it was really like to see Star Wars in 1977

On May 25, 1977, a pop culture phenomenon was born. After months of hype from creator George Lucas, a new adventure movie called Star Wars hit theaters — though not that many. The epic space opera only played across 42 screens during its Memorial Day weekend release because the bigwigs at 20th Century Fox never really believed that it would take off. "There were a lot of people at Fox who didn't want to make Star Wars," veteran distribution executive Larry Gleason told The Hollywood Reporter"The running joke [was] that when George Lucas made his final pitch to Alan Ladd Jr., who was running Fox at the time, Laddie said no, but he said it so softly nobody heard him."

When it became clear that Star Wars was on course to become a runaway hit, Fox quickly revised its approach and expanded the release to 1,750 screens, giving way more people the chance to visit a galaxy far, far away. Before long, Star Wars was all that anyone could talk about, making sequels inevitable. What would later become known as the Skywalker Saga played out over the course of nine feature films, but none of them shook the foundations of the industry quite like the original movie, which was later re-branded Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. What was seeing the film in theaters back in 1977 really like? We've dug up accounts from the industry execs, journalists, and fans who were there, so buckle up.

The lines outside theaters were insane

Fox was certain that romantic thriller The Other Side of Midnight was going to be its big summer hit in 1977, and so were theater owners. According to Travis Reid, head of distribution at Broad Green Pictures, Fox initially forced theaters to show Star Wars in exchange for access to The Other Side of Midnight, which was due out a few weeks later. "But it ultimately flipped around," Reid told The Hollywood Reporter. "If you wanted Star Wars, you had to play the other film." Word of mouth turned Star Wars into a must-see picture, and demand for tickets was high. Reid wasn't among the group of film buyers who took a chance on the film, something longtime friend Bob Lenihan has never let him live down.

"I tease Travis all the time that the only time I ever won was when he picked The Deep for a theater in Redding, California, while I picked Star Wars," Lenihan, president of programming at AMC Theatres, said. "On opening day at the Coronet [Theatre in San Francisco], there were lines around the block. It played there until Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened in December, and we were still hitting our holdover numbers." There were similar scenes at San Diego's Valley Circle Theater, where jugglers were reportedly employed to entertain those waiting in line, and cinemas in San Jose were so packed that "people were sitting in the aisles," according to CNET's Wayne Cunningham.

Star Wars was the first 'party movie'

It took a week or two for Star Wars fever to fully catch on nationwide, but it was an overnight hit in California. The film premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where "enthusiastic young people with sleeping bags" would soon become a regular sight. "It wasn't like a movie opening," Carrie Fisher told Time magazine (via History). "It was like an earthquake." The Chinese Theatre was at the epicenter of that earthquake, and people were drawn to it. Speaking to CNNStar Wars fan Chris Balduc recalled traveling from the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood to see the movie on May 26, the day after it opened.

"The long line wound down the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre and around the block," Balduc said. "News helicopters hovered in the air above the crowd. Star Wars was the first film to earn a reputation as a party movie — the fans brought costumes, beach balls, folding chairs for the line, and an almost palatable anticipation. ... There was no better place to see it than Grauman's Chinese in its pre-multiplex days." 

On advice from Fox, the owners of the famous theater only booked Star Wars in for a two-week run. When a scheduling conflict meant they couldn't show the hit film after that, they refurbished an old cinema. "We moved Star Wars there, where it played for two weeks before coming back to the Chinese," Larry Gleason, former president of Mann Theatres, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Kids in 1977 were skipping school to see it

Star Wars toys would explode in popularity over the next few years, but back when the first installment was released, all kids had was the movie itself. George Lucas' film became so popular with youngsters that some of them were even ditching school so they could see it. "Unless you lived through it (and can remember), it's kind of hard for modern audiences to understand just how different the world was in 1977, just prior to the release of Star Wars," said lifelong fan Patrick Payne (via StarWars.com). "I had seen the trailers on TV and in the theater, months earlier. They didn't say much. However, what little they showed had already triggered my imagination."

Payne sought out the novelization of Star Wars, which had hit shelves in November 1976. After reading that, he knew that he absolutely had to see this story play out on the big screen. "I, for one, was NOT going to miss this movie even if I had to miss school! Therefore, I skipped school (sorry, parents), took the bus downtown (Seattle), and saw the very first show on opening day." For teachers, the trouble wasn't as much absent students as it was lightsaber battles. According to one Reddit user who saw Star Wars at the University Theatre in Toronto, schools quickly got sick of Star Wars-related injuries, explaining, "Kids were periodically coming into the office after being hit by a lightsaber (read: tree branch from the play ground)."

Star Wars bridged the generation gap

There weren't a lot of movies with broad, cross-generational appeal being released in the late 1970s, which is another reason why Star Wars did so well. Speaking to the official Star Wars website on the 40th anniversary of the first film's release, artist Paul Bateman revealed that his father wasn't really interested in seeing a space movie at first, but he ended up having the time of his life. "When we arrived at the theater, the line to buy tickets was around the block, and Dad was bored waiting in the line," Bateman recalled. "However, not too long after the opening scenes, my dad became just as engrossed in the film as I was. He was cheering and reacting along with every adult and child in the audience."

California native Fred White had just turned eight when Star Wars came out, and despite knowing absolutely nothing about the film, he was hugely excited when his father told him they were going to see it. "He said, 'It's called Star Wars.' I clearly remember thinking, 'Star Wars, that's a weird name,'" White told CNN. "We saw it that day, and I never thought it sounded weird again." Like so many kids his age, Star Wars became a huge part of White's childhood, and he has "shared a special bond" with his dad since that day. "He took me to the opening day of the next two films, and I was the envy of all my classmates."

In 1977, people watched it over and over in theaters

One thing that became obvious about Star Wars early on was that it had tremendous re-watch value. One of the reasons it managed to stay in theaters for so long was because people were returning for repeat viewings, with a healthy competition breaking out among the fledgling fandom. When the topic came up on Reddit, one user recalled seeing Star Wars over a dozen times. "It was absolutely the coolest thing ever," they wrote. "Saw that sucker 14 times that summer. First movie I ever went to see more than once." Another Reddit user recalled seeing it "at least once a week for the entire summer" after getting his initially reluctant friends hooked. "When it finally made it to the discount theater, we went as groups every weekend through year's end."

Of course, going to see a movie isn't free. It's all well and good when you're an adult with a wage to support your new Star Wars obsession, but how did the kids manage to see the film so many times? Well, 13-year-old Russell Burgos and his friend Scott maximized their budget by getting three showings for the price of one. "[We] rode our bikes seven miles to the biggest cinema in our area, waited on line three hours, and then sat through three viewings in a row, hiding behind the screen curtains and in the emergency exit stairwells while the theater was cleaned between shows," he admitted to CNN.

The opening sequence blew people away

Most Star Wars fans will remember the moment they saw the opening scene of the first movie for the very first time, but this was truly a life-changing experience for many of those who were lucky enough to see it in a theater. "The room was silent, then the Star Wars title blasted onto the screen along with the coolest theme music I'd ever heard," fan Robert Vancel recalled in an email to CNN. "The movie had a semi-cheesy feel to it during the opening crawl, but soon this massive space ship flew in from overhead. It was huge! We barely had time to absorb what was happening when the second, even bigger ship flew overhead, firing away at the first one."

The moment that huge Star Destroyer appeared from nowhere is seemingly burned into the memories of everyone who saw Star Wars in 1977. "I vividly remember the audience doing the 'ooh' and 'ahh' when the Blockade Runner swept across the screen, and the Star Destroyer came along and kept going and going," one Redditor shared. "We were transfixed, utterly. For a ten year old, life began with that scene." The introduction "blew everyone away" according to another Reddit user, while someone else recalled how his dad actually "ducked when the Star Destroyer appeared." The visuals were nothing short of incredible for the 1970s, so there was little surprise when Star Wars scooped the Oscar for Best Effects the following year.

Nobody had seen anything like it before

Proud Star Wars fan Rob Conery said that seeing the first movie in theaters at age nine was a "life-altering" experience in a passionate Medium article, reminding younger film fans just how unique it was at the time. According to Conery, it wasn't just the visual effects that made Star War unlike anything that people had seen before, it was the whole package. "Most movies you would go see as a kid were kind of crappy," he wrote, further adding, "I remember really liking Escape From Witch Mountain and the Herbie movies, but as I grew older I wanted something more. More adventure and, yes, a little bit of suspense and scariness, too. We just didn't have that back then — it was all goofy Disney dreck."

That all changed when Star Wars came along. According to Conery, it was the "perfect escape event" for the pre-internet age, when kids didn't have endless entertainment at their fingertips and were generally left to "make s*** up" for fun. "There was absolutely nothing like Star Wars when it came out," he said, adding, "I'm struggling to come up with some relevant analogy for movies today; some thing that makes you jump up and scream, that alters your life profoundly and makes you believe in space travel, exotic alien planets, and the Force." He certainly wasn't alone in this opinion. One Reddit user who saw Star Wars on opening weekend said that they'd "never seen anything remotely like it before."

Watching Star Wars in 1977 was like a religious experience

As the host of podcast Skywalking Through Neverland, you would assume that Richard Woloski was a Star Wars fan from day one, but he actually had zero interest in seeing the George Lucas film when it dropped in May 1977. "Even though all my friends had seen it and raved about this new space movie, I was a loyalist to my other loves including King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and the Super Friends," Woloski told StarWars.com. He stood his ground and somehow managed to ignore the movie entirely until August, when he finally started to get curious about this Luke Skywalker and his adventures in a galaxy far, far away. The next time he got the chance to see Star Wars, he took it, and he's never looked back.

"One day I heard a knock at my front door," Woloski recalled. "I could hear my upstairs neighbor ask my mother, 'I'm going to see Star Wars again, would Richard like to come with me?' That was the fuse that lit the powder keg that is still exploding after 40 years! I went from the kid who didn't want to see Star Wars to the kid who wouldn't shut up about Star Wars." He told the official website that he found a "new religion" that day, and he isn't the only one that feels this way about Star Wars. As of February 2020, more people practiced Jediism than Scientology in the United Kingdom.

People drove for hours to see it

Patty Hammond, creator of the Everyday Fangirl blog, won tickets to see Star Wars from a local TV station. The trouble was, the theater the tickets were for was a 40-mile round-journey from her family home. "Back then, the freeway system was not what it is today, and a trip to the theater took over an hour," she wrote for StarWars.com. "However, with Dad being a big science fiction fan, we decided to do it." Lucas' space opera more than lived up to her father's expectations. "When we came out of the theater he said, 'Mark my words! This movie WILL become a classic.' Boy, did he predict that one."

Of course, back then, it wasn't uncommon to drive to a movie and see it without ever having to leave your vehicle. Star Wars played as a double feature with Smokey and the Bandit at a number of drive-ins, including one in Kansas, where CNET's Bonnie Burton was watching in awe from the back of a pick-up truck. "I can't adequately express the fun of watching Skywalker blow up the Death Star on a big screen beneath a sky full of twinkly stars," she recalled. "As an imaginative kid, it was hard see where the Star Wars galaxy ended and our own night sky began. After that experience, I'd stare up at the sky throughout my childhood hoping to see the Millennium Falcon zip by Earth on its way to Coruscant."

Star Wars was the film America needed

Star Wars got such an enthusiastic welcome in 1977 because there wasn't much joy around at the time. George Lucas' debut feature THX 1138 was a dark, gritty sci-fi, but he grew up adoring characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and wanted to capture that magic with an uplifting tale of good versus evil. This apparently didn't go down well among veteran sci-fi writers, who didn't want to see the genre watered down for younger viewers. "They hated that Star Wars legitimized sci-fi," August Ragone, who saw the movie on opening day, told Tested"But at the time, we needed Star Wars. We had a recession, we had an energy crisis, and we needed some serious escapism. It was the perfect adventure movie for a kid and the kid in everyone."

According to Ragone, Star Wars lifted and connected people. "It's cliché to say it, but it was a moment in time and a shared experience that happened in cities all across America," the longtime sci-fi fan said. "It caught everybody off guard, and something like that hasn't happened since." In the opinion of veteran broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, who was interviewed for documentary Empire Of Dreams – The Story Of The Star Wars Trilogy, George Lucas' film "lifted us out of our depression of the '70s [with] an awareness and focus on space, and of possible future." The Space Race may have been over, but Star Wars was just beginning.

Not everyone loved Star Wars back in 1977

Believe it or not, some people weren't that into Star Wars when they saw it on the big screen in 1977. While veteran film critics Roger Ebert and Charles Champlin waxed lyrical about the film, some of their peers were not impressed. "There's something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skill lavished on such puerile materials," Joy Gould Boyum wrote in The Wall Street Journal. Some viewers were so underwhelmed that they actually walked out. Speaking to StarWars.com, fan Denise Steil revealed that she watched the majority of the movie alone at a theater in small town Mississippi after her friends decided to ditch.

"We arrived a little late, as usual, just as Artoo and Threepio were walking across the sands of Tatooine," Steil recalled. "About 15 minutes later, my friends declared the movie to be 'lame' and walked out. I stayed, by myself, and fell in love with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. I met with them again the following night and again the following weekend." For some younger viewers, Star Wars was actually a little too violent. In the U.K., one girl complained about the scene in which Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan Kenobi removes Ponda Baba's arm with a swift stroke of his lightsaber. "It was exciting, but I didn't like the bit where the man chopped off the person's arm," she told a BBC reporter outside the theater. "There was blood!"