A long time ago, in a Charlotte (that seems) far, far away...
The original “Star Wars” arrived here on July 1, 1977, opening on one screen at Charlottetown on Independence Boulevard, on one screen at Union Village Shopping Center in Monroe, and on one screen at Carolina Mall in Concord.
Of course, if you’re a “Star Wars” trivia geek, you know that it got a limited release on May 25, 1977, and then gradually became – forgive the pun – a Force to be reckoned with. By the time the otherworldly sci-fi hit reached Charlotte, there was already talk that it could take down “Jaws” as the highest-grossing film in history. (It eventually did.)
Yet there was little fanfare in our newspaper on opening day.
Allen Oren, the Observer’s theater and movie critic, wrote just three sentences about “Star Wars”: “It’s a simple story that’s dependent on its special effects. The effects are excellent, the script no more than Flash Gordon. All told, it’s easy escapism, which is its purpose.”
The ad for “Star Wars” was prominent, but there were even larger ads (with even cornier taglines) for movies like “Last House: Part II” (“Can a movie go too far?”); “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (“It’s the newest and raciest comedy of the year!”); “Final Chapter: Walking Tall” (“What happens to him will anger you”); and “New York, New York,” a Robert De Niro/Liza Minelli film that opened the same day as “Star Wars” (“A love story is like a song. It’s beautiful while it lasts.”)
Truth be told, July 1, 1977, was a pretty typical news day in Charlotte. For proof of just how typical, check out the first paragraphs on the front-page stories of the day:
▪ “State transportation officials acknowledged Thursday night they may have to restudy plans for an outer belt connector between Independence Boulevard and I-77 in southeast Mecklenburg County – and that may delay the project for another two years.”
▪ “Transportation Secretary Brock Adams ordered the auto industry Thursday to install air bags or self-adjusting seat belts in all new cars, allowing four to six years for compliance.”
▪ “Jesus Christ’s divinity is being challenged by a panel of British Protestant theologians who say He should be regarded as a great teacher, not a supernatural miracle-worker.”
And if that’s not enough from the “the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same” files: Over on the editorial page, topics included abortion, oil prices, liquor laws and gay rights.
No, if you’re looking for signs of change – beyond the prices of new cars (wow, that Ford LTD for $5,150 gets an “economical” 17 miles per gallon!) and the extinction of businesses such as Ivey’s department stores – you’d probably do well to look at the contrast between the release of “Star Wars” then and now.
Then: In 1977, director George Lucas’s space opera was predicted to be dead on arrival, and 20th Century Fox hedged its bets by opening the film May 25 on just 42 screens nationwide; none were in Charlotte.
Now: Next Friday, director J.J. Abrams’s seventh installment (and the first “Star Wars” movie in 10 years) arrives as one of the most drool-inducing movies of all-time, with record-breaking advance ticket sales exceeding $50 million. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be unleashed onto nearly 4,000 screens, including dozens in the Charlotte area.
(By the time the sun comes up on Friday morning, thousands of locals will already have seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: On Thursday night, theaters in and around the city will host at least 125 pre-opening-day screenings of the movie.)
Then: Over the course of several days in the summer of 1977, the Observer published a series of articles by George Lucas that revealed every major plot point in the movie.
Now: Over the course of several months in 2015, Abrams has trickled out footage but is closely guarding the new film’s secrets – so closely that critics can’t bring guests to Tuesday’s private advance screening, at which cellphones will have to be turned over to security at the door.
(This request was also made to attending media by Disney/Lucasfilm: “To give audiences ... the opportunity to enjoy “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to its fullest and allow them to discover its surprises and plot twists in the cinema, we respectfully ask ... that you refrain from revealing spoilers and detailed story points in your coverage.”)
But my fingers are crossed that one aspect of the “Star Wars” experience is the same as it was 38 years ago.
Then: Carolina Mall’s ad for the film in the Observer on July 1, 1977, quoted Time magazine’s apt summation: “ ‘Star Wars’ has brought fun back to the movies and glowingly demonstrated they still can make ’em like they used to.”
Now?: Millions of movie buffs are hoping history repeats itself.
No big deal, apparently
Former Observer movie critic Allen Oren – now an associate professor in the media, communications and visual arts department at Pace University in New York – on what he remembers about July 1, 1977:
“I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much about the opening of the original ‘Star Wars.’ Could be partly memory – it was nearly 40 years ago, after all – but I also think the event wasn’t especially dramatic.”