I bet you thought Star Wars Day was May 4, right? That silly pun has gotten most of the attention, but given the significance of the day this year, we’re going to go ahead and celebrate the real Star Wars Day.
Forty years ago today, May 25, 1977, marked the world premiere of Star Wars (renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope when it was re-released in 1981), the movie that introduced the world to Jedi and Sith, droids and wookiees, Han Solo and the Force. It also sold a whole lot of theater tickets and toys. Eventually it became a religion.
May 25 is also popularly known as Geek Pride Day because “the Glorious 25th of May” is significant in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and because it was designated as a memorial day for Hitchhiker’s Guide author Douglas Adams two weeks after he passed away on May 11, 2001. Since then, Towel Day has been an annual remembrance.
In honor of this auspicious day, I’ll kick things off with my remembrance of a couple of the subjects mentioned, and you can follow up with your own in the comments section. Since I’ve never read any of the Discworld books (I’m not willing to commit to a great big stack of books, but if somebody wants to recommend one of them as a good self-contained starting point, I might jump in), I’ll have to stick to Star Wars and Douglas Adams.
In 1977, I was wrapping up my first year at the local community college, and at the beginning of the month I tripped while going down a flight of stairs on campus and broke my right leg just above the ankle. As a result, I didn’t see Star Wars on opening day, which was a Wednesday. Instead, I saw it about 10 days later, on Saturday, June 4, at Grauman’s (then known as Mann’s, now officially the TCL, but I’ll stick with Grauman’s, thanks) Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.
I want you to imagine it: in those days, there was no way to pre-order tickets, no internet to speak of. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to get up and go to the theater, stand in line at the box office, hand over cash for your ticket, then get in line for the movie. If a movie was popular, each of those lines could be hours of waiting; when you get to the box office after an hour or so of waiting, you’d find out that the next screening or two were already sold out; there could be two or three lines arranged around the building, one for each upcoming show. Multiplex theaters were still fairly new, having started popping up around 1970, and most of them only had three or four screens, so even a really popular movie might only be in two auditoriums. So we waited. On this particular Saturday, my friends and I arrived at the theater around 1:00 and got into the 6:00 showing, which meant standing in the Southern California summertime sunshine for about five hours, on crutches with a cast on my leg up to mid-thigh, for a movie that I knew almost nothing about. I’d seen one publicity photo in the LA Times, but friends who had already seen the movie swore I had to, so there I stood.
Naturally, as soon as that massive Star Destroyer began filling the screen, the previous five hours were forgotten, and I saw the movie another half-dozen times before it left the theaters, then a couple more times when it was re-released in 1979. I dutifully made the pilgrimage to Hollywood Blvd in 1980 for The Empire Strikes Back, this time at the Egyptian. (Hollywood has the best theaters.)
In a way, I’m almost envious of the younger fans who got to discover the galaxy far, far away as children. But even at 18, Star Wars was a revelation. Perhaps because I was older and already entrenched in numerous other fandoms, George Lucas’ tapestry has not been quite so deeply a part of my life as it is for younger fans, but I do appreciate what he did, laying the groundwork and making the world safe for other epic genre series including the two versions of the Star Trek franchise, as well as Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, among many others. Star Wars legitimized a variety of formerly lowbrow “junk” genres.
The other topic for today’s reminiscence is Douglas Adams, the much-missed creator of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin the android, and all the many odd entries in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Like a lot of H2G2 fans, I came to the series through the radio series, or more accurately, through a set of cassette tapes of the series (which I probably still have around here somewhere); my former roommate brought them home around 1981, and I picked up the books shortly thereafter. About a year later I got to watch the BBC TV series when it ran on cable TV; my friend Paul Fasmer had the premium package with both HBO and Showtime, so we had a viewing party every week for the run of the show.
Around February of 1985, I had been dating the woman who is now my wife for about three months, and she was as much of a nerd as I was, so we were both excited to learn that the great Douglas Adams himself would be doing an in-store signing at the famous sci-fi & fantasy bookstore known as “A Change of Hobbit”; we happily made the schlep to Santa Monica and got in line, each with our sets of the first three books.
At that time, Ivan Reitman, riding high after Ghostbusters, was reported to be developing H2G2 as his next movie. Of course this rumor was now almost two years old, so I had to ask Mr. Adams what was happening on the movie.
He sighed softly, regarded me with a raised eyebrow and a slight smile, and said “it’s proceeding at a glacial pace, at a rate imperceptible to the human eye.” He chose not to elaborate, but signed our books, shook our hands and thanked us for coming.
You can imagine how disappointed I was to learn that Reitman’s next film was in fact the 1986 Robert Redford vehicle, Legal Eagles. We had to wait until 2005, when the H2G2 film finally opened, appropriately enough on my bride’s 42nd birthday, which of course meant we had to throw a Hitchhikers-themed birthday party at a local restaurant, followed by attending opening night of the movie. There was a lot I liked about the movie (Henson’s Vogons, the wonderful animated infographics, Alan Rickman’s performance as Marvin, Bill Nighy’s delightful portrayal of Slartibartfast, and Zoey Deschanel as Trillian), and some I didn’t much care for (especially the design of Warwick Davis’ Marvin costume, the unnecessary love story and neatly-tied-up happy ending), but really what was missing was Douglas Adams; in a just world he would have lived to see his great story up on the big screen. Maybe someday somebody will try again, but in the meantime, the books and recordings and cheesy-but-charming TV series are right there waiting for you.
I’ll be wearing a towel over my shoulder today in honor of Douglas Adams, and I’ll probably play the Star Wars soundtrack at some point, because I am a hoopy frood. I hope you are too.