The Empire Strikes Back in a Big Way

  • Film: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Format: 70mm Six-Track Dolby. Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
  • Theater: Sack Charles 123. Boston, Massachusetts
  • Date: Sunday, June 8, 1980, 1PM Show

In the spring of 1980, as was the practice for many kids my age, I counted the days until the release of the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. At least one to two hours each day was devoted to thoughts of the new Star Wars film dancing through the daydreams of my ten-year-old brain. Star Wars was a personal love affair for me at the time, as I am sure it was for millions of other children. But I knew I was the number-one Star Wars fan in the world, and George Lucas was making this film to please me.

   In 1980 an upcoming movie retained many of its surprises with no Internet spoilers. There wasn’t a peep regarding Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s dad in anything I read regarding the upcoming film. There weren’t many details surrounding the movie at all, as a matter of fact. I read bothFangoria and Starlog magazines, and they released random tidbits, but the story was under wraps. Weeks before the opening of the film I had a Yoda poster tacked onto my bedroom door, and I bored my mom with Yoda details such as he was a 900-year-old Jedi master. I was eager to learn more.

   Living in the suburb of Woburn, Massachusetts, eleven miles north of Boston, I found my movie compass pointed in the direction of my personal Bible, The Boston Globe Arts & Films section. The most important days of the week for me were Sunday, Thursday, and Friday. Sunday provided The Globe’s largest Arts & Films section with the most information related to films coming to theaters on Friday. Thursday’s Calendar section featured several movie-related articles and a preview of independent theater bookings for the coming week. Friday was the big enchilada, where all the magic happened. The reviews for new releases appeared, and I mapped my weekend attack of films I planned to see or beg my parents to take me to. Until then, I had been allowed to see G and PG movies. There was no PG13 rating in 1980, and many times non-R-rated choices were limited when it wasn’t summer or Christmas holiday season. I scoured the Arts & Film section every week, up and down, over and sideways to make sure I wasn’t missing out on a single film opportunity.

   Every Sunday morning, I waited for my dad to head out and purchase The Sunday Globe. As soon as he entered the house carrying the bundle (and many times a box of Dunkin’ Donuts sitting on top), I rushed to snatch the Arts & Films section. I would lie on the living room floor and start flipping through the pages. With the ramp-up to the opening of The Empire StrikesBack, checking the Sunday paper to learn where and when it would open was paramount. Sunday, May 11, I experienced first-hand the cruel intentions of the movie gods: I stumbled upon an ad providing the date and place The Empire Strikes Back would open. It was scheduled to open May 21st (a Wednesday) exclusively at the Charles Cinema 1-2-3 in Boston. Exclusive engagement? Charles Cinema? How was I going to be the first person to see The Empire Strikes Back if it was opening midweek in one theater somewhere in Boston?

   As age nine, I was unversed in the finer points of film distribution. Nor did I recognize the tradition of Star Wars opening on a similar Wednesday late in May in a handful of theaters. As a matter of fact, when the first Star Wars movie was released I didn’t see it until it opened wide in early July, 1977. It was common in 1977 for a major film release to play exclusively in one or two theaters in a major market before rolling out in a wider release. Even in these earlier times, it seemed an odd strategy to hold back theaters for such an anticipated film as Empire. How was I going to be one of the first people to see it?

   I went right to work on my parents. I did not outright beg them to take me, but I wanted them to understand the most important film event of the 20th Century was happening in less than two weeks, and we didn’t want to be left out. This tactic did not generate the same level of excitement from my parents as I had hoped. I don’t remember all of the conversations, but my mom deferred the decision to my dad. My father’s response was, “We’ll see.” I knew getting to Empire opening day was out of the question unless my dad surprised me by coming home early from work and whisking me into Boston. It had never happened before, but there was always a first time.

   As Empire day approached and my feverish anticipation began to boil over, my tactic of wearing my parents down reached its apex. I now asked my father directly if he would take me. The answer was a resounding no. My dad was a huge Star Warsfan too. He sat both my sister and me down on the couch one summer’s night in 1977 and told us he’d seen the most amazing movie, and he thought we were both old enough to handle seeing it, even though it was a PG film. I thought he’d be so excited about seeing The Empire Strikes Back he’d drive into Boston to be one of the first to see it opening night. What was this betrayal?

   The rationale behind the decision against taking me into town to see The Empire Strikes Back opening night, or even opening weekend, had to do with another event taking place in Boston at this time—The Tall Ships. Boston anticipated thousands of people coming into town to see the tall ships. My dad said it was impossible for him to take me into town to see The Empire Strikes Back because the city would be packed. The truth was my dad already anticipated how crazy it was going to be at the Charles Cinema and didn’t want to wait in a long line to see it. When I was a kid, there were no means of buying tickets in advance. Part of the fun of seeing an anticipated new film was waiting in a long line to buy tickets, hoping you arrived before the movie sold out, and waiting in an even longer line to get into the theater. Now you can buy tickets weeks ahead of time, and with many theaters instituting a reserved seat policy you don’t even have to get to the theater until your movie starts. A may be a tremendous timesaver? Maybe, but for a person who grew up with a different experience it’s anticlimactic.

   Opening day of The Empire Strikes Back came and with it the media hoopla and news segments showing long lines and excited fans. By Friday the newspaper contained an article letting people know the Charles Cinema was going to be playing The Empire Strikes back continuously throughout the Memorial Day weekend with shows overnight and even morning. Early morning show? Maybe I could convince my dad to get up early and take me to one of those? Nope.

   I missed out on the opening weekend of The Empire Strikes Back, and By Tuesday (Monday was Memorial Day) my friends and I began to search out any kid at school who might have seen Empire over the weekend. It turns out I was not alone in having parents unwilling to undertake long lines and Boston Tall Ships traffic to be the first to see Empire. No one in my class had seen it. It took a couple of days, but my friend Glenn tracked down a kid in another class who had seen it. This kid’s parents were divorced, and his father took him into town to see it. Weekend dad comes through in the clutch. I was quite happy with my family situation, but I recall thinking, for one moment, how lucky this kid was to have a dad take him into town to see it.

   At lunch, I tracked this kid down and asked him for details. He said it was okay but not as good as Star Wars. Just okay? How could this be? My heart sank. I waited three years for this film and the first person I speak to who saw the film tells me it was okay. Crushing. I didn’t want to know too much, but he did offer this one tidbit: Darth Vader was Luke’s father. I didn’t have time to probe him on the details, but I thought he was putting me on. Darth Vader is Luke’s father? That didn’t make any sense. How could Darth Vader be Luke’s father? This moment would serve as my first taste of a film spoiler. Until then all I knew about an upcoming film was whatever I saw in the film’s trailer or what I may have learned from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on PBS’ Sneak Previews show on Sundays. Today it is impossible to avoid 50 different plot points of an upcoming film, but in 1980 only word of mouth spoiled a surprise. If you are reading this book and were unaware Darth Vader was Luke’s father I apologize. Princess Leia is Luke’s sister. I know. It makes even less sense.

   Friday, May 30th came, and I grabbed the paper to see if The Empire Strikes back had moved into other theaters. I had two main cinemas as my ‘go-to’ in those days. The first was a multiplex in my hometown, the Showcase Cinemas Woburn. Showcase Woburn was a five-screen cinema with long aisles and would typically seat anywhere from 400-600 people in each theater. As the 80s progressed, this multiplex would be chopped up into smaller theaters. First, they converted six screens, then eight, and then all the large houses were replaced with smaller ones to accommodate more titles. A few years ago, the auditoriums were overhauled and fitted with the latest craze, reclining chairs and stadium seating, with capacities reduced to 150 or fewer seats per auditorium.

   In 1980 the screen sizes of the much larger Showcase Woburn auditoriums were far from boast worthy, and if you sat too far back it was as if you were watching a movie in a tunnel. The Dolby sound coming from the speakers lined throughout the auditorium did impress. My second go-to theater was the less impressive Burlington Mall General Cinemas. Burlington was a two-plex you entered from outside the mall in the back. The screens were of adequate size, and the sound was fine, but it was certainly no Showcase Woburn. The best films went to Woburn and the leftovers went to Burlington. Burlington played the Disney movies and scored the occasional blockbuster, i.e., Jaws. While I had my family take me to theaters and drive-ins spread out over the suburbs when a film I wanted to see wasn’t playing at either, my best shot at seeing a new release was if it played at either one of these two venues.

   On this Friday, the second weekend of Empire’s release the news was less than comforting. Empire was still playing as an exclusive engagement at the Charles Cinema. I avoided pushing my parents as hard as I had on the first weekend of the film’s release, but I did express my disappointment it was only playing in Boston and my friends might see it before I did.

   On Sunday my mom gave me some good news. My parents were going to the Cape the following weekend for a spring getaway. The real news was my dad’s twin brother, Uncle Phil, would be staying to watch my sister, Jennifer, and me. On Friday when they left, and my uncle arrived, he was going to take us into town to see The Empire Strikes Back, provided it wasn’t already playing in Woburn by then. I was probably jumping up and down at this point. I knew when I was going to see The Empire Strikes Back, and all would be right with the galaxy.

   It was hard to contain my excitement during the week. Friday came and I checked the Arts & Films section first thing. The status remained quo. Empire was still playing as an exclusive engagement at The Charles Cinema, which meant my uncle would be taking my sister and me into Boston.

   As soon as Uncle Phil arrived Friday afternoon, he began getting me psyched up for going to see The Empire Strikes Back. I knew it could be busy getting into town on a Friday night so I tried to speed up the process by suggesting we get going right away. Uncle Phil threw me a fresh curveball. His new girlfriend, Carol, was coming too. Okay. Fine. Where is she, I wondered? Uncle Phil informed me she was coming over straight from work. As soon as she arrived, we would go. The one thing standing in between my date with Darth and Yoda was this mysterious girlfriend of my Uncle’s.

   Carol showed up after 6 o’clock. My uncle assured me if the 7:30 showing sold out he would take us to the 10 p.m. show. Normally it would have been the 7:30 or nothing, but he knew how bad I wanted to see this. The knowledge of getting a ticket to a later show if 7:30 didn’t work calmed me down a bit and kept me from disliking his new girlfriend too much.

   To be sure, Carol was apologetic. Friday traffic was brutal, and it took her longer to get to our house than anticipated. I kept thinking, “You could have met us at the theater.” I wanted to be as pleasant as possible, but Carol’s attempts at making a good impression met with my cold indifference. During the car ride into town, we got to know Carol a bit more. She was younger than my uncle (who was 31 at the time). Carol was in her mid-20s. She had curly brown hair and glasses and a bubbly personality. She was also a movie fan and began to tell me about a film she had seen recently, The Changeling, which sounded like a cool spooky horror film. In those days, there were a lot of movies I was too young to see, but the next best thing was hearing the details from someone older who did get to go. My mom was a great reciter of film plots.

   The Charles Cinema was part of a strange looking outdoor mall near Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. And this mall even made you pay to park. Pay to park to see a movie? Could this be a reason my dad refused to take me? With a validated movie ticket the parking was reduced, but for some reason, the notion of paying extra to see a film by way of parking stuck with me as an insult.

   As predicted, the line for tickets was quite long. Okay, was the most insane line I had ever witnessed for a movie. The Charles Cinema was an odd duck. There were two smaller theaters on the ground level, each with its own box office. I remember the two films playing in those theaters as we passed the marquee: All that Jazz and La Cage Aux Folles. Both films were rated R, which meant they were off limits to me. I stared long and hard at these two posters because the ticket purchase line made its way down to the bottom level.

   The main theater of the Charles Cinema resided up a flight of stairs, in a building towering over the parking lot. It was an enormous white block from the outside, with big blue letters spelling Charles 123. We inched our way up the steps toward the ticket line. With each step, a growing realization came over me; we won’t get in. We were waist deep in the ticket purchase line when the 7:30 show stated. Not long after, we heard rumblings both the 7:30 and the 10:00 pm shows were sold out. People in line were waiting to purchase tickets for the midnight show. Game over. Carol had officially ruined my life. Uncle Phil assured me we would return early on Sunday in plenty of time to get tickets for the 1:00 p.m. show. I walked back to the parking lot, shell-shocked and in total disbelief. The Empire eluded me again.

   I was willing to show my stamina by waiting four hours and going to the midnight show, but Uncle Phil and Carol had formulated a backup plan. We were going to Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA to Paragon Amusement Park. I was scared of the Ferris wheel, forget rollercoasters; amusement parks weren’t my bag. But the die was cast. We were going to Paragon Park.

   Paragon Park turned out to be an excellent consolation prize. While no one was able to convince me to ride the menacing rollercoaster (a legendary beast that now resides in a Six Flags park in Maryland), I did sample a few of Paragon’s more daring fare. And Carol, my nemesis, was upgraded to frenemy, and then to old buddy pal by night’s end. She rocked. Carol was the most fun girlfriend any brother of my father ever had. I wanted to arrange a wedding right then and there. Aunt Carol had a nice ring to it. At the end of our Paragon Park adventure, both my sister and I were begging for Carol to come with us to see The Empire Strikes Back on Sunday. She said she would love to, but couldn’t make it. Uncle Phil and Carol dated for a while but eventually they broke up. Jennifer and I missed seeing Carol to the point where my mom started hanging out with her so Jennifer and I could see her. Carol even babysat us a couple of times. As with many people and places I once knew and loved as a child, Carol is now a memory and a faded one at that.

   I can’t recall why my uncle didn’t take my sister and I back to see Empire on Saturday; I was game for it. I think Uncle Phil needed to prepare for waiting in line again, and it didn’t cost to park in town on Sundays. Phil already shelled out several dollars to park in the lot once. I don’t think he fancied the idea of doing it twice.

   My love of film was born at the drive-ins. The sound coming out of a single speaker built into a metal can and hooked onto the side of a car window ranged from bad to awful. There was a better than average chance the screen would be dim. When the first film started at dusk, I had to imagine the action on screen because it was still too bright outside to see anything. But there was nothing more magical to me than piling into the backseat of my parents’ car, armed with pillow and blanket, and getting to see two movies for the price of four bucks per carload. From spring to fall my top priority on Friday’s was to scope out each drive-in within a realistic distance from my house, determine what was playing where, and figure out how I could appeal to my parents’ sensibilities to get them to take me.

   On Saturday night, my uncle took my sister and me to the drive-ins to see a James Bond double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. It was great to catch up with The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker wasn’t silly, ridiculous, or a whole bunch of nonsense back in 1980; not to this near-ten-year-old. The double feature was a pleasant diversion to keep my thoughts away from Sunday. It tired me out enough I got a good night’s sleep without staying up the entire night dreaming of Star Wars glory.

   Sunday morning arrived. Uncle Phil, Jennifer, and I left the house at 9:00 am. We were leaving nothing to chance this time.

With parking meters shuttered on Sundays, Uncle Phil found parking a short walk away from the Charles Cinema. At 9:45 am we crossed the outdoor parking area of the Charles Cinema, and people were lined up to purchase tickets for the 1:00 pm show. Would this be a repeat of Friday night? I envisioned my quest to see The Empire Strikes Back before it opened in local theaters ending.

   The three of us took our place in line three-plus hours ahead of the scheduled first show of the day. We stood on the stairs leading up to the Charles Cinema’smain level. One encouraging sign: we were closer to the box office than we were on Friday night. My uncle assured me this was a huge theater, the biggest in Boston, and there should be plenty of seats. I took it upon myself to climb the stairs past the crowd to see how far the line stretched. A lot of people were ahead of us, but I was cautiously optimistic we’d get tickets.

   The line began moving once the box office opened for the day. I kept my anxiety in check as the line moved closer to the promised land of ticket purchasing. Would tickets be available for the first show of the day? Would Uncle Phil buy tickets for the next show if the 1:00 pm was sold out, or would we be going home empty-handed again? The moment of truth arrived. We were at the box office, and Uncle Phil uttered the magic words, “Three for Empire.” The ticket machine sputtered to life and spit out three tickets to The Empire Strikes Back. We had done it. No one could stop us now. The movie was an hour from starting, but we had our tickets, and soon I would be inside the theater awaiting the fulfillment of a three-year dream.

   “Uncle Phil,” I said as we waited in line to go inside the theater, “what is 70mm?” Having examined countless newspaper ads for weeks now I picked up on something: The exclusive engagement for The Empire Strikes Back at the Charles Cinema was touted as being in 70mm Six-Track Dolby®. I had no idea what any of this information meant. When a newspaper listed a film as being in Dolby, I knew the sound was going to be better than if it wasn’t, but this was the extent of my knowledge. In 1980, a fair number of movies were released in mono or regular stereo. Even if a film was released in Dolby stereo, not every theater was equipped to play it in Dolby.

   My uncle told me 70mm film was twice as big at 35mm film in order to project onto a huge screen. Six-track Dolby meant six different tracks of sound, which provided the best listening experience possible. I understood the sound part of the conversation, but the film part I was still a little fuzzy on the details. In my mind, Phil’s explanation meant The Empire Strikes Back would be shown on a super-sized screen with awesome sound and the only way to do this was to have it projected on film twice as big.

   The ticket holder line started inside the theater, but we were in line on the outside hugging the glass windows of the Charles Cinema. I could see the throngs of people lined up in a roped-off queue inside the lobby, and I wished I was closer. Would there be good seats left?

   It seemed as if an eternity passed before we stepped up to the ticket taker’s entrance and made our way through the doors into the lobby. Once inside, I gawked at the large theater. The Charles Cinema was the largest theater in Massachusetts in 1980. This 900-seat auditorium had an upper tier with stadium-style seating (a rarity in those days) and a lower tier of standard seating. The stadium seats were picked over by the time we entered, and we grabbed seats in the lower section. I was concerned a tall person would sit in front of me and block the screen, but this theater had such a large screen set high enough there was no need to fret. The screen was the most enormous size I had encountered. This must be why the film is in 70mm, I thought. They have to have a film size double 35mm to fill it.

   The theater seats of TheCharles were plush, deep red. Speakers lined the upper sides of the auditorium, and two gigantic speakers appeared on each side of the screen. I was sure they were the largest speakers in the world. From online comments I have read, people say the sound at the Charles wasn’t superior, and with today’s advances in movie sound and speaker setups this may be true, but in 1980 this was the most impressive setup I knew.

   During the final wait until the movie started I listened in on the conversation of a couple of teenaged boys seated behind us. For one boy, this was his second time seeing the film. I tried avoiding spoilers. I already had to face down the ridiculous rumor Darth Vader was somehow Luke Skywalker’s father, which made absolutely no sense. I didn’t want to know any more information until the movie started.

   When the lights dimmed, energetic waves of the crowd rippled with excitement. I shook a little as my senses prepared to soak in the magic I had waited three years to see. First up was a preview for The Blues Brothers. The preview contained scenes of the famous car chase scene in the shopping mall. I knew who John Belushi was from watching Saturday Night Live. I wasn’t as familiar with Dan Aykroyd then, but I did recognize his Blues Brothers character. I knew one thing after watching the preview: I had to see The Blues Brothers. The sound pushed through the two large front speakers of the Charles Cinema was near deafening; loud, sharp, crisp. This experience was unlike anything I knew before it. And the image was a bright and intense assault on my eyes. Was this the power of six-track 70mm? From this first preview I knew going to the movies was going to be different from now on.

   The Next preview was for The Shining. In January, I saw the teaser trailer for the movie and I thought it looked dumb. Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King were just names to me. But now a full trailer for The Shining was unveiled. I don’t know if it was the intensity of the 70mm images or the power of the six-track Dolby stereo, but this two-minute preview had an impact on me I remember to this day. It looked amazing. I had to see it. This was an R-rated film, but I was going to have to find a way to convince my parents to take me .

   Any Star Wars fan will tell you something magical happens when the 20th Century Fox fanfare comes on before any Star Wars film. For me, it is the saddest part of the franchise’s move to Disney, no opening Fox fanfare. No other film opening does it justice. After the fanfare, the words, A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… set my anticipation to a fever pitch before the words Star Wars tracked onto the screen and the opening march of John Williams’s score came barreling into my eardrums. The sounds pouring out of the Charles Cinema’s speakers were mind-blowing. I sensed the music from the tips of my toes to the strands of my hair. I, who knew little of how sound worked, was unaware how the high and low frequencies delivered through six channels of Dolby Sound allowed my body to feel what it could not hear. The vibrating tingles of this audio assault immersed me in the film as the sharp, bright, vibrant images of the 70mm print burned into my retinas.

   I was in awe of this experience seeing a movie on a towering screen, with mega sound and images sharper, and more vibrant, than any film I had seen before. When the credits came up, I was a mixture of emotions. I had been on a dynamic thrill ride, yet I was somewhat let down. The film left me hanging on a cliff, and the knowledge I’d have to wait another three years for the next chapter was too much to bear. Many questions hung in the balance. At the time, most of my friends were let down by The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t until the trilogy was complete we came to terms with it and recognized Empire for the great film it was. The original Star Wars is still my favorite, but this one runs a close second.

   Aside from my initial criticism, I was awed by seeing The Empire Strikes Back at the Charles Cinema. I learned movies could be something more than what you saw at the local multiplex or drive-ins. There was a way to enjoy the film-going experience at a higher level. For me, the level was 70mm, and I wanted to raise this bar again.

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