- 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?
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.