I do not remember seeing Star Wars in a theater, but I know that I did. Aside from a fuzzy recollection of how the Stormtroopers scared me almost unto tears when they were rendered 10-feet-high on the silver screen, I just have to take my parents' word for it when they say that I saw it at age 3, loved it, and talked about it non-stop. My real experience with the first movie began the day Dad bought me all the main characters in action figure form and I began to deconstruct what little I could remember of the story on a daily basis for the next three years.
I distinctly remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back in a theater, though. It was the coolest moment of my life at the time, not only because I got to see my beloved Luke again, but because I saw it in the middle of the night, way past a normal kid's bedtime. Because midnight showings were the only movie showings my night-owl family went to see.
Maybe it was because Dad worked second shift and was used to getting all his movie and television watching in in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe it was my parents' shared dislike of crowded places. Or maybe we were just ahead of the times. But I never entered a movie theater with my parents unless it was after 11pm on a Saturday night.
So on Memorial Day weekend of 1980, our family of four headed out to the Showcase Cinema way past when most people on my street had retired for the night. My mom and sister were not Star Wars fans, so they went to see The Shining in the theater next door as my dad bought me a huge bucket of stale popcorn with extra butter and made sure I had a seat behind no one so that I could see every bit of intergalactic action on the screen.
It was a marvel. We nearly had the theater to ourselves. As "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." flashed on the screen and the John Williams score swelled, the few people in the theater applauded. My heart filled to bursting. I looked at my dad, usually stoic, and saw that he, too, was smiling.
In such an empty theater, I could become totally absorbed in what I was seeing on the screen, with nothing to distract me. During the Hoth scenes, I felt the cold of the ice and snow and the terror of the approaching AT-ATs. I laughed at Yoda when I thought he was just a strange little tropical nuisance and grew in awe of him as he raised Luke's X-Wing from the swamp. I felt a disturbance in the force when Leia told Han she loved him and he gave a smartass remark in reply (I was six at the time; in all my re-enactments with my action figures, I made it clear that Luke and Leia would someday marry and have little Jedi babies.) And in the shocking final moments when we all learned that Darth Vader is Luke's father, my eyes began to water. Maybe because it was 1:30 in the morning. But just as likely it was that I was so shocked by the revelation that my kindergarten brain could only handle it by having a bit of a cry. How could that be?! They are mortal enemies! And Luke's real father was killed by Vader! You lie!
We walked outside to a silent, almost-vacant parking lot. I heard the snap of a cigarette lighter and saw the red glow as Dad inhaled deeply. The stars above burned bright and clear as we waited for The Shining to let out. I wondered which distant star was Dagobah, and which was Hoth, and where Han had been taken after he was carbon-frozen. I had no words. Only wonder.
"What did you think?"
"I can't believe Darth Vader is Luke's father. Do you think he really is, or was he lying?"
Dad laughed. "I guess we'll find out."
I tried to think about how old I would be when the next movie came out, which I had heard on TV would be in three years. That would mean I would be nine. Wow. So old. And like Yoda, I would be so wise. By then, I would write cursive and know how to multiply and divide. It seemed as distant as a rebel base.
Soon Mom's movie let out, and we were joined by the rest of my family. No one made any move just yet to get in the car; the night was beautiful, and we had much to talk about.
"It was...something," my mother said, and told us how her movie was a little disappointing and not nearly as scary as she and Joanie thought it would be. People laughed, she said, when Jack went crazy with an axe. The way Mom and my sister were talking and laughing themselves, I would have guessed they had just seen a comedy. I asked if I could see it the next day, and got a firm "No!" Curious movie, indeed.
"And how was your movie?"
I talked nonstop. "I loved it! There was this big snow monster and I thought Luke was going to die, and then there were these big walking robot things, and then Luke met Yoda, who was really old and really smart. He fought a battle with Darth Vader that might have been a dream because when he cut Vader's head off the mask opened and it was LUKE'S FACE and I didn't like that part. Then some bad stuff happened to Leia and Han and she told him she loved him and then he got frozen and I don't know, maybe he's dead. But then Luke's hand got chopped off and replaced with a metal one and he found out DARTH VADER IS HIS FATHER but he must be lying." Then I yawned.
"I think we're all tired. Let's get you home."
I fell asleep that night thinking of both space heroes and evil empires and mad men with axes chasing their families while quoting Ed McMahon. I thought of how cool it had been to come home to a completely dark street and wander into my house red-eyed and exhausted but with my head full of new characters and good stories. I still like watching a late movie (on video, now that I'm old and almost a morning person) and going to bed while the movie's still fresh; sometimes the movie sticks with you through the night and you get an encore in your dreams. I should say that this is better for a movie like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than for a movie like The Descent.
Growing up in a family of night owls was weird and often unsettling. What normal people eat dinner at midnight, I ask you? But when it came to movies, we got it right.