Forty years ago this month, my parents took me and my brothers and my friend Mike to see Return of the Jedi on opening night. This is an edited version of the chapter “What You Take With You,” from my book Collect All 21! I think it’s important to note that I wrote this years before Disney bought Lucasfilm and created the sequels, and sharing those on screen with my wife and daughter was way up there with watching Episode VI as a 12-year old. Enjoy.
My movie-going experiences peaked when I was twelve years old.
Notice I’m not saying that when my mom and dad and brothers and my friend Mike and I went to Return of the Jedi on opening night that I saw the best movie ever. (Although if you’d asked me right after, I’d have probably said it was.)
I’m just saying that as an overall movie-going experience, seeing Jedi on May 25, 1983 makes an awfully damn convincing case for my top spot. (This is scored using a complicated formula of three years of anticipation plus best friend coming along plus pre-movie meal and line-waiting in the mall plus insanely excited crowd multiplied by being a pre-teen Star Wars nutcase.)
First of all, you’ve got to remember the build-up: Three interminably long years before, we’d all staggered out of theaters having been slapped with the most insane cliffhanger ever — Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke wondering if Darth Vader’s his dad.
I don’t remember what movie I went to see at the Gold Circle Cinemas the night I first saw the Return of the Jedi trailer. Heck, I can’t even honestly remember if I saw the fabled original Revenge of the Jedi version. I do remember telling all my friends about it (we were almost all still Star Wars fans on some level, though I feel confident in saying nobody had it as bad as I did), and specifically talking about a shot of Chewbacca picking up a stormtrooper and throwing him backwards into another trooper, which seemed to me the very definition of “awesome.”
So now it’s late May 1983, and Jedi is set to open.
On a freaking Wednesday night.
Arggh! That’s a school night, George! What are you thinking?! I can’t go to see a movie on a school night! You’re killing me!
Did I ask my parents a few days beforehand? I honestly don’t know. If I did, they hadn’t given me a concrete answer, because otherwise I’d remember bragging at school about going.
I got home from school around 3:30, and the pestering began. “Can we, Mom? Dad? Please? Can Mike come along if we go? CanweCanweCanwe?”
And they said YES! Mom, Dad, my little brothers Nick and Adam and I piled into our Ford conversion van, drove up to Hartville and picked up Mike and then headed down to Mellet Mall in Canton.
I seem to think we got to the mall around 5 o’clock for something like an 8 o’clock showing.
Pulling into the parking lot, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Mellett Mall’s Twin Cinemas’ only entrance was from inside the shopping center, so the giant movie marquee outside hung on a big plain brown brick wall. No flashing lights, no mass of fans gathering in front of the theater. Just Return of the Jedi in big plastic, all-capital letters. Remembering what it was like to see that sign still tightens my chest a little bit.
When we went inside it was quickly clear this was not an ordinary night at the movies. A line, two and three people wide, led from the theater’s entrance out past the novelty T-shirt shop next door, past Casual Corner and the Little Professor Bookstore and on down the concourse toward Montgomery Ward. I’d never seen a line like this outside of Cedar Point or Disney World.
And there was an energy to it. Not the kind like we saw in the prequel era, when people came out in costumes and you’d see fully-armored Stormtroopers and robed Jedi and maybe a Boba Fett or four, but just an anticipatory thrill, everybody talking and excited and ready to find out how this whole thing was going to end up.
So, here we were. Hyper. Frantic. Psyched.
And facing a three-hour wait until showtime.
No advance ticket sales here, this was good old-fashioned get in line, tickets go on sale maybe an hour, tops, before a showing, wait your turn and have a friend hold your spot if you have to pee.
Mom, Dad, Nick, Adam, Mike and I parked ourselves at the end. (People piled in behind us pretty steadily, so we weren’t at the end long.) Mike and I ran up to the front of the line to look at the movie posters and the accompanying photos in their lit-up glass frame, pointing and wondering and yammering about how cool this was and how great it was to be there.
We ate dinner in two shifts: Clutching some money from Mom and Dad, we ran down to the hot dog shop — it might have been called Carousel — and the Orange Julius next door. (That was, I’m pretty sure, all the food choices Mellett Mall had to offer. Food courts wouldn’t reach Canton for another few years.) It felt neat, being 12 years old and kind of on our own. Sure, my family was right down the mall, but these were pre-cell phone days, and there was a sort of freedom in the air as we ordered our own food, found a place to sit, talking and joking while we ate.
Then we held the spot in line when Mom and Dad took my little brothers for dinner.
It’s funny how much of the next few hours I don’t remember from that May evening in 1983.
I don’t remember the line eventually creeping forward, or the moment our tickets came spitting up through the little slot in the counter, or finding our seats, or the lights going down, or the previews.
I don’t remember the tense anticipation brought on by the 20th Century Fox fanfare or the chills on the back of my neck at the blast of sound when the Star Wars logo slammed onto the screen.
What I really remember is a feeling.
I’ve never seen a movie in an atmosphere like that again. Packed houses on opening nights with hardcore fans, sure, but never again like this one.
We were there.
All of us were there in the Tatooine desert, screaming and whooping when Artoo launched Luke’s lightsaber through the hot, wavering air. We were in the cramped, firelit hut when Yoda confirmed Vader’s secret. Yes, we even joined the Ewoks’ battle cries, feeling the ground shake under the thundering fall of an Imperial Scout Walker.
I was so excited to go to school the next day, because this time, it was me who’d gotten to go see the next Star Wars movie first, and I couldn’t wait to talk about it and see if anyone else had been to opening night. Funny thing is, nobody had. Not only that, nobody seemed as caught up in the whole thing, at least, not the way they’d been a couple years before about Empire. Guess that’s what three years, especially those between third and sixth grade, will do.
Somewhere in the years after Jedi, it became cool to sell the movie short, mostly because of the Ewoks, but also because of the whole Luke/Leia-brother/sister coincidence, and the flip dialogue, and the re-hashing of the Death Star battle. And even though a lot of us first-generation fans recognize those things, I’d bet very few of us felt that way right after seeing it. Weakest of the original trilogy? No doubt — but I don’t remember a single person coming out of that theater disappointed.
Because what I remember most vividly about that night is the moment of triumph when Vader is turned at the last, swooping the Emperor up in those armored arms as John Williams’ score assaulted our ears. A wave of awestruck adrenaline rushed through the theater, and the audience actually stood in unison and cheered, caught up in the climax.
I’ve never seen that happen at any other movie screening.
That’s my favorite movie scene ever. Even three decades and a thousand watches later, it still manages to spark whatever cells hold the faintly-vibrating echoes of that night. For the shortest of blinks, things around me go dark, and I taste hot dogs and Orange Julius and popcorn and Coke and then my throat and guts do a Jell-O shiver and Mom and Dad and Nick and Adam and Mike are there beside me and we’re in a crowd that’s wide-eyed and applauding and grinning in the movie screen’s flicker.
It always passes more quickly than I hope, but as long as those seconds still happen, somewhere I still get to be twelve.
2 thoughts on “What You Take With You: A “Return of the Jedi” Opening Night Remembrance”
Gosh, do I envy you! I was born the year Return of the Jedi came out, so, even though it’s my favourite movie, I’ve never seen it in theatres. (And I’ll probably never have a chance to, at least, not in its original form.) But, also, I can totally see how the whole theatre going experience would really add to things. I’d actually kind of forgotten what going to the cinema was like (COVID-19 scared me away from them for a while). But it’s also very rare for the anticipation, and the vibe in the crowd, and the quality of the movie to come together so perfectly.
Thanks for letting me live vicariously through your experience! 🙂
Thank *you* for reading! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂