Like many of you during this holiday season, I’ve spent time running around town for the perfect gifts for my friends and family. I’ve caught up on some episodic television shows. And I’ve gone to a few movies.
This year, my nostalgia seems to have gotten the better of me. I was born here in Southern California. In a “Gold Rush” city, where most people make their way here seeking fame and fortune, finding true natives is more of a rarity than you’d think.
For those of us that spent our childhoods here in the 1970s, the movies we watched were only a part of the experience that remains burned into our memories. The movie theaters themselves were just as important an element to our experiences of youth and culture. The buildings that hosted the stories and visions we would go home and dream about. Obsess over.
One of those buildings still exists here in my hometown. Sure, it’s legendary. Sure, it’s been host to some of the greatest screen gems in movie history. Sure, it’s surrounded by the hands and feet of the most famous cinematic personalities on the planet.
But in 1977, it was just four walls and a roof. One that may as well have been in another universe to a six-year-old kid who caught a glimpse of it on his 8×10 black and white television set.
I was living under my father’s roof in the San Fernando Valley. I had few friends and the long days were made up of comic books, cartoons and whatever madness Sid and Marty Krofft were dishing out on Saturdays. The television held the keys to other dimensions. Dimensions far from the claustrophobic house I felt trapped in. Dimensions of sight, sound and mind. Dimensions far, far away.
One Saturday afternoon, the local news reported on a crazy event that was taking Hollywood by storm. It was crowding the streets and creating mayhem in the city. “Was it a bomb?” I thought. “Was it an earthquake?” I wondered.
I quickly discovered that it was a “War.” A War in the Stars.
The day dragged by as I waited for my father to get home. I rehearsed everything I would say. How calm, relaxed and reasonable I’d be about why we should make a trip to whatever theater this was. Of course, I was practically in tears when he walked through the door. Desperate with desire.
My father knew about these intergalactic Wars! He knew what was going on with all of those people! He knew where the theater was! And he absolutely refused to take me there.
“Too many people.” “Too crazy.” “Not worth it.” “Wait until it dies down a bit.”
Having struck out with dear old dad, I did what I always did when I failed to persuade him with my nerdy enthusiasm. I asked my Uncle.
Uncle Sheldon was the reason I’d ever first held a comic book. He was weird and overweight and didn’t smell like roses, but he shared my passion and did everything he could to open the doors to the world of fantasy and adventure. I loved him.
In the summer of 1977, I got to see Star Wars, my first movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
I remember waiting in line, entranced by the people around me. Looking up at hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes. No limit to sex, race or age. These people were my new family. I was welcome here.
I remember the laughter in the lobby. I remember my Uncle’s answer to every question I asked.
“Seat close to the screen?”
Yes, yes, yes.
Star Wars didn’t change everything for science-fiction cinema. It changed everything for cinema itself.
Think about it.
The 1970s was arguably one of the greatest decades in American cinema history. Drama, Crime Noir, Romance. But the true explosion of science fiction on the screen came after Star Wars exploded the world. It validated an entire screen genre.
Of course, many forget that Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out just six months after Star Wars was released.
I saw that one in December of that same year. At the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd.
I didn’t know who Buckminster Fuller was or how the building was based on his geodesic design elements in 1963. I just knew that it looked like a spaceship and had a curved screen so large, my eyes couldn’t take it all in. I remember the crushing sound of the alien keyboard language, rattling my eardrums with those five distinctive notes over and over.
And again, I remember my first time in the lobby. And where we sat (close to the screen and in the middle). I remember wondering if these were the same people I’d seen at the Star Wars screening (they were, after a fashion). And I remember Uncle Sheldon and his consistency.
“Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Tears streaming down my face because I was literally flying with Christopher Reeve. Soda coming out of my nose because E.T. made me laugh so hard. The slow, slow, slow drift of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, lulling me into the silence of space.
And the thoroughly damaging visions of that shark. That damn shark that didn’t just keep me out of the ocean for so many years. It scared me so deeply, I couldn’t go into the deep end of a pool. Too, too soon.
Star Wars. Indiana Jones. ‘Nuff said.
The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, yes. Yes, it did.
And there was another theater that holds so many important memories. A Los Angeles legend. Unlike Grauman’s and the Egyptian and the Dome, for some reason this beautiful site never reached the status of historical landmark.
The Winnetka Drive-In.
Barren, warped and caved asphalt, a broken wood frame screen and of course, state-of-the-art Cine-Fi Car Audio Formatting. Which meant that the screen never matched with the dialogue on the radio.
But it was heaven. My brother always hid me in the trunk when we drove in, so we didn’t have to pay for my ticket. And while his friends and their dates were being gross and making out, I got to sit up front in the driver’s seat.
I got to be freaked out by the little girl trapped in the television set, wonder why they all giggled when Roger Moore cooed the name of Holly Goodhead and yell at them all to be quiet because Khan was on the screen. And you don’t interrupt Khan!
“The Winnetka Drive.”
Now a generic Multi-Plex, its memories buried deep in the earth and even deeper in my heart.
1977. The Star Wars revolution begins breeding.
This is what happened in five years. Five. Years.
Superman (I and II).
Empire Strikes Back.
Return of the Jedi.
Dawn of the Dead.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
The Right Stuff.
The Dead Zone.
While not all that came after were firmly planted in the science fiction genre, is it a stretch to say they might not have been made without its success?
Maybe it wasn’t so much a validation of a genre, but of a paying audience. Our demographic wasn’t taken very seriously before the “Wars.” But money speaks volumes in Hollywood. And our kind can be very demanding.
We wanted science, technology, fantasy and horror. And they gave it to us.