April 5, 2013

STAR WARS and the Westgate Theater (RIP)

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones. Directed by George Lucas. (1977, 125 min).

This isn't actually about the movie itself. Sorry. But maybe you'd like to climb into my time machine for a few minutes...

Besides, Star Wars has been written about, worshipped & analyzed to death over the decades. A gajillion critics, fans, geeks and trolls have combed over every frame of this movie in far greater detail than I would ever care to. What more could I possibly have to add?

But I do have a unique perspective on the phenomenon of the original Star Wars, partially because I was around back then, but mostly because I live in Portland, Oregon. If you actually know the obscure connection between my hometown and Star Wars, you deserve a place in the Geek Hall of Fame.

Today, the biggest movies are released on thousands of screens across the country. In large cities, you have at least a dozen theaters to pick from and most of those are multiplexes showing it on at least two screens. Not only that, you can go just about any time you want since cinema chains open around noon every day of the week. Last summer, The Dark Knight Rises was easily the most anticipated movie of the year, yet the day after its premiere, my daughter and I were able to waltz into the theater ten minutes before it started and had our choice of the best seats.

For me, the last movie I actually had to wait in line for was Independence Day back in 1996. And I don't even remember that last time I went to a theater and the movie sold-out before I could get there. Modern moviegoers have never spent any time in a line "stretching around the block", as the old cliche goes.

"Pull my finger."

Now let's climb into my time machine and transport back to 1977. If you weren't around back then, it might surprise you to learn the biggest movies opened in only one or two theaters in town - 'exclusive engagements' - giving the impression you were privileged they were playing near you at all. Theaters showed matinees only on weekends; Monday through Friday, the box office never opened 'till around 7:00 PM. Not only that, there was no such thing as home video, meaning if you didn't catch a movie on the big screen, it might be years before you saw it on TV. So to see a blockbuster movie usually meant waiting in line.

But Star Wars wasn't simply a blockbuster. It was the mother of all blockbusters, arriving with huge fanfare at only one theater in the Portland area, the Westgate Tri-Cinema, located in the suburb of Beaverton. Since literally everyone wanted to see it (except my dad, who never liked sci-fi in any way, shape or form), this meant there was one 900-seat auditorium to placate over a million people in the metropolitan area.

I can't speak for how other cities' theaters handled the demand for Star Wars in '77, but at the Westgate, even three months after it premiered (mainly because it took that long to talk Dad into going), we were still required to wait in a giant line to buy tickets, then wait in an entirely different line in get into the theater itself, a total of about two hours (during which time Dad was getting increasingly pissed). It was worth the wait, of course, not only because Star Wars more-than lived up to the hype, but because the Westgate itself was a wonderful place with huge auditoriums, gigantic screens and plush, luxurious, rocking seats..

There was something really cool about that era. Movies seemed like a bigger deal than they are today. The biggest ones were events and our attitude was different. We went into the theater with high hopes and wide eyes, and those long-ass lines somehow made everything just a bit more epic.

The old Westgate, in the process of being demolished in 2006. A sad day.

Movies aren't special events anymore and places like the Westgate (which was demolished over a decade ago) are all gone. No one waits in line 90 minutes anymore (or even 10). While that's often a good thing, at the same time, it somehow tends to render all movies a bit smaller than they were back in the day, when we felt
privileged to be watching them, not cynically challenging them to entertain us. When we go to a movie today, we mostly hope it's worth the twelve-dollar ticket price.

Regarding the aforementioned connection between Star Wars and my hometown of Portland...as I said before, it premiered as an exclusive engagement at the Westgate, which enjoyed long lines of eager fans. After roughly eight months, it expanded into multiple theaters in town. Then after all the Star Wars hype began to dissipate, the film continued to play at the Westgate over a year-and-a-half after its initial release. In fact, the Westgate was eventually the only theater in all of North America still showing the film. And there were Star Wars zealots flying to Portland from all over the world, just so they could check-out the movie on the big screen one more time.

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