1977: A Long Time Ago, in a Theater Not Far Away ...
When the first Star Wars film made its Washington debut at Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park back on May 25, 1977, few in Hollywood expected director George Lucas' movie — inspired by the Flash Gordon serials he'd loved in his youth — to do much business. Several studios had turned down the idea when Lucas pitched it, and 20th Century Fox, which finally decided to take a flier on it, thought so little of its chances that it booked the film in less than three dozen theaters nationwide, including the Uptown. The studio figured that the romantic potboiler The Other Side of Midnight would be its big hit that summer, and Lucas' film was an afterthought.
In the District, perhaps the first hint that something spectacular was about to happen was the surprisingly enthusiastic review that Washington Post reviewer Gary Arnold gave in the morning edition. Arnold, who'd been charmed by Lucas' coming-of-age film American Graffiti, lavished praise on the filmmaker. "He has achieved a witty and exhilarating synthesis of themes and clichés from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comics and serials, plus such related but less expected sources as the western, the pirate melodrama, the aerial combat melodrama and the samurai epic," Arnold gushed. "The movie's irresistible stylistic charm derives from the fact that Lucas can draw upon a variety of action-movie sources with unfailing deftness and humor. He is in superlative command of his own movie-nurtured fantasy life." (Across the country, reviewers were mixed — Roger Ebert loved the movie, while The New Yorker's influential Pauline Kael found it tedious.)
But at the Uptown, the venerable theater where Star Wars was booked, it was apparent from the start that something in Lucas' fantasy vision resonated with movie audiences. According to a Washington Post article published two days later, the movie's four of the six showings on opening day sold out, and about 2,000 people had to be turned away from the evening performances. Management quickly added an extra 11:50 p.m. late show to accommodate those who wanted to stay up late on a weeknight to see the film. The first-day box office of $12,898 shattered a record set by the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof and even surpassed the first-day take for The Exorcist, the 1973 horror classic that had the additional draw of taking place in Georgetown.
"Got there at 5 p.m. and it was mobbed," one moviegoer recalled in 2009. "Huge lines, very cool atmosphere. Ended up getting some of the last tickets for the midnight show. It was a truly social event — everyone there was totally psyched. When we went in to see the movie, the ushers were handing out blue buttons with 'The Force Be With You' on them. Still have that."
The frenzy in D.C. actually helped to tip off Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz that the movie was going to turn into a unique phenomenon. "In the afternoon I did a radio call-in show in Washington and this guy, this caller, was really enthusiastic and talking about the movie in really deep detail," he explained years later to the Los Angeles Times. "I said, 'You know a lot about the film.' He said, 'Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it four times already.' And that was opening day. I knew something was happening."
The next day, the Star Wars phenomenon was just as intense. The film had generated enough of a buzz that a 1 p.m. afternoon matinee filled the theater to about 75 percent capacity.
And even more amazingly, it didn't let up. By mid-June, Star Wars had developed a following so fanatical that went back to the Uptown to see the film again and again. Star Wars' looming presence actually began to transform the formerly quiet Cleveland Park neighborhood around the theater, with fans squabbling over parking places and roaming the streets before and after the showings, leaving behind beer cans, McDonald's hamburger wrappers, and the remains of marijuana joints strewn in their wake.
"It's an invasion," one resident told the Post. "There are people crawling up the streets constantly. We're constantly being awakened when people line up for the midnight show." The theater's management, though, was thrilled. In the first month, they grossed a then-sensational $350,000 and were probably reluctant to see the release expand in early June to theaters in White Flint and Rockville.
But even after Star Wars spread to a multitude of theaters throughout the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area, the clamor didn't die down. By October, enough people had turned into repeat viewers that local theatres began to book matinees where they could see it over and over. It's a safe bet that many of those people are lined up once again.