by Joe Scott

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who love Star Wars and people who are wrong.

Since Episode IV first hit theaters in 1977, Star Wars has been a genuine phenomenon, a modern-day mythology that forever changed the genre of science fiction, the concept of the Hollywood blockbuster and the course of nerd history.

But in the beginning there was just this silly little film, released without much ado or fanfare. It came to the Triad quietly, but quickly turned into a huge deal, the aftereffects of which are still being felt around these parts today.

The first Triad resident to see any part of the first Star Wars film — Patient Zero if you will, of the cultural phenomenon that would rage almost 40 years after its 1976 theatrical release — would most certainly be the late Dr. Hammond Bennett.

The founder of the once legendary but now demolished Janus Theatre traveled to England and toured the studio where the film was being produced, according to Hammond Bennett’s son Bobby.

Bobby Bennett: My father actually was given a tour in the London studios. I don’t know why. We didn’t even know what Star Wars was at the time. But on the big sound stages, he saw the set-up for when the Millennium Falcon was in the Death Star. He saw the set that was made up, because they did a lot of running around on the soundstage for that. And when he saw that, he said, ‘You know, that looks like a film I want to get.’

To book the film, Hammond Bennett had to bid against other theaters and even install a Dolby stereo system inside the Janus. The latter proved a costly upfit since Star Wars was the first film that required the use this new sound technology. Fortunately, the financial risk paid off.

Star Wars blew up in such a big way that his father had to play the film in as many as four theaters at a time, Bobby Bennett said. It played so often that the theater’s projectionists had to replace five or six different film reels after they were worn down by continuous wear and tear. By at the end of it all, the Janus screened the movie for an initial run of one year and three months, a number that would have been longer had the movie’s studio not concluded its run.

Outside of those who worked on the film, one of the first people who saw actual screen footage of Star Wars in the entire world was filmmaker and UNC School of the Arts School of Filmmaking instructor Patrick Read Johnson.

A native of Wadsworth, Ill., the 14-year-old Johnson had been making movies with a Super 8 camera since he was in elementary school.

Johnson: I started borrowing my dad’s Super 8 camera while he was at work without his knowledge and began setting fire to my train set and blowing up things in the back yard and making Planet of the Apes movies at my friend’s house.

A child of divorce, Johnson was set early on to leave his home for Hollywood to pursue a career in filmmaking, just like his heroes Steven Spielberg and special-effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull. But then Johnson met a girl. He met the girl.

Johnson: She had worked at the Solo plastic cup factory with her mother who had worked there her entire life, and I was mesmerized and overwhelmed and completely and utterly infatuated with her. And my mom was like, ‘Oh s***, he’s not gonna go. He’s not gonna leave. He’s gonna stay here.’

Not content to watch her son squander his imagination and potential, Johnson’s mother reached into his bedroom closet where she found copies of the popular filmmaking magazine American Cinematographer, and looked up the publication’s editor, Herb Lightman, on the masthead.

Johnson: My mom just cold-calls this guy and says, ‘I’ve got this kid. All he knows and breathes and lives for is movies. If I put him on a plane out there, will you introduce him to Douglas Trumbull and Steven Spielberg and all these guys?’ And [Lightman] was like (sarcastically), ‘Of course I will. Of course I will ma’am. I will do anything I can do to help your son.’ And then he went ‘click.’

Two days later, the teenaged Johnson was knocking on the clubhouse door of American Cinematographer magazine.

Johnson — who would later go on to direct a handful of major studio movies including Spaced Invaders (1990) and Angus (1995) — has fashioned this most unlikely, albeit completely true story into his latest feature film, 5-25-77. Named after the original release date of Star Wars, the autobiographical movie tells the story about how his fateful, weeklong trip to LA forever changed his life.

Together, Johnson and Lightman visit Spielberg and Trumbull on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The editor interviewed the filmmakers while Johnson got the chance to operate the movie’s spaceship. Lightman then attempted to persuade Johnson to strike out on his own for a tour of Universal Studios while he visited the set of another movie the following day.

Johnson: He said, ‘You don’t want to go with me. It’s just a bunch of college kids in a warehouse in the valley and they’re doing it all wrong. It’s a space movie and — get this — it’s called Star Wars.’ We busted up laughing because the title was ridonkulous….

And I said, ‘You know, I came out here to see everything I could possibly see, so let me tag along.’

The duo visited the original offices of Industrial Light and Magic, where they were greeted by special-effects master and frequent George Lucas collaborator John Dykstra. Johnson recalls Dykstra as being a crazy man who talked a mile a minute. He was unable to share any still photographs from the movie, but offered the next best thing — a chance to watch an incomplete, work-in-progress version of the film.

Johnson: And he starts showing literally a rough cut of the movie, with no composites done. The star destroyer is up against a blue screen, and there’s no music. There’s no sound effects. You can hear Kenny Baker inside R2-D2 talking. You can see the grips outside the Millennium Falcon just shaking it. It’s just ridiculous, but it’s also amazing. It’s staggering.

Bennett says on his first proper viewing he was blown away by the movie’s finished sound effects.

Bennett: I think we ran it the night before it came out. We had a full crowd. The opening of it is one of the most impressive openings of a movie ever. It still is. You got to remember that Dolby stereo was new. In the very beginning, it comes out with the 20th Century Fox drumroll, and that’s in stereo.

And then it got quiet and it ran through the opening crawl, ‘In a galaxy far far away.’ Then it gets real quiet and at first it’s just stars, then it pans down onto a planet and all of the sudden that big star cruiser comes in from behind you and it would start on the rear speakers behind, and it just went, ‘Whoosh!’ And it went all the way up to the front speakers and you could tell. It was impressive.

Despite Bennett and Johnson’s glowing initial reactions, the film did not earn entirely positive reviews.

In his advanced review of the film, which ran in the Greensboro Record on June 21, 1977, columnist Charles Newman opined, “Star Wars is a three-scoop sundae with gobs of whipped cream and extra maraschino cherries. It’s sheer extravagance, utterly without higher significance, but delightful.”

Months later, when it was clear that Star Wars was a runaway cultural phenomenon, Russ Edmonston, staff writer for the Greensboro Daily News, assailed the film in a think piece titled “Why is this plotless flick such a successful force?”

The old guard had simply missed the point. Winston-Salem comic book artist Ben Towle says the plot of Star Wars is deceptively simple.

Towle: I love the fact that you are just sort of dropped into this crazy environment and they don’t kind of explain everything. There’s just this understanding that you are a smart person and you will figure it out. Even if you’re just a smart kid. And I think that comes from Lucas watching a lot of [Japanese filmmaker Akira] Kurosawa movies.

You can watch one of those things, and you don’t need to know about feudal Japan to know what’s going on.

Aside from the fact that great cinematic art does not require a plot in order to exist, Star Wars excelled at being a mash-up of genre and character archetypes. Propelled by impeccable design aesthetics, a gloriously symphonic score by John Williams and, of course, innovative visual effects. With Star Wars, writer/director George Lucas had created a cinematic stir-fry, combining elements of space operas, family drama, Westerns and samurai movies, all on the extended platter of a vintage movie serial.

And yes, the movie made a lot of money — both around the world as well as here in the Triad.

Bennett: I remember people walking in [to the Janus Theatre] and yelling, ‘42!’ talking about how many times they had seen it.

In comparison, Johnson had only managed to watch Star Wars in the theater a paltry 28 times. But he and his filmmaking friends made it their mission to ensure that everyone in their hometown had a chance to see the movie.

Johnson: I remember driving down the streets of Waukegan, Ill. on Scoop the Loop night, and asking people, ‘Have you seen Star Wars?’ And if they would say no we would take them and rush them over to the theater and pay their way and we would drag them in there and make them watch Star Wars. I was an acolyte. I was a monk.

An empire of memories

If Star Wars, which would later be retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was left to be the first and only chapter in Lucas’ space opera, maybe film buffs would regard it the way we discuss beloved standalone sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner.

But according to Johnson, without the superior follow-up film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars would not be the cultural phenomenon nor the expansive, sprawling space epic that it has become for generations of sci-fi nerds.

Johnson: Empire is a masterpiece. Star Wars is a masterpiece in its own way. Had it not been for Empire, there would not have been anything else. Star Wars would have been it and it would have gone away. Empire is the film that created everything that has come since. The relationships and revelations of that film have created the groundwork of everything that has come after and there’s so much to mine from that, and they will and they are in Episode VII.

One person who was especially drawn in by Empire’s tractor beam was Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem. His first connection to Star Wars was through a chance discovery of a Darth Vader action figure he found on the floor of a K-Mart.

Parks: And I pick it up and instantly think it’s the most awesome toy I have ever seen. I just remember begging my parents to buy it for me, So they did. It was my first Star Wars toy, but I had no idea what Star Wars was. I remember playing with it. I played with it in the car, I played with it at home, it was my favorite toy. And then I just remember a little bit of time later, someone says, ‘‘There’s a movie for those toys you like.’

My parents were like, ‘We’ll take you to see the movie,’ but I was scared. I didn’t know what Chewbacca sounded like, but I had the toy and I knew he was a monster. I knew they had guns and they had knives and I didn’t want to go because I was scared.

Now 41, Parks is ashamed to admit that the kid version of himself passed on seeing Star Wars in 1977, as well as during its subsequent re-releases in 1978 and 1979.

Parks: But then 1980 comes around and I’m 6. So I tell my dad I want to see the new Star Wars movie. And he’s like, ‘All right.’

Parks and his dad rolled to the former Reynolda Cinema, then a two-screen theater that later closed in 1996 and is now home to the Reynolda Manor Public Library.

Parks: The tickets were sold out. And we didn’t have Fandango or pre-orders or pre-sales or anything like that. And if you were in that situation, you did one of two things: You went home, or you waited. And my dad actually offered to wait until the next showing. So the whole running time of the movie and the previews, we stood outside and we waited, and that’s how I saw my first Star Wars movie.

The wait, which Parks described as a simple, albeit profound act of fatherly love, became the basis of “Strikes,” an autobiographical mini-comic book that Parks wrote. The book was illustrated by customer and fellow Star Wars fan Towle.

Towle: As a kid, I really latched onto the visual aspects of Star Wars. I remember having, and I still have at my house, the script book. It has all those amazing Ralph McQuarrie concept drawings of stuff. And I remember being really fascinated by those, and I think somewhere in my brain was churning the idea that there’s somebody who draws this stuff before it turns into anything real, and that’s what their job was.

I guess it was sort of the idea that there was such a thing as design and that things get designed.

To add a stylistic flourish to Parks’ story, Towle reimagined the story with Parks and his late father inserted into key scenes in Empire Strikes Back.

Towle: I kind of pitched him on the idea of, there being elements or beats in this story that are very similar to some of the beats in the movie. And I was like, ‘What if we incorporated sort of this fantasy setting where we inserted you and your dad into the world of Star Wars at certain points?’ That was my contribution to it.

Parks green-lighted the idea, and the result is a 19-page comic book that is as beautiful as it is touching.

As for the movie Empire itself, Parks says there’s no better gateway into the Star Wars universe.

Parks: Empire was the best movie as a movie. Take the Star Wars out of it, get critical, and look at the technical aspects of the movie and Empire was the better movie. I think it’s just so exciting.

It’s not how a movie ends. Sure we knew another movie was happening, but it was those strange feelings that you felt like your friends were in trouble and you wanted to help them but you couldn’t do anything for a couple of years. It really stayed with you.

And when Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke Skywalker’s father? Sure, now it’s just such a common fact. But at that time, in the movie theater, when Darth Vader says that, it was mind blowing.

If we had an internet back then, it would have been destroyed!

A phantom ‘failure’?

The original Star Wars trilogy concluded satisfyingly with the release of the 1983 film Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

In a wire story written by Dale Pollock that ran in the Greensboro News & Record on May 29, 1983, a burned-out George Lucas told Pollock he would be taking at least a two-year vacation before returning to the Star Wars franchise.

Sixteen years and one Howard the Duck movie later, the long-awaited follow-up came in the form of the 1999 prequel Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Towle: When the first prequel came out, you couldn’t help but be excited about that. I saw the first one several times in the theater and it still had the visual stuff that I liked a lot. I do remember liking it and parts of it, but I do distinctly remember when the film started rolling and you heard that trumpet herald and that crawl with the letters, and when the thing was over, and it just stopped, there was just silence in the theater and people kind of got up and left, and I thought, Well that’s kind of weird.

Parks: So I saw the movie with my friends, and we’re hanging out at the movie theater after the movie, talking. And no one wanted to say that it was horrible. I kept hearing over and over, people were saying, ‘Darth Maul was awesome.’ Or, ‘That pod race, well that was something.’ But no one wanted to talk about how awkward and just not good it was. And I really did think it was horrible.

Jermaine Exum can remember the exact moment when he stopped caring about Star Wars.

The co-manager of Acme Comics in Greensboro had no issue with the poorly regarded first Star Wars prequel. He also managed to endure its dull, tedious follow-up Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

For Exum, the straw that broke the Wookiee’s back was Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi are being exterminated by Stormtroopers. A group of child Jedi trainees — known as “younglings” — are cowering in their temple only to be viciously mowed down by Anakin Skywalker.

Exum: There’s a variety of heroes to be had in the original [Star Wars] movies. Maybe you’re a Han Solo guy. Maybe you really like the droids. Maybe you like Lando Calrissian. Maybe you like Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker.

In the prequels, you really didn’t have that variety. You either like Obi Wan Kenobi or you like Anakin. And if you did like Anakin, you had to deal with him participating in some pretty dark content for any fantasy/sci-fi series.

He basically kills his fan base. That’s how I’ve always looked at that scene. Kids at that time really liked his character and connected to him because that was what was available. He was the young guy, he was the kid. And sometimes younger audiences will see something like that and say, ‘Hey, that’s the kid.’

The story became so far removed from what I thought it would be or whatever I was hoping it would be that, for a long time, I completely stopped thinking about Star Wars — to the point where I couldn’t even remember some characters’ names.

But not everyone hated the prequels. There are adults today who first watched the prequels when they were kids — or “Jar-Jar babies” — and considered the prequels to be a perfect way to spend time in a dark theater.

Brittini Harbin, a life-long sci-fi/fantasy and comic book nerd and expert at the Apple Store in Greensboro, is one of these so-called Jar-Jar babies. Harbin was 10-years old when The Phantom Menace hit theaters.

Harbin: When the new ones came out in theaters, we went of course. And for the first two, I went with my family. And for the third, I went with a friend. And so it kind of represented the transition from being a kid-kid and starting to do things on your own. Everyone now will talk about how bad they were, but those were the new ones to us. We saw those in the theaters, and at the time, I did like those characters and did think those movies were better. But now that I’m not 13, I know that they are not better.

And it’s funny. At the end of the last movie, the guy sitting in front of us kind of stood up and he was like, ‘And you can just tell there’s gonna be a sequel!’ My friend Jamie and I laughed really hard, and it was probably rude, but thinking back, we knew what was coming up after that. These were prequels, but he had no idea.

Parks: I realized those movies were not made for me. Episode I, II and III, they were not made for a guy who is 40 years old right now who loved Star Wars all his life. They were made for kids who wouldn’t think Jar-Jar is stupid.

A ‘New Hope’

The first scene in the teaser trailer for the newest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is one that some fans did not expect to see: The camera opens on a desert landscape, then suddenly an out-of-breath character played by John Boyega jumps into the frame.

Many fans beefed with the brief sequence because the relatively unknown Boyega is black and was dressed as a Stormtrooper, one of an infinite squad that the Star Wars mythology posits are footsoldiers cloned from Jango Fett (Boba’s dad), a character played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison. Even more shamefully, some fans were upset with the sequence because Boyega is black and his character Finn, is ostensibly one of the main characters in The Force Awakens, the newest film in a movie franchise dominated almost entirely by white on-screen protagonists.

Greensboro cosplayer Kenya Thompson knows the myopic and sometimes overtly racist fanboy criticisms that Boyega faces all too well. An African-American costume designer and nerd entrepreneur who grew up on a steady diet of science fiction and comic book superheroes, she has taken flack at fan conventions in the past for cosplaying as characters who are white or male. She accomplishes both with her most polished cosplay inspired by Star Wars — the young, morally flawed Star Wars prequel hero Anakin Skywalker, who was played by Hayden Christensen in the films.

Greensboro cosplayer Kenya Thompson reps Anakin Skywalker, her preferred Star Wars character. “Star Wars fans are both the best and the worst fans in the world,” she says.

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Thompson: People don’t like it when things aren’t the way that they think it should be, and Star Wars fans are both the best fans and the worst fans in the world. They can be the worst, because some can be very picky about what they want to see and what they want to experience. They get comfortable.

And I think because Star Wars fans can be so set in their ways, the Star Wars franchise as a whole has become stagnant, almost to the point of death.

According to Thompson, the addition of a black male leading character into the Star Wars cinematic cannon will inject new life into the film series as well as embolden young children of color who might have previously felt shut out by mainstream genre films.

Thompson: Having young kids, particularly African-American or kids of color in general, to have someone to look at and say, ‘Oh my God, he’s going through this struggle!’ And then in real life, face an obstacle or something that they have to deal with, they will be able to say, ‘Well you know what? If Finn can do it, I can do it.’ So that very positive reinforcement I think will be great.

With new characters and story backed by an all-new creative team that includes producer Kathleen Kennedy and Star Trek and “Lost” director JJ Abrams, even Johnson, the self-described “first fan” of Star Wars cannot help but be excited.

Johnson: Kathy Kennedy and JJ Abrams are going to do an amazing film. I have no doubt in my mind that what is coming is going to be one of the best, and I’ve already said this in print, it might be the best Star Wars movie. And that’s a big claim, but I actually believe its possible that it might be the best.

As for older fans like Exum who felt burned by the less-than-spectacular prequels, if they had to sum up their expectations for The Force Awakens in one word, that would most certainly have to be “redemption.”

Exum: I want to be excited about the Star Wars movies again. I want them to be something that sparks a new generation of young people to get into science fiction and science fantasy. Bare minimum, that’s what I want.

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