A long time ago…

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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.