Wednesday, May 04, 2016

From the Archives: May the Fourth Be With You - Part I

Seventeen years ago this month, I was among the hundreds of Star Wars fans who camped out in front of the Uptown Theatre in Northwest Washington, D.C., to wait for an opportunity to be the first to buy tickets and, the next week, to see the first screening, of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

I also covered the gathering for The Metro Herald, which in succeeding weeks published my report on the sidewalk queue and my review of the movie.

Brought up from deep in the archives, this article ran on the Arts & Entertainment page of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 14, 1999:

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is, without a doubt, the most anticipated movie in a generation, perhaps since Gone With the Wind. Some would argue that it is more hype than substance, though that remains to be seen, since the vast majority of us have seen only tantalizing snippets in the form of trailers, commercials, music videos, and computer files that end in *.AVI or *.MOV.

For diehard Star Wars fans, however, this is a religious experience. They, like the rest of us, have been waiting for 16 years for the newest film in the series to be released. Yet their wait has not been casual. It has been intense, with the intensity growing in recent weeks as the magic date of May 19 approached.

Starting last Sunday evening with a handful of dedicated fans, growing as a trickle through Monday night, until by Wednesday morning some 325 or more devotees had gathered on the sidewalks outside the Uptown Theatre on upper Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. The line snaked along from the south edge of the theatre, past Starbucks and Ireland’s Four Provinces, past the Cleveland Park Public Library, all the way to the end of the bridge that carries the avenue over Rock Creek Park.

There is no sense of crowdedness, certainly no rowdiness, but definitely a sense of hominess. The sidewalk is littered with sleeping bags, lawn chairs, coolers, pizza boxes, empty soda cans, knapsacks, and more. Some sit on inflatable furniture. (Inflatable Darth Maul chairs are available at Toys-R-Us for $21.95.) Some people have brought along radios and CD players. (The musical score from earlier Star Wars episodes floats through the air along with the chatter of fans.) For the overnight campers, there is the portable entertainment in the form of card games, Star Wars Trivial Pursuit sets, action figures, and plenty to read, from collections of “Bloom County” cartoon strips to J.R.R. Tolkien books to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The crowd is mostly young, primarily college students but some people in their thirties and some in their teens. Some come dressed in Star Wars-inspired costumes, but most are dressed simply in shorts and t-shirts, jeans and sweatshirts. As the sun rises across Connecticut Avenue, they rub sleep out of their eyes, wrapped so tightly in their sleeping bags that an unwary observer might think this gathering is for a re-release of Cocoon or The Revenge of the Pod People. But soon they emerge from their protective covers and begin socializing amiably with their neighbors.
One 12-year-old boy is there alone and, in the middle of the night, his mother comes looking for him. Afraid to give away his location because she might be there to drag him home, nearby fans express their sense of hesitancy. “Oh, that’s not why I’m here,” Mom exclaims. “I just brought him some blankets and Three Musketeers bars.” She explains that when she was her son’s age, 22 years ago, she camped out to await the first Star Wars movie (Episode 4: A New Hope) and she felt it would be hypocritical of her not to let him do the same. From one generation to another…

Despite the discomfort of sleeping on concrete overnight, the queue of fans is remarkably chipper so early in the morning. A palpable friendliness permeates the atmosphere. For so many people, the situation is quite calm, peaceful, and orderly. It provides an excellent example of economist Friedrich von Hayek’s “spontaneous order” – particularly appropriate since Hayek’s 100th birthday was celebrated on Saturday, May 8. An ad hoc community has been formed here, where once and future strangers watch out for one another as friends. Need a drink? Does nature call? Leave your things behind; no one will allow them to be pilfered. Everyone seems to get along. Oh, there might be an occasional light-saber fight, but only on the friendliest terms. And in the middle of the night, the whole gang played an elaborate game of “telephone,” with whispering that starts at one end and finishes up three blocks and three hundred people later.

As people pull out their breakfasts – consisting of Mountain Dew, Doritos, potato chips, and chocolate bars – there is no hesitancy about sharing. Local businesses and radio stations have chipped in, too. They are passing out free doughnuts, and Ben & Jerry have brought a load of ice cream treats.

The local media are here, of course. Fox News has a crew on hand all morning long, doing periodic live broadcasts throughout the network’s morning news show. The perky Fox correspondent, Holly Morris, gets the fans to play Trivial Pursuit with her, share their yummy breakfasts, and sing along to the Star Wars theme song (using lyrics invented by Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live more than 20 years ago, in his character of a smarmy Vegas lounge singer). Local radio stations are here en masse: WPGC; WASH 97.1 FM; WHFS; 104.7; Mix 107.3. They’re all passing out promotional materials – free CDs, flyers, T-shirts, various Star Wars souvenirs. They recognize a captive audience when they see one – and they get the fans to play along, too, putting them on the radio, live via cell phone.

Cell phones are ubiquitous, too – a lifeline to home or work for those who have been absent for almost three days. Some troglodytes are still using the pay phones that dot the landscape, but these old-fashioned devices are far from necessary these days.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, shirts come off and the aroma of suntan lotion wafts through the air. The anticipation grows stronger as zero hour – 2:30 PM is when tickets go on sale – approaches. Each person in line will be limited to buying 12 tickets, and all of them must be for a single performance. The most eagerly sought tickets are those for the first showing at 10:00 AM on Wednesday, May 19. Those who are purchasing them are already planning to camp out for the three nights preceding the show, simply so they can have first choice of the choicest seats. It becomes a never-ending story.

Could such a gathering of people occur in the suburbs? It is hard to imagine hundreds of people camping out on the macadam outside a suburban multiplex for days at a time, with traffic zooming by on the surrounding four-lane highways. A barren parking lot lacks the vitality of a central city’s sidewalks. Star Wars fans, with their souls in another galaxy, far, far away, have their feet firmly on the ground in the most traditional of settings, the urban village.

Next week: Reactions to the movie.

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