On May 21, 1980, Twentieth Century Fox released director Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to writer-director George Lucas’ Star Wars, which was retroactively retitled as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for its Summer 1981 re-release.
Like Star Wars, it opened mid-week close to Memorial Day. But unlike Star Wars, which was a “come-out-of-nowhere” space-fantasy film that Fox (which both financed and released it) didn’t have high expectations for, Empire entered the pop-culture conscience with a bang louder than that made by the Death Star’s destruction. In its first weekend, this first of five Star Wars films personally financed by Lucas earned $4.9 million in 126 theaters in the North American market. (Star Wars, in comparison, opened on May 25, 1977 and earned $1.5 million in just 43 theaters across the U.S.)
That was 40 years ago today.
On that Wednesday – which I remember clearly even though a lot of time has passed – I was not a happy camper. School was still not out for the summer in what was then Florida’s Dade County public school system, so I was stuck at Riviera Junior High School at around the same time of Empire’s first scheduled showing instead of sitting in one of the theaters at the Dadeland Twin Theaters. I accepted that reality as calmly as I could, considering that by 1980 I was a die-hard Star Wars fan.
When The Empire Strikes Back started its original theatrical run, I knew well in advance that I wasn’t going to be among the first to see it. My widowed mom, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, was working in the cafeteria at Miami Sunset Senior High School, which had opened its doors only a few months earlier. As a Dade County Public Schools employee, she did not have the day off on that day, either, and she would not be home from work until 5 or so that evening. I knew she’d be tired, so I didn’t even broach the subject of going to the movies that night.
Back then, I didn’t have friends with cars of their own; most of my close buddies were in the 14-15 age group and didn’t even have learning permits, and a few others had disabilities that made driving a car a difficult proposition. A few years down the line, after I graduated from high school and started college, that impediment was gone, and I had a regular moviegoing posse that endured till the late 1990s. But not on May 21, 1980.
I, of course, was disappointed; I’d been skeptical about the original Star Wars three years earlier and resisted every invitation to go see it with friends in the Summer of 1977; I came around in mid-October – thank the Force for Fox’s decision to extend Star Wars’ run well into the summer of 1978. Not being one of the first to climb onto the Star Wars bandwagon was a conscious decision on my part, albeit one that I regret. But now I wanted to be among the first ones to watch The Empire Strikes Back – and I could not.
And yet, I still had reason to be content on that day in May 1980.
A few weeks earlier, Del Rey Books had published, with Lucasfilm’s permission, Donald F. Glut’s novelization of The Empire Strikes Back. This was publicized in the media of the time – I dimly remember reading an article about its upcoming release in the Miami Herald. The Midway Mall – now called Mall of the Americas – was 2.6 miles away from our townhouse; the mall had a Waldenbooks store, so Mom drove me there so I could buy my copy of the Empire novel.
A few days after that, Jorge Boshell, who was married to my cousin Maria Clara at the time (they divorced several years later) went to Miami to visit from Colombia and gave me a belated birthday present of $20. I wanted badly to get the 2-LP original soundtrack album with composer John Williams’ original score, which had also been just released in stores. Once again, Mom drove me to Midway Mall so I could get it. (We had watched Evening at Pops on WPBT-Channel 2to see Maestro Williams’ debut as music director and principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra on April 29, when The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) and Yoda’s Theme made their world premiere. Mom had not seen Star Wars in any of its pre-1980 theatrical releases, but she liked its music, so she watched Evening at Pops and promised me that, unlike her refusal to take me to see Jaws five years before, she would go see Empire with me as soon as she could.)
I didn’t get to go see The Empire Strikes Back with Mom until its second weekend in Miami theaters. By then, of course, I’d already read the novel – I read the paperback over the course of an entire Saturday – and listened to the soundtrack on my stereo countless times. So by the time Mom finally said, “Okay, Alex, we’re going to the 1:00 show today” on a Saturday in early June 1980, I had already absorbed the basic plot of Empire and could hum The Imperial March almost by rote.
Boy was I excited! After almost three years of wondering what Empire would look like on screen and how the various story arcs would develop, I was on my way to see the second installment of the Star Wars saga.
The one worry that I had wasn’t that we’d be late for the show – Mom was punctual and a good driver, so we left the house about 90 minutes before the scheduled screening. No, Dear Reader, I was worried that Mom would not have a good time watching The Empire Strikes Back.
Mom was never a big fan of sci-fi movies; she thought she’d hate Star Wars and always demurred whenever I asked her to go with me during the movie’s original 1977-’78 release and its Summer of 1979 “for the last time” re-release.
She tolerated my fandom, of course; she bought many of my original Kenner action figures or, later, took me to stores so I could buy them with my earned-allowance money that she gave me weekly in exchange for good grades and doing chores around the house. And she liked John Williams’ music, though she probably wished I’d not play my soundtracks on my stereo system as often as I did.
We arrived at the theater with plenty of time to spare; a line was forming in front of the box office even before we parked, but we weren’t so late as to end up at the end of a blocks-long line. I don’t remember having to queue for an inordinately long period of time, and by the time we got our tickets Mom was in such a happy mood that she surprised me by buying a large Coca Cola and a medium popcorn so I’d get a free Empire poster by fantasy artist Boris Vallejo. (I still have that poster, too!)
I’m not going to regale you with a play-by-play of my first screening of The Empire Strikes Back. But here are some of the highlights that are still vivid in my mind:
- The loud cheer from the audience when the last Coming Attractions trailer faded out and the house lights went dark all the way, and the Fox logo (with its Fanfare by Alfred Newman) appeared on the screen
- The hush that fell on that same audience as the “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” card followed the then-simple green-lettered Lucasfilm company credit
- The even louder whoops and hollers when the yellow-lettered Star Wars logo, synchronized with the opening fanfare of John Williams’ Main Title theme, appeared
- My initial surprise when I saw, for the first time, the Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back subtitle
- My occasional side glances at my mom in an effort to see if she was enjoying the movie or not
- My happiness when I finally saw that my mother was engrossed in the film and often had a little smile on her face, especially in the scenes with Yoda
- My own immersion into the movie; yes, I had read the novel, but the movie was so captivating that watching it was a mind-blowing experience. It was as if I had not read Glut’s novelization of the script by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
On our way home a couple of hours later, Mom said she had liked The Empire Strikes Back, even though she had not seen the first film. She (and I) didn’t quite understand why it was “Episode V”; in those pre-Internet days, the only sources of Star Wars news were officially-licensed publications such as The Official Star Wars Poster Magazine and sci-fi oriented magazines such as Starlog, and I didn’t read those regularly enough to know about Lucas’s nebulous plans for a nine-part saga. So, yes, Mom and I were mystified by that “Episode V” subtitle.
I think I can recall these events from 40 years ago for two reasons. First, Star Wars was my first fandom. I would later get into Star Trek, but Star Wars was the first film (and, eventually, franchise) that I totally geeked out over. Maybe it was the age in which I first saw it, or maybe it was because it was one of the few bright spots for me in 1977. (I’ll tell that story at another time, though!) I’d liked plenty of other films before, but none of them as much as I loved (and still love) George Lucas’s original Star Wars.
Second, this was a movie that further cemented my bond with my mom. I had a good relationship with my widowed mom; she worked hard and did her best to be both a mother and father to me. Parenting is difficult enough under socially-ideal situations (a two-parent home with kids who get along decently if not always harmoniously). Mom didn’t have the luxury of living in that ideal social setup: my father had died 15 years earlier in a plane crash near Miami International Airport, and it wasn’t easy for her to raise a boy on her own. (My older half-sister is almost 13 years than I am, but she was already living on her own and didn’t play much of a role in my upbringing.)
So, yep. Mom and I got along well, despite my occasional displays of teenaged rebelliousness and my dislike of having to live under what I thought were strict rules. (Looking back on that time as a middle-aged guy, they really were not that strict. But Teenager Alex thought having an 11 PM curfew on weekends, a set schedule for meals [we ate dinner at 6 PM sharp, barring extenuating circumstances] and having to wash dishes three times a week were almost a prison sentence.) We had mutual respect for each other’s space, we had at least one long conversation every night after I did my homework, and more often than not we watched the same shows together (especially sitcoms such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H), even though by then I had my own black-and-white TV set in my room.
Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and later, Star Trek were franchises that my mom learned to like from me, while I got my love of Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia from her. So The Empire Strikes Back’s 40th Anniversary has special meaning for me, not just because it commemorates the release of a movie I enjoy, but because it was a special part in my family life a long time ago in a city that seems far, far away.