Echo Station: Exploring Star Wars Beyond The Daily News

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Echo Station: Exploring Star Wars Beyond The Daily News


The Capital’s Theater
Reminiscing About The Experience Of Waiting In A Ticket Line

by NP Jamilla

After years of anticipation, The Phantom Menace has finally made it to the Washington, D.C.’s Uptown theater on Connecticut Avenue.

Washington’s webmaster, EJ, was a key figure in organizing the capital’s public premiere. First to contact the theater manager, first to reassure the neighborhood, first to contact police, and first to open lines to the hundreds of fans who would attend the opening day screenings, his praise would be the first to be acknowledged in the theater when the group of fans began to chant his name in gratitude for the work he’d done.

Waiting at the Uptown doors was the best of times and the worst of times. Mostly the best of times.

First inklings of the line to be formed began the Saturday before tickets went on sale. A lone Washingtonian went up to the box office and asked where he was to wait. "Stand over there," the manager said. And so it was. He began his vigil in front of a parking meter waiting for the days to pass. The scramble began four days later at 3:00 when the box office opened and phone and computer lines tied up Moviefone’s limited ticketing service. Many succeeded, many did not, and those who had faith got in line the next week anyway, hoping some miracle would happen and bring them a ticket to an opening day show. In many instances their prayers were answered when fans, in the spirit of the event, offered their extra tickets at face value.

Four days before the official opening, the charity premiere to benefit the Children’s National Memorial Center was held at the Cineplex Odeon on Wisconsin Avenue. The pre-party began at 2:30 on the theater’s roof. Most visitors came individually. Many children were bused from the hospital to the venue. A tent housed Pepsi tables, Subway sandwiches, Curad bandages, and Colgate toothpaste, just to name a few of the many sponsors. Those who wanted to surf the internet could go to the limousine which had three computer work stations hanging out of its windows. At three o’clock a Japanese swordfight was given for the benefit of the children, who had a chance to pick up and swing the bamboo practice swords. Soon after, guests were ushered into the 750 seat theater. It was no surprise that the audience loved the movie.

At $500 a head, the benefit raised $400,000 for the Children’s hospital. And for those who donated $1,000, a VIP party at the Finnish embassy across from the Vice-President’s residence was waiting. The exotic food and an open bar were the perks as well as a computer photograph program that could drop a guest’s face into a photo with Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon Jinn. Add that to the grab bag replete with a poster, toothpaste & toothbrush, a decipher deck of cards, and a complimentary copy of one of the special edition movies.

Back at the Uptown, at about the same time the VIP party was winding down, fans on Connecticut Avenue were organizing themselves into a 50-person line that began on the edge of the street behind metal police barriers. A computer was set up and the 24-hour cam was switched on. Sleeping bags were rolled out and then Star Wars Trivial Pursuit games opened up. It wasn’t important how many games you won, but by what rules you played. The most knowledgeable fans had to answer all six questions on a card correctly to get a pie, and 12 questions (that’s two cards) to win the game. Rest assured that this didn’t just happen at a single game in a single sitting. And the questions were hardly trivial.

Camaraderie among the most dedicated was instantaneous. Personal belongings were looked after, extra food shared, and the company of new friendships began. Washingtonians were the first to get in line, but come Wednesday morning people from Baltimore, Charlotte, Boston, New York, California, and even England had entered the line.

Together they put up with screams of "losers," "get a life," and even worse from cars that sped down the road. It dropped to the 50’s at night and on the last evening eggs were lobbed at the line. One egg survived the ordeal and landed completely intact in someone’s sleeping bag. On the last day someone wrote on its side "Phantom Menace Egg -- Pass me down the line and toss me off the bridge." It was passed from one hand to the next amid curious stares and was never seen again. It probably met the same fate as Darth Maul.

Friendly duels with the plastic toy lightsabers and light conversation were commonplace, but the unexpected appearance of fifteen people who had taken a place in line where one person had waited for three days brought a brief, but heated debate between the true die-hard and the one-night standers. In the end, they kept their place, but awareness among the three-day devotees instilled a keener sense of vigilance in everyone. On opening day organizers went down the line to stamp hands as a way to ferret out line-breakers that would descend on the lively neighborhood just before the premiere.

The media had always been present, but on opening day five live remote trucks from area TV stations, with their towering broadcast dishes, had parked themselves in the street and sidewalk. At last the movie would reveal itself to the audience.

Time drew quickly to the magical hour of 9:00 when the doors would open. Rush hour had been zooming by and anticipation had been stepped up a notch when the theater manager came down the line to highlight 10:00 tickets for easy verification. It was not long before the line lurched forward and fans rushed in to take their seats.

Within the first ten minutes most of the middle floor section had been claimed. The scramble for seats was lively, but considering the fatigue of a three-day wait and the slight chaffing of line cutters there was no fighting over seats.

The fevered pitch had begun, and slogan chanting became the collective form of expression of the house. No more of the quiet politeness to keep the neighbors happy. No more pandering to news reporters looking for the Star Wars geek that had no life. It was the time for the fans, and they expressed themselves by congratulating the organizers. Afterwards choral chants of "R2" (floor) "D2" (balcony) and "C3" (floor) "PO" (balcony) rocked the house for ten minutes. We were actually going to see the film.

The theater slide show kept us entertained for the next 45 minutes with its trivia questions and plugs for local restaurants. Cheers erupted for Entertainment Weekly which sported Ewan McGregor brandishing his lightsaber, while boos and hisses lambasted the trivia question about the Titanic. It was clear in the minds of the audience that the ship was going to sink. The reference to Barney, the purple dinosaur, fared no better.

As minutes closed on the 10:00 hour, a spontaneous, rhythmic clapping began. The red curtains closed and the audience cheered as the 8 minutes of trailers began. We were a captive audience, and Hollywood had its few minutes of advertisement. The last trailer, about a new sci-fi movie coming out next summer, closed with a lone voice who let out a contemptuous "whatever." The audience was set on one movie -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The 20th Century Fox fanfare seemed as much a part of the experience. Cheers rose up, but it compared little to the twinkling signature of Lucasfilm’s logo. And then finally, the words burst onto screen with John Williams’ most famous composition -- STAR WARS.

The rest is history. From the opening scene with the ambassadors’ ship to the final scene with Amidala and Boss Nass, the audience watched with the intent of a child in a candy store. Of course it was a hit. And as he movie came to an end and the credits started rolling, the sense that we had all been on a journey to a galaxy a long time ago was unmistakable. Standing up from our seats, there was an exuberance that was apparent in people’s faces. But now we had to go back into the real world.

Outside the doors, under the awning of the theater marquee, cameras and microphones assaulted the first wave of people to leave the theater. They shared their thoughts of being the first at the Uptown to experience Lucas’ latest creation. It was clear that critics spoke no voice for the fans, who had been waiting decades for The Phantom Menace. This was the people’s choice, not the critics’.

Friends met friends, and friends cheered friends who still waited in line with 1:00 tickets. It was the experience of a lifetime -- but only the first of the first installment of the prequel trilogy.

How did it feel to be part of the a cultural highpoint for a generation of adults who are really kids at heart? Satisfying to say the least. There is definitely going to be some criticism of the movie, but what movie is perfect? The Phantom Menace is a fairy tale in which technology is the magic. It’s a movie for the kid in all of us, and if watched with that in mind, there should be few who can say they didn’t enjoy most, if not all of the film.

Theater-goers who had waited three days in the street to be the first to see it went in with an obvious pre-disposition toward the film, but George Lucas didn’t let them down. If anything, he’s opened a whole new universe into which the public can escape into a new Never-never Land. Hats off to George Lucas and Americana’s last big adventure of the Twentieth Century. The only problem now is that we just can’t wait to see what the new millennium as to offer. Two thousand and two -- here we come.

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