Viewing Star Wars

Just wanted to reblog this post to mark the 40th Anniversary #StarWars40

Viewing Star Wars

Star Wars opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Making a Musical for Bill Conrad

 

The next time Howard Kazanjian worked for producer Bill Conrad, the budget had been bumped up to 1.2 million. Warner Brothers was looking to cash in on the new craze sweeping the young teen audiences in America, represented by the success of such musical variety shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The studio saw potential in a script penned by the first winner of the Samuel L Warner Memorial Opportunity Award, Joyce Geller when she was there for her internship. (I mentioned this in passing on my post entitled “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”). Geller’s script told the story of a talented but unsuccessful singer Cliff Donner (played by Gil Peterson) and an ambitious go-go dancer Hallie Rodgers (played by Debbie Watson), who are paired up by a millionaire rock’n’roll entrepreneur Tony Krum (played by Roddy McDowell). The story pivots around Krum’s plan to generate PR for the duo by engendering a perception in the teen audience that they are falling in love – complications, of course, ensue. Geller preferred her title “The Wiggy Plan of Tony Krum,” but the studio wanted something they considered more meaningful, hence “The Cool Ones.” She salted her dialogue with words such as “Ratfink” and “Dingaling,” jargon calculated to resonate with the target audience.

Conrad also put together his team with an eye to this end. For director he selected Gene Nelson, who most recently had helmed two Elvis Presley films – “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum.” Nelson came from a dance background, notably having played the part of Will Parker in the film version of “Oklahoma.” Howard found him to be a very nice guy.

For DP Conrad tapped Floyd Crosby. He had extensive experience working on teen projects, including four of the beach party movies and several Roger Corman horror productions. He had a couple more musical connections of interest, he had been involved with the production of Oklahoma in the 2d unit, so he may or may not have been acquainted with Nelson already. And most interesting of all, Floyd was the father of David Crosby, at this time a member of the rock band, the Byrds – (Crosby Stills and Nash and (sometimes Young) was in the near future).

For choreographer, they brought in Toni Basil. She had assisted her mentor David Winters, the choreographer on both Hullabaloo and Shindig, (she would appear later in Easy Rider; and did choreography for American Graffiti). She brought along her friend and fellow Shindig dancer Teri Garr, whom you can catch in the background in some shots. Both Toni and Teri had appeared in front of the lenses of Floyd Crosby before, in the film “Pajama Party.” Another Shindig member, a guitarist for the Shindig house band was given a small speaking/singing part – Glenn Campbell.

Three garage bands were tapped to appear in the film – The Leaves, The Bantams, and T.J. and the Fourmations. In the main, the music was supplied by Lee Hazelwood, the composer propelling Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”). He scored ten of the twelve tunes for “The Cool Ones.” One of these – “This Town” has had a long life afterwards. Hazelwood brought in Billy Strange for the arrangements. Strange was a guitarist and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famous group of studio musicians (utilized by many of the rock groups of the day, including the Byrds). He also supplied one song. The twelfth song slotted in was the 1957 tune “It’s Magic” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne which was warbled by the novelty pop personality Mrs. Miller.

Howard reported to Assistant Director Gil Kessel. Gil was an old timer at WB, having got his start as a set decorator in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon. He made the switch in 1958 to AD. Howard says he was a little slow, and envious of the younger people coming up. He looked askance at them, not viewing them so much as assistants but rather as his replacements.

The Cool Ones was shot mostly at the studio. For exteriors they travelled to the nearby San Fernando Valley and over to Palm Springs. Most of the scenes shot in Palm Springs were around the town, both day and night exteriors. There was one challenging bit – a musical number staged inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and up on the observation platform. The tramway begins at an elevation of 2,643 feet and climbs the Chino Canyon wall up to a level of 8,516 feet. Howard says that the shoot was further complicated by limited time up on top.

The Cool Ones had one more “musical tie-in” of note. When at work on one of the sets, Howard tells me that Lee Wilson the WB lighting gaffer pointed out to him that the carpet on the floor was the same one that had been used in the Ascot race scene for “My Fair Lady.” At that time there were sets for that film still around the lot, notably the one for Covent Garden – the flower market standing set. (The Cool Ones had a market scene too, but it was on location over in Olvera Street).

The Cool Ones should be so famous.

Viewing Star Wars

Viewing Star Wars

With “Star Wars the Force Awakens” everywhere in the news and on the brink of its opening this Friday, I thought I’d chime in with a post about my viewing of the first seminal film. It opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

me and American Grafitti

me and American Grafitti

The summer of 1973 was coming to a close. I was still at the Renton Cinemas working as an usher and a doorman. Changes lay around the corner though, all of which I was happily unaware.

What I was aware of was my excitement for an upcoming release, booked for the Cinemas. The buzz out of LA and the GCC booking department was that a ground breaking film was going to light up the waning days of summer. They had screened a film by a young film student George Lucas. And they were high on it. The title was a little out of the ordinary, a puzzler actually – AMERICAN GRAFITTI.

The booking department was right. American Grafitti became a surprise sleeper hit. We simply did not have enough seats for all the people who wanted to see it. I saw it. Many times. And in many pieces. And its music filled the auditorium.

For it was a favorite to slip in on and catch a scene here and there. And indulge in the usher’s pastime – watching the audience. (A wise man once told me that there are three audiences – others; you, yourself; and the audience of One [God]). Here I was an audience to the audience. And I was enjoying their pleasure in seeing something for the first time.

The all time favorite scene to catch was the race at the end between Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (and the build up supplied by Booker T and the MGs – Green Onions). There was a built in excuse. An usher had to be on hand anyway, to open the doors and direct the customers out. Word had circulated that an in-joke had been included by the filmmakers when they made this film. The license plate for Harrison Ford’s vehicle read THX138, a reference to Lucas’ student film THX1138, which he later remade into his first feature film for Warners.

After hearing this, I went in to check it out. And the rumors were right. There it was in Technicolor. But I also couldn’t help but notice the license plate on the other car. GLD204. Did that mean anything?

Then it came at me in a rush. The GL must stand in for George Lucas; and after a puzzling moment I decided that the D must be for Director. And it all made perfect sense. Perhaps it is all only a coincidence, but…

In a town where you are only as good as your last project, film, or whatever; you are in competition with yourself, always having to surpass the one before.

Cue – All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.