The Empire Strikes Back: A Lifetime in Three Years

As the summer of Star Wars turned to fall, it marked the beginning of the next school year, and here is where my life truly changed. While my best friend Jim and I would continue to hang out, it was obvious that things were somehow different. He began to spend more time with his other friends and I met Allyson.

Allyson was a year younger than me but we hit it off immediately. Amazingly funny, and intelligent beyond words, she was also knowledgeable about something called Fandom. I learned that there was an entire community of people who loved the nerdy things I loved, and loved things of which I had no knowledge. I learned this community didn't depend upon geographic location, popularity or even how much of an expert you might be in a particular genre, there was no judgement. Belonging to the club of fandom had only one requirement: you had to be passionate. It's appropriate to mention that Allyson was a die-hard Star Trek fan and viewed Star Wars with a little trepidation. But she did enjoy it and her love of Trek and Star Wars was something she was very open and proud of. A love most saw as geeky and nerdy, she wore this geekiness as a badge of honor. For me a nerdy guy with few if any friends who never quite fit in, this was a great lesson of what truly mattered in our young lives; be who you are and the rest will come along naturally. It is no wonder we not only became fast friends, our friendship continues to this day.

2015-12-14-1450093070-8869681-westinbonaventurehotel.jpgI was excited when Allyson mentioned she would be attending a convention at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and it would, she said, be a perfect opportunity to see fandom up close and personal and one I should attend. I did attend that convention, Phantasmacon, and she was right. I spent a three day weekend in a place where attendees dressed up in their favorite costumes and people talked about, debated even, the nuances of Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Asimov's Foundation series and anything and everything else. Panels and programs were held on various topics of interest with guest speakers who seemed to share our love of all things nerdy and geeky. It was a weekend of camaraderie experienced on a level I had never before imagined, it really was a sort of Shangi-La. We were all kids regardless of our actual ages, we tapped into the things that made us happy and enthusiastically shared it with others who could appreciate the sentiment.

2015-12-14-1450093119-2144953-posterlogansrun.jpgIt was this weekend I learned of a game called a Run. These Run's were inspired by an element in Logan's Run, a popular science fiction book and movie that featured citizens of a future world being pursued by a type of law enforcement, it was basically a chase game and if caught, you were out. That's a very simplistic explanation but I hope you get the idea because it was amazingly fun to watch both Runners and Sandmen (their pursuers) all decked out in accurate costumes and the futuristic hotel property lent the whole scene a level of credibility that was just perfect. And then I saw something that made my jaw drop. From high up in my hotel room I could see the runners below, but there was a second group. Not dressed in Logan's Run costumes, but in Star Wars costumes. But the most amazing thing is these Star Wars fans were being chased by a group of people in Stormtrooper costumes.

Of course today Stormtrooper costumes are a fairly common sight at any convention, but this was not the case in 1978. Everyone was taken by this group, we had no idea who they were, or where they came from and since no one could see behind their masks the mystery has, for me anyway, lasted until this day. I should point out that it would be several years and many, conventions later when I would again see fans dressed as Stormtroopers and I am happy to say that they are now a staple of conventions the world over.

So it was plain this convention gathering was a fraternity of understanding that had no limitation. We were all geeky and nerdy and outcasts. But in the halls of this convention (and outside apparently), it didn't matter. No one cared if some of us were overweight, of a different skin color, whether we walked into program rooms or came in by wheelchair. Every person was passionate and opinion and opinions were listened to and debated, sometimes heatedly, but always ending with an acknowledgement that no two people are the same even if they have similar interests. And we were still geeky and nerdy and in touch enough with what made us happy to be able to take part in activities similar to those we enjoyed as children.

Fandom would introduce me to a whole new world of friends; among them Shelley and her sister Holly, both of whom were a couple of years older than me. They took me under their wing and from the instant we met we were nearly inseparable. They loved film as much as I did but Shelley had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of old movies and I learned so much from her about stars in front of the camera and the remarkable talent of those behind the lens. Holly and I shared a love of music and politics and it was great that they both loved Star Wars as much as I did.

2015-12-14-1450093189-7568896-tesb1.jpgOver the three years between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back I would meet a lifetime of friends and friends who have lasted a lifetime. Each of these friends were remarkable in that they were giving and talented. They built costumes for those of us who thought we could sew but learned we couldn't. They treated us as if we were members of their family, spending holidays (after family obligations) together, being there for each other when times were bad, and good. Planning, coordinating trips and visits to other conventions nearby and far away. These extraordinary people, friends, go on to become doctors and award winning artists, costumers, writers, special effects wunderkinds in film, jewelry designers, gourmet cooks, nurses, restauranteurs and perhaps most importantly mothers and fathers. Their differences were what made them unique, but their love of fandom, and each other is what joined us all for life.

During this time some of us would head to Los Angeles on a fairly regular basis over the course of weekends, holidays or summer breaks. We bought maps to the stars homes in hopes of catching a glimpse of Hollywood Royalty as well as a hoped for glimpse of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. During this time we learned of the location of the old Industrial Light and Magic, the facility where the special effects for Star Wars was created. We even did some dumpster diving and while the crew from the Star Wars days were mostly gone, we did recover some interesting throwaways that today would be considered collectibles.

Late one night as we were rummaging through a dumpster we heard a voice asking us what we were doing. It was a gentleman from inside the complex. Sheepishly we told him we were fans and knew this was a special effects facility and were looking for cool junk. When he found out we were from San Diego he was astonished that we had travelled so far away and invited us inside. It was a stroke of luck that he was working overnight on a project.

He graciously gave us a tour of the facility, we got to see the Dykstrafex (a computer motion camera created for Star Wars that would revolutionize special effects filmmaking) and the Academy Award John Dykstra received for it. We saw new models of the current program they were filming, Battlestar Gallactica, and spent over an hour just talking about our love of all things film, science fiction and fantasy. We went home with some cool, legitimate, souvenirs that certainly left me with an incredible memory I still recall with wonder.

At one point we even managed to score some tickets to a giant Halloween party in Hollywood that was a fundraiser for a political organization. We had heard Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill would be in attendance so we made it a quest to be present. As we arrived we noticed a line that seemed a mile long with most dressed in Halloween costumes, my friends and me, however, we were decked out in our disco finest. As we walked to the end of the line I heard a thud and an expletive. Holly had stepped into a pothole and in no time a kind gentleman dressed in scrubs costume stopped by. He turned out to be a doctor and said her ankle wasn't broken but was badly sprained and we should get her to a hospital or at the very least someplace where she could elevate her foot. We all looked to one another and knew our chance to see Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford would not come to pass. We were preparing to leave when Holly made it perfectly clear she was not giving up on going to this party. We could do whatever we wanted, but she was not leaving. I don't remember how or who talked to him, but a short time later the front doorman whisked us past the other people in line and we were given a table in the back, one with an extra chair so Holly could elevate her foot.

2015-12-14-1450093325-4738335-tesb2.jpgWe did see Harrison Ford that night, and Mark Hamill stopped by to tell Holly how sorry he was she was injured, and there were other movie stars who stopped by as well. To be honest I don't know that some of us were old enough to be at the party, but we were ushered in and treated like VIPs that the evening seemed a dream.

During the time between movies we attended every convention we could afford and almost always in some sort of costume. And we learned there were places you could get information on movies and films that might not be available to the general public. A few weeks before its release we were even told a script for The Empire Strikes Back was floating around and some of us were dying to know what would happen in the sequel. When Star Wars ended it was a forgone conclusion by many that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would end up together. For others they were equally convinced the couple would be Princess Leia and Han Solo. And at a convention far from home we pooled our money and bought a script for Empire. Those who wanted to know what would happen read it in a single sitting. The others left the room and would return several hours later.

Upon reading the script we couldn't believe our eyes. The Empire didn't just strike back, it kicked the asses of the rebellion. We didn't think it would be possible, but we wanted to see the new movie even more after having read the script. When time came for its release so anxious were we that we decided to head to Los Angeles early with some of our group to wait in line and be the first to see the new movie. It seems commonplace today but back in 1980 sitting in line and sleeping on Hollywood Blvd. was a rare occurrence.

And so we entered the Egyptian Theater, got our seats and waited for the lights to dim. As they did we held our breath and, as before, the 20th Century Fox fanfare played and after the Lucasfilm Ltd., card, hen STAR WARS again in big bold letters and we all looked to one another, convinced the projectionist has spooled the original film by accident. Only as the title disappeared did we realize that all films would now have the title Star Wars, which each individual chapter being appropriately named.

Having read the script in no way diminished the joy of seeing the latest chapter. But the non-ending left us all sad and wanting more. Where Star Wars was a triumphant victory over darkness, The Empire Strikes Back made us wonder how our band of heroes could prevail and as we did the first time, we spent hours after the screening discussing and debating about what we had just seen.2015-12-14-1450093375-656202-tesb3.jpg

We began to talk in earnest of hoping nothing bad would happen to any of us. We HAD to live to see the next installment in this film franchise. But the next film wouldn't release for another three years so we had to be patient and we were, for the most part. I realize now if the time between Star Wars and Empire was filled with life changing experiences, the time between Empire and Return of the Jedi would prove doubly so. I had no idea what was in store and reflecting on it today, some of it doesn't even seem possible.