On a Sunday morning, in mid-May, 1977, my friend Garth and I were hanging out in his basement and we came across a full-page ad in the Denver Post for a new movie release, one that made our jaws drop. For kids my age and for the global industrial entertainment Leviathan, things would never be the same. Star Wars was coming to town.

The newspaper ad showed a man and woman holding a sort of beaming sword in the foreground, with strange space ships sailing past, and a dark lurking robot-like face behind. This was a Pied Piper image for a freedom-loving generation of feral kids.


Figure 1: A Full-page ad like this one was my first introduction to the vast Jungian  collective unconscious

The film was to open at the giant Cooper theater in Denver on Wednesday May 25th. This was one that all of us knew we couldn’t miss. Summer was coming and school was out.

Back then, this fabulous seasonal fact meant that ten-year-old kids could look forward to cruising the neighborhood on their Schwinns, making their way to swim team in the half dark dawn, walking the half-mile to the Colorado 4 theaters, and meandering the parks at twilight by themselves. In an era of free range children, the idea that we could decide to just get up and ‘go see’ Star Wars was plausible.

It is entirely unclear how, a couple weeks later, we got to the Cooper, that onomatopoeic architectural monstrosity on Colorado Boulevard, shaped like a giant barrel.  Somebody’s mom probably drove, since we didn’t use the buses for at least two more years.

But arriving at the theater, in the mid-morning, hoping for a matinee, we were struck dumb by the intimidating and glorious fact of the Star Wars phenomenon, no more than a few weeks old. We gazed in a combination of amazement, disappointment, and excitement. The line wrapped around the cylindrical theater, again and again, like a spectacular, grim, human Ouroborous.

Empire Strikes Back premiere

Figure 2: The line at the Cooper theater for The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980. In terms of fashion, no one got the memo that the 1970s were over.

We immediately knew three things.

First, we knew we weren’t getting into the 11AM showing. Indeed, it was unclear what screening we would be seeing. 2PM? 5PM? There was no way to know whether and when we would be allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the theater and see what secrets were held there.

Second we knew that we would be entering a kind of social circus, a community of impatience, queued against the cinder block walls, breathing in the fumes of the parking lot, all day. The penitents had gathered here, and we would be part of them, shuffling forward, periodically, against assembled ropes and barricades, creeping together towards salvation.

Finally, we knew that, whatever explosive magnificence we had anticipated, having filled in the enigmatic gaps created by the black and white newspaper spread, whatever was going on inside the theater would exceed them. We pushed our ears against the wall to hear the rumbling of starships within. This was heightened experience, a cult of collective expectation, a magical, parking-lot, communion.

The Dawn of the Event Line

Keep in mind that, in that era, most of my age cohort had never waited in line for anything.

Not so, for my long-time friend Marianna, whose childhood in Moscow in the 1970s was marked by a culture of lines. She has described for me, on many occasions, how she would encounter lines, everywhere, on every corner, and every season. In the darkest winter mornings, her family would be making their way through the cold streets… and encounter a line. Someone might queue up, at that moment, not even knowing what the line was for: shoes, fuel, trousers? A common question was simply to ask, “what is this line for”?

For Colorado kids of that era, lines were somewhat rarer. Certainly, we waited for some time to board Mister Twister, the magnificent wooden coaster at Elitch Gardens (in its original location on Denver’s west side). Those amusement park lines were tantalizing in their own way. Here, crowds of kids snaked through the labyrinth, around the legs of the giant wooden machine, with girls and boys to giving each other cautious glances, while listening to the roar of the cars above, pitched with shrieks of riders descending in wonder and terror. These lines were charged with sexual energy, anticipation, raw excitement. They were a periodic and ritualistic part of adolescent summer.


Figure 3: The horrendous “gum tree”, partway through the snaking line of the Wildcat roller coaster, at the long-abandoned old Elitch Gardens, Denver, Colorado.

Still, at the time of Star Wars, lines were new for a lot of us.

They would become more familiar, of course. This Star Wars generation also camped out for tickets to the Rolling Stones and The Who; I waited overnight for tickets to both shows, only to learn later that neither had sold out… on their “farewell” tours (in 1980 and 1981!).

Queuing was also essential for any show at Red Rocks amphitheater, as it must have been for so many other general admission venues in that era, where I spent hours waiting for the visionary sonic flights of Talking Heads, the angry and dutiful pop of Joe Jackson, as well as the puerile and gutter genius of Jimmy Buffet.

But for all of these, the simple fact was that you had to stand in line to get a seat, especially a good one. In the end, the Star Wars line, and those others of that moment, were really a lot like their Soviet counterparts.


Figure 4: The primitive inefficiency of the general admission ticket is a critical part of my chaotic adolescence. Star Wars introduced me to a culture of such madness.

The Legacy of the Star Wars Line

And the necessity of lines, to experience an event, has happily been defeated by smarter minds, event-time seating, online tickets, and the basic fact of ubiquity; a movie opens everywhere, in limitless supply, all at once now. Lines are as pointless now for adjudicating who should be in a theater, as they were essential in 1977.

Strangely, of course, people still get into lines, for the midnight showing of a major premier or the roll-out of some pointlessly undifferentiated phone-object.

And this has all to do with the morning we spent waiting in line to see Star Wars.

The line itself did as huge amount of movie magic, after all, a fact that marketers observed all too clearly. The layers of anticipation, sweaty comradery, and dedicated imagination add value to the experience, value that the in-person experience often lacks, owing to its simple mediocrity.

People waited in line all night, after all, to see the Phantom Menace.

Seriously… The Phantom Menace…


Figure 5: People inexplicably camped out for days to see a Twilight movie premier, 2010. The event line is a product of our experience waiting to see Star Wars, of course, but somehow seems worlds away.

The profound psychological work of the line, inadvertently created in that hot summer of 1977, has become routine part of contemporary marketing hype. The vision is to bottle and recapture that moment. The fetish of the commodity in metastasis is to encompass the performance of wanting, the anticipation of having, and the sacrifice of dwelling in a doldrums of waiting.

Put more bluntly, we HAD to wait in line and accidentally had an experience. Today, people are BUYING an experience by… waiting in line…

And so far as I can tell, it’s a niche market at best.

As such, I know that my son cannot and will never ever experience the kind of spontaneous, visceral, transformative… line-waiting as I did. This is no loss!

But I hope the hours he gets back, retrieved by the careful logistics of a more orderly world, are spent as productively as mine were. There, outside the Cooper theater waiting for Star Wars, desperately imagining what was going inside, animating my jealous mind, I created a vivid internal world, which continues to sustain the film itself, an otherwise adequate product, at such exalted heights.