May The 4th Be With You: How I Spent Star Wars Day 2020
May 4th is Star Wars Day, a day to celebrate the stories told by George Lucas, set in a galaxy far, far away. It is observed by fans of the films, shows, cartoons, and toys that have entertained the young and young at heart for over 4 decades.
I often find myself “quality checking” our library partner’s archives. By “quality checking” I mean looking up stuff that interests me. The only problem is, once I find what I am looking for, something else on the page always seems to catch my eye. It could be an ad for a product I hadn’t heard of, a bizarre headline, historic event, or maybe a familiar name…and that is all it takes to send me down one rabbit hole after another.
It happened again today.
May 4th has become the (un)official holiday for Star Wars fans of all ages to celebrate the stories set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Seeing all of the social media posts celebrating the day, reminded me of an article in the Jefferson Herald from 2014, that had a “Star Wars meets Microfilm” theme, so I decided it would be a good day to go back and read it again. I thought it would just be a few minutes out of my day. I should know better.
I originally found the article a couple of years ago while “quality checking” the Community History Archive of the Jefferson Public Library (in Iowa). I don’t remember what I was searching for, but I do remember what I found. In the January 9th, 2014 edition of the Jefferson Public Library Project Puts 138 Years Of Microfilm Online.” Of course, that caught my eye. In 2014 we partnered with the Jefferson Public Library and I was excited to see what the paper had said about our partnership at the time.
I became instantly confused when Andrew McGinn’s first sentence read:
After a while, I had to start assuming it was a false memory, even though the fuzzy mental image of Darth Vader and C-3PO hanging out on the Square in Jefferson has been with me for as long as I can remember
As a young man born in the early ’70s, who grew up to co-found a microfilm and digitization company…the opening sentence of this article certainly had my attention. In the article (also on the Hearld’s website) Mr. McGinn shares how he discovered the digital archive, what he uncovered, and what he didn’t:
The “Jefferson Iowa News” guys have photos from Jefferson Bicycle Days circa 1900, and of an I.O.O.F. parade around the Square in 1912 — but no one apparently thought to whip out a camera at the sight of a Dark Lord of the Sith standing across the street from Durlam & Durlam.
After I read the article, I browsed the pages in the archive that resulted from a search for “Star Wars Day” in Jefferson Iowa. Then, somehow, I ended up hopping from one archive to the next, reading old reviews, articles, theater listings…and course, the toy ads! And just like that…I lost 2 hours of my day.
I remember the Star Wars craze in the 70s and 80s, but I view it through the lens of an enthusiastic kid, lost in the storytelling and special effects of George Lucas’ space opera. I was completely unaware of just how huge the brand “Star Wars” was. It was literally EVERYWHERE. From late-night talk shows to cereal boxes (does anyone else remember “C-3POs, A New Force At Breakfast”?). Everywhere you looked, Star Wars had left its mark. Even small local businesses worked to weave Star Wars themes into their advertising. It was a natural fit to use space wizards and robots to sell cars and municipal bonds, right?
Just a couple of weeks ago, my cousin shared with me an instrumental disco adaptation of the Star Wars theme he found in his Grandmother’s vinyl record collection. Read that sentence again. It should tell you everything you need to know about just how ubiquitous Star Wars was.
For me, the magic of the movies was second only to the magic of the merchandise. George Lucas had shared only a few select Star Wars adventures on the big screen because the majority of the real action took place in backyards and living rooms everywhere, viewed by (very) limited audiences.
Thanks to Kenner Toys, the untold adventures of R2-D2 and C-3P0 in the Laundry Chute of Doom could finally be told. Or the time that Luke Skywalker stole Darth Vader’s ship and hid it from him in the mystical Chest Of Cedar. There was a great battle in the Desert Of The Black Tire, escalating the ongoing conflict between Chewbacca and the Sand People (ok “Sand Person”, I only had one Tuskin Raider action figure).
It saddens me that my kids will never understand my stories about sticking my Han Solo figure in a Dixie cup full of water and putting it in the freezer just so Luke could thaw him out the next day. Or why sometimes I just had to wait until spring to find all of my Snow Troopers and that it was a price I was willing to pay to reenact the battles fought on the snow planet Hoth.
Keep in mind, no one had any clue if the movie was going to be a hit, so the demand for Star Wars toys was completely unexpected. The toys were rushed into production after the movie was released… but with so little time between the release and Christmas, Kenner did the only thing they could…they sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package” which included a certificate which could be mailed to Kenner and redeemed for four Star Wars action figures.
Merry Christmas kids, it’s a box!
But the action figures and toy ships were only a small part of the Star Wars stories we dreamed up on our own. Large cardboard boxes were transformed into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon or into an X-Wing ready to fight the Imperial Tie Fighters (which were also large cardboard boxes). Forts constructed from couch cushions and blankets served as set peices for the trash compactor on the Death star or as the cave Yoda lived in. An upside-down trashcan made for a passible R2-D2. Any old squirt gun could become a laser blaster. If you needed a lightsaber (and who didn’t?) a broom handle, branch, or stick would do in a pinch, BUT I personally liked to use a flashlight. To this day I still find myself fighting the urge to swing it around and make “the noises” when I have one in my hand.
Unfortunately, there is a “dark side” in calling today a Star Wars “Holiday”. We NEVER want it to be confused with the Star Wars Holiday Special. We try hard to ignore the embarrassing 1978 Christmas TV show and encourage you to do the same. This special is notorious for its extremely negative reception and has never been rebroadcast nor officially released on home video.
Airing only once, Lucas demanded it never be shown again. George wasn’t alone in his disdain for the special. TV Guide ranked it at number 11 on their “25 Most Hilarious Holiday TV Moments”, mentioning that it was “unintentionally hilarious”.
In 2004 David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, ranked the holiday special at number one, calling it “the worst two hours of television ever“.
In 2010, news anchor Shepard Smith referred to the 2 hours as a “’70s train wreck, combining the worst of Star Wars with the utter worst of variety television.” In 2014 Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club wrote, “I’m not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine.”
The most telling critiques, however, may come from our heroes Luke and Leia. Carrie Fisher asked George Lucas to give her a copy of the special so that she would “have something for parties…when [she] wanted everyone to leave.” And most recently, in 2020, Mark Hamill jokingly asked U.S. President Donald Trump to pardon the special.
No comment from the White House on what the president’s position is.