`Star Wars' fans out in force

Film: The new "Star Wars" movie won't open for another month, but devoted fans already have formed lines.

April 20, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLLYWOOD -- It began in a galaxy far, far away.

Well, Melbourne, Australia, actually. But just as Luke Skywalker journeyed from his farm to battle the evil empire, so too did Lincoln Gasking travel from his homeland to become the first person in line to see the new "Star Wars" movie at Mann's Chinese Theatre here.

"It wasn't opening until June 3rd back home," Gasking, 22, said, "and I didn't want to wait that long."

But even here in the kitschy heart of Hollywood, on the star- and handprint-embossed sidewalk outside the famed theater, the highly anticipated prequel to the "Star Wars" trilogy won't open until May 19.

As of yesterday, one month before the opening, Gasking had already been in line 12 days.

Yesterday, the reporters outnumbered those actually lined up. There are usually fewer than 15 at any time, but they represent hundreds who have met and organized themselves via the Internet, groups that have formed to take rotating, round-the-clock shifts that will hold their collective place in line for the premier showing of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

Two lines formed simultaneously, here and outside a theater in nearby Westwood, and others are expected across the country as May 19 approaches with the latest episode of the Jedi warriors battling the Evil Empire.

Gasking, having traveled so far, is the only one to actually take up residence, in a small tent, on the sidewalk outside Mann's Chinese Theatre. An apartment salesman back home, he is now here around-the-clock, save for brief forays to a hotel across the street to shower.

"Star Wars is the universal story," he declared, sunburned and fever-blistered and, frankly, pretty grubby after nearly two weeks of alfresco living. "It's about the hero. The good and evil. The basic themes of life."

It's also about obsession, the likes of which few, if any, other movies have ever generated. But then, "Star Wars" is in a class by itself.

"Obviously, this is tapping into something very deep in the culture," said Andrew Gordon, an English professor at the University of Florida who has written extensively on the "Star Wars" phenomenon.

"This kind of behavior seems parallel to the behavior of religious devotees. The only time you see something like this is on religious pilgrimages, where people crawl up mountains on their hands and knees," Gordon said.

The power of "Star Wars," he said, comes from its mythological underpinnings. Like myths that have emerged in various cultures over various eras, it encompasses classic elements: the hero who must be tested, the quest against all sorts of ordeals, the moral dilemma, the wise man, the warrior in training.

Lining up more than one month in advance, Gordon said, makes the moviegoers part of the movie, in a way: "It functions as a sort of ordeal that initiates must pass."

If so, these fans are surely being tested, at least by the elements. The first week was unusually cold and rainy for a Los Angeles spring, and now, at midday, it is hot and sunny.

But this is also a modern-day pilgrimage, made a bit easier by such high-tech accouterments as microwave ovens, computers and even a DVD player to watch other movies. There is also food, sometimes donated.

"I take popcorn out to them every once in a while," said a bemused Paul Person, assistant manager of Mann's Chinese.

Person, and Los Angeles police as well, say the line hasn't caused any problems. Indeed, the line is a bunch of lawn chairs, a couple of tarps and lots of computer equipment just off the parking lot, impeding neither those who are going into the theater to see a movie that is actually open nor the religious leafleteers and hawkers for tours or studio audiences who ply the tourist-attracting theater.

Most of the line sitters are actually younger than "Star Wars," the original episode in the saga, which premiered in 1977.

"We were the ones who ate the cereal and wore the underwear," Justin Guido, 19, said of the heavily merchandised movies. Guido, an aspiring songwriter, and others have been spending as much time in line as possible to gather up points that will determine their order: The more hours you park yourself here, the closer to the front you get.

"The time goes pretty quick," Guido said, "especially at night. It's like a party then."

The highlight, so far, has been the appearance of Jake Lloyd, the child actor who plays Luke Skywalker's father as a youngster in the new movie.

Most of the action is actually taking place online, where Gasking and others run a Web site called countingdown.com, with updates on where lines are being formed. Gasking and two other organizers decided to meet at Mann's Chinese to start this particular line at 1,000 hours before May 19.

Over at Mann's Village, though, a competing line has formed.

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