`Star Wars' magic puts fun into moviegoing

May 16, 1999|By Gregory Kane

TOM KIEFABER walked across York Road about 2: 30 p.m. and headed into the doors of the Senator Theater. Wearing black jeans and a white shirt with a Lucasfilm Ltd. logo in blue letters on the upper left, he stopped briefly to hand a reporter a copy of a letter he had written to his "lawn-chair brigade."

He was referring to the folks who sat, ever patiently, in chairs or on the ground in a line that went up York Road, wound its way around Belvedere Avenue and then snaked up a curving side street known as Croydon Road. Some had been there as long as 48 hours, others 24 hours, eagerly awaiting the chance to snatch up the first tickets for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" that went on sale at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

It was less than 30 minutes to zero hour, and Kiefaber went over final instructions with city police Officer Tom Cernik -- on hand to deter the rowdy -- on how potential problems would be handled. Kiefaber had been awake 50 hours. The previous night had been spent printing the souvenir tickets Kiefaber had requested specifically for episode one of what is now the "Star Wars" sextet: a picture of the Senator marquee in all its splendor, with the movie's title and the name and show time to the right of the photo.

When the tickets were done, Kiefaber -- still in hyperdrive -- couldn't sleep. So he went out and joined the lawn-chair brigade, serenading -- if that's the term -- them by pounding on a conga drum he had brought along. About 4: 30 that morning, Kiefaber was roller-skating in the lobby of the theater, which is undergoing renovations before it opens Wednesday for the movie that may be the theater owners' and managers' Y2K.

About 10 minutes before 3, the owner literally put out the welcome mat: a green rug with "The Senator" printed on it in gray letters. He plopped it on the ground in front of the box office. Then he took some items out of a bag of prizes to be given to the first four people in line.

"Isn't this great?" he said, pointing to a "Star Wars" hat he picked up from producer George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. "You can't get that anywhere but the ranch."

Within what seemed like microseconds, Kiefaber was in a storeroom, where he grabbed an easel. He pointed to a popcorn-making machine "that produces more popcorn than you can believe." Judging from the line outside, he's going to need that much and more.

Kiefaber took the easel outside and placed a metallic board with show times for "The Phantom Menace" on it. Back inside, he grabbed an envelope with the souvenir tickets, gingerly opened it and gently slipped one out for viewing by a reporter. Soon he noticed that zero hour had arrived.

"Let's go outside and see how this is going to work," he said. The crowd cheered when he walked out the door.

With "Star Wars" theme music blaring, Kiefaber escorted the first in line to the box office window. Josh Fissel, 19, got the first ticket. Fissel said he has been a "Star Wars" fan practically from birth. He had been in line 48 hours, which was nothing to him: He'd been waiting two years for this movie to hit the theaters.

The second customer was 13-year-old Tommy Paul, who's been a fan since he was 6 or 7 years old, according to young Tommy's recollection.

"I remember the first time I saw `Star Wars,' " Tommy recalled. "My sister and I were rooting in the video cabinet. We had taped `Star Wars' when it was on television. We watched it. It was great. I never get tired of" the original trilogy.

Many of those in line seemed so young they probably weren't even born when the first "Star Wars" movie came out in 1977.

"But they were the ones wearing the `Star Wars' underwear and playing with the `Star Wars' action figures," Kiefaber observed. The movie "has clearly struck a chord in our culture. It has to do with the mythological aspects of the film. The myths go back 2,000 years."

How true. The "Star Wars" movies have gripped the American psyche and won't let go. "The Phantom Menace," the latest movie, could have made money from its trailers, if the industry allowed it. There have been reports of folks buying tickets and filling the theaters for another movie and then most of them walking out after the trailer for "The Phantom Menace" was shown.

But there's one other reason they're so popular. It has to do with the F-word: fun. Movie critics seldom like anything wildly popular, and their feelings about the "Star Wars" movies are no different.

Truth be told, there have been movies with better acting, better direction and better scripts. But for my money there are few movies that provided as much sheer fun as the "Star Wars" series. And fun is just as valid a reason to watch a movie as any.

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