Rubbing elbows with the True Believers

May 20, 1999|By KEVIN COWHERD

IN ORDER TO study strange civilizations, you have to venture into the field. You can't lie there on the couch, the remote resting on your gut, one hand pawing at a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and the other cracking a Bud Light, and watch the whole thing on the Discovery Channel.

You gotta get out there, baby. Observe it first-hand. This is what cultural anthropology is all about.

And this is why I find myself outside Baltimore's venerable Senator Theatre as the clock nears midnight on a steamy May evening, trying not to get run over by all the satellite trucks and their heavily caffeinated TV camera crews.

Lining the sidewalk and snaking up York Road and around the First National Bank as far as the eye can see is a mass of humanity waiting to see the Wednesday 12:01 a.m. premiere of the mega-hyped: "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."

I am with them.

And yet ... I am not with them, if you catch my drift.

This crowd is overwhelmingly young, late teens, early 20s. I feel like Franklin Delano Roosevelt in their midst, like I should be wearing a shawl around my shoulders.

And it's a hip crowd, too, steeped in the convoluted history of the famed "Star Wars" trilogy. These are the True Believers, the ones who have waited for a new trilogy since Fawn Hall was shredding all those documents in Ollie North's office.

Or as the Senator's genial owner, Tom Kiefaber, notes of the crowd: "These are the kids in the 'Star Wars' underwear. The kids who played with the action figures" back in the late '70s when the original "Star Wars" hit the big screen, and then in the '80s when the sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" were released.

Whereas my own comments tend to run more toward: "The little green guy with the cocker spaniel eyes and the heavy-duty ears that look like the lapels of a '70s leisure suit: Is that Yoda or Jabba the Hutt or what?"

In any event, standing here in line, I am on full weirdo-alert.

There are two guys behind me flashing toy light-sabers, like the ones the Jedi knights use to duke the bad guys. Behind them is a woman in some kind of flowing, galactic-queen get-up.

I make a mental note to sit as far away from these people as possible once inside.

Precisely because they don't seem like weirdos, I find myself talking to Jullia Callahan, 24, a law student at the University of Maryland, and her boyfriend, Larry Bradley, 27, a grad student at Johns Hopkins University.

Bradley admits to a certain fanaticism about all things "Star Wars." But Callahan is only a moderate fan. Sipping bottled water and eating a candy bar, she says she's here because the original "Star Wars" "was the first movie I ever saw. I saw it when I was 3."

"My God!" I say. "I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday! And you remember the first movie you ever saw -- at age 3, no less! -- all the details of it, the characters, and how it stirred something inside you and moved you in a direction that eventually shaped your life?"

"Not really," Callahan says, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Because that really would have been weird.

At a few minutes after 11, a gleaming white stretch limo pulls up to the Senator and out jumps Liam Neeson, who plays Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn.

No, I'm kidding. Out jumps Josh Fissel.

Fissel, 19, of South Baltimore, is currently enjoying his allotted 15 minutes of celebrity, as a result of having camped out for "Phantom Menace" tickets since the first Clinton presidential campaign.

Or maybe it only seems that long ago.

In any event, he was first in line to get the coveted ducats to the 12:01 show and, in a nice touch, Kiefaber has hired a limo to bring Fissel and a few family members and other ticket holders to the premiere in style.

Fissel raises his arms triumphantly, the crowd on the sidewalk roars, and then he hugs Kiefaber, long and soulfully, the way an exhausted Jerry Lewis used to hug Ed McMahon when the national Muscular Dystrophy telethon was over.

Later, in his prime seats -- center, 15 or so rows from the front -- Fissel exults: "Oh, this is great! When I was little and ["Star Wars"] was on TV, it was the best! Nothing could top it! ... I'm still totally into it."

At a little after 11, the crowd begins filing into the splendid theater in an orderly fashion. Shortly after midnight, Kiefaber takes the stage and is greeted with a thunderous ovation.

The True Believers recognize a kindred spirit in the gung-ho, energetic Kiefaber, and he's accorded the kind of reception normally reserved for outfielders with 50-homer pop in their bats, or maybe Ozzy Osbourne.

One voice from the back cries: "Tom, I want to have your baby!"

Kiefaber says some nice things about the fans who have waited patiently outside his theater for many days, and singles out one in particular, a guy who purchased 12 tickets for "Menace," was mistakenly handed 18 and, in an inexplicable fit of honesty, turned the extra six tickets back in!

"Ooooohhh!" murmurs the crowd, as if hearing about a living saint in their midst.

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