At stroke of midnight, Harry Potter arrived

Premiere: Senior citizens stay up and children skip school to see the much-anticipated movie at Baltimore's Senator Theater.

November 17, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

After weeks of counting down, months of mounting hype and years of anticipation among the book's spellbound fans, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opened in movie theaters yesterday - and not a minute too soon.

At the Senator Theater in Baltimore, as at scores more across the country, the good-vs.-evil tale of an orphaned wizard hit the screen at 12:01 a.m. - the earliest it could legally be shown - taking a sellout crowd of 850 on a much-welcomed, 2 1/2 -hour escape from reality.

Good, by the way, wins.

"The theme of this film is what movies are in general - magic," said theater owner Tom Kiefaber, wearing a wizard hat for the opening.

"This theater comes from 1939 and went right through the Second World War. Movies are an opportunity to get away from the harsh realities of our world, a respite from all that's taking place."

The movie, based on the first in British author J.K. Rowling's series of children's books, wasn't created as an elixir for a down-in-the-dumps country; it just seems that way - equal parts uplift and fantasy, with liberal sprinklings of wry humor and mind-boggling special effects.

All of which could further boost a movie already expected to break records, based on early ticket sales, the popularity of the books and screen saturation.

It opened in 3,672 theaters this weekend, on 8,200 screens - a fourth of those in operation. It is the widest debut in movie history.

Analysts expect the opening to generate more than $75 million in ticket sales, topping the three-day record of $72.1 million set by The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997.

The series of books, sales of which have exceeded 110 million copies, tells the story of a bespectacled young wizard who leaves home to learn magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Just as children stayed up past their bedtimes last summer to go to bookstores for the release of the fourth book, more than 50 were among the crowd at the Senator, one of 12 Baltimore area theaters where the movie opened this weekend.

At the Senator, lines to get into the midnight movie - sold out in advance -- began to form at 6 p.m.

Emma Stanley napped in her parents' car while they stood in line.

Later, awake and in the lobby, which was decorated for the occasion with bats, owls, broomsticks, and flaming cauldrons, Emma said she had told her sixth-grade teacher at Parkville Middle School that she would be absent because she was going to the midnight show.

"She wasn't mad. She was excited for me," she said.

Waiting at the concession booth, Emma, 11, called attention to her attire.

"I'm wearing this shirt that has stars and moons made out of glitter," she pointed out. "I bought them because they look like something Hermione [Harry's scholarly young friend] might wear."

She has researched Harry Potter on the Internet, read all four books, even learned some spells, Emma said before heading off with her snacks - a box of popcorn, Butterfinger BBs and a strawberry kiwi juice.

Children weren't the only ones walking through the lobby as if it were Christmas morning.

Erin Douglas, 20, and Lisa Libster, 19, both students at Towson University, arrived at the theater at 6 p.m.

"We just wanted to be the first. We've waited for this for so long," said Douglas.

"Since we met each other last year, all we've done is talk about Harry Potter," said Libster. "They're magical books. They have humor, and a child's perspective. Everybody has a little Harry Potter in them."

From as young as 6 to well into their 60s, moviegoers, some of them in costume, filled nearly every seat at the Senator, throughout the day.

While the movie might cause a slight blip in school absences, educators aren't complaining.

At Lake Shore Elementary in Pasadena, Principal Sharon Ferralli said three children were picked up early to go see the Harry Potter movie - and she had no problem with that.

"We have the books in the library, and they were checked out nonstop." Ferralli said. "I suspect this will create another surge in reading the book, and that's a good thing."

In Carroll County, no one from any of the 38 schools called district administrators to report high absenteeism.

Howard County public school principals said students were excited about the movie's release but that attendance was normal.

At Friends School in Baltimore, students were taken to the movie yesterday. More than 500 students, faculty, parents and staff attended the 10 a.m. showing at the Senator as a class trip - an idea school officials started discussing in the summer.

While the school re-examined some planned trips after the Sept. 11 attacks, it decided not to cancel Harry Potter.

"We just became more committed to trying to go after the events of the early fall," said Greta Rutstein, lower school principal.

In addition to being "great community building, a joyful experience," Rutstein said, the movie would foster even more interest in reading.

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