Return of the Jedi 30 Years Later: Remembering Opening Day

A long time ago, in a movie theater somewhat far away . . .

The wait had seemed interminable. Three years to find out the fate of Han Solo, to learn if Darth Vader had been telling the truth about Luke’s father. Three years is forever to a child who had only been nine years old when The Empire Strikes Back ended with a major cliffhanger. But the day finally arrived: May 25th, 1983, opening day for Return of the Jedi.

I was heading to the theater in Deptford, NJ with my two best friends, Bruce and Kim. Kim’s dad drove us up to the theater early in the day so we could buy tickets ahead of time and walk around the mall until the movie started. This proved to be a brilliant move because by the time we returned to the theater the line outside was longer than anything I had ever seen in my life. We got in line and it continued to grow behind us, stretching back farther than we could see.

After a while, a theater employee started walking down the line and informing people that the shows were sold out for the entire night. If they didn’t already have tickets, they weren’t getting in. It was still early at this point, so a lot of people went home disappointed that day. I don’t recall how long we waited before finally getting into the theater, but we stood outside for a long time. You don’t really see lines like that anymore (except maybe in major cities) because movies now open in so many theaters. Back then, we didn’t have 20-plus-theater multiplexes. I think our theater had six screens, and only a couple of those were showing Jedi. Personally, I have never seen a theater line in the 30 years since that even came close to the one that day.

Watching the movie was surreal. The audience erupted in thunderous applause every time something good happened. I have gone to other movies where the audience cheered, but nothing like this. After waiting three years for a resolution to the most stunning cliffhanger in movie history, the audience was just ready to let loose. It was a communal experience.

Jedi frequently gets a bad rap, is thought of as the weak stepchild of the original trilogy. I think much of this is due to revisionist history, particularly where the Ewoks are concerned. Everyone my age liked the Ewoks when we were kids–if you claim differently now you are not being honest with yourself. But putting the Ewoks aside, the movie had spectacular sequences and set pieces: the rancor, the battle over the sarlacc pit where we got to see Luke kicking ass as a Jedi for the first time, the speeder bike chase, the battle over the second Death Star with more fast flying ships, lasers, and explosions than had ever been seen onscreen at one time. And the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor were some of the best of the entire saga (at least until Lucas retroactively ruined the climax by having Vader scream “No!” but that’s a story for another article.).

It may not have been quite to the level of its predecessors, but Return of the Jedi was still a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the greatest movie trilogy of all time, and I will never forget that opening day. My friends and I still talk about it.

9 thoughts on “Return of the Jedi 30 Years Later: Remembering Opening Day”

  1. What a great memory, thanks for sharing. I remember the first time I saw Return of the Jedi in theaters, and it was so incredible in that forum, even though I’d already seen it a hundred times on video. Now, it’s all about the midnight showings. I promise myself I’m going to go see the next Star Wars film at midnight, things like that stay with you.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yeah, midnight showings are great experiences as well. I did the midnight show for Revenge of the Sith and it had almost the same feel as I remembered with Jedi. I don’t go to theaters much anymore, but I will definitely be there at midnight for the next Star Wars film.

  2. I have a similar memory – the anticipation, the lines. I remember spending summers reading Dynamite Magazine, playing stickball and arguing about those topics. I don’t even remember what side I came down on. I just knew I was wondering what was taking so long!

    I think I went on the 3rd day Jedi was out. The line did not intimidate us, but the chaos inside the theater as we tried to find empty seats did. Then, the coolest thing happened. A guy, dressed in hospital greens, called over to us. He told us that he had three seats open beside him. He told us that if we saved his seat, we could have the three seats… and he’d get us popcorn. SOLD! We did as asked and so did he. I imagine this scenario would have no possibility of playing out today, but it’s still a cool memory.

    As for the movie, I don’t remember much about audience reaction. I’m sure there was applause and shouting, but I was tuned in to the movie. I was fast, suspenseful, fun and – most of all, a satisfying conclusion to one of the great movie epics. I have not seen any revised versions of the movie, so I’ve not seen “NOOOO!!!” or anything like that. And I have avoided the three ‘prequel’ films, so my memories of these ‘original’ films remain intact and very nostalgic — and, most importantly to me — the memories retain the wonder and enjoyment that you can only experience with something like this when you are 10-14 years old (and younger).

    1. Yes, we were the perfect age to get the most out of those films. And I have similar memories about discussing those topics during the summers while waiting for Jedi to come out. We’d make up our own stories about how Luke would rescue Han and stuff like that.

      That is a great memory about the guy with the popcorn, and yeah, something tells me that scenario wouldn’t happen nowadays.

      I’m surprised you’ve never seen any of the revised versions, even just flipping through channels on cable. They don’t show the originals anymore.

  3. I agree. I was also 9. And there was no Internet or social media, so a lot of what my friends and I we were hearing/expecting was coming from word of mouth, what little TV was dedicated to things like that (shows like Entertainment Tonight and others were not as ubiquitous then), and anything we could grab at public school through those Scholastc book order forms. Jedi was my fav, though. When I was a kid and even now. Again, with the revisionist thing, and being adults now, everyone I know, and his brother, swear by Empire. (Except me. And I take a lot of flak for that.) But when you’re a kid, Empire is filled with lots of dark, dingy atmospheres and neutral colours – black, white, grey. Jedi is not. It’s very bright and brilliant. Empire also has that whole middle period of the movie where it’s very down and frankly quite boring to a kid – basically anything that’s not Hoth or Bespin … that whole sequence where Luke is on Dagobah training and Han and the others are flying through space, trying to avoid the Empire and hiding on Asteroids. Anyway, I agree. Jedi was faster, brighter, more action and explosion and ship-packed. And yeah, I can still remember seeing Luke in black, untouchable, like a one-man army, over the Sarlaac, with a GREEN lightsaber. G-R-E-E-N. We were like, “Whoaaaaaaa.” Finally getting to see The Emperor (not to mention force lightning), Jabba The Hutt. I could go on and on. … It was like the act 3 of Shakespearean play (which, c’mon, are ALWAYS the best parts ;)) and it was and still remains my favourite of the Star Wars movies today …

    1. When I was a kid, Jedi was my favorite for many of the reasons you cite, though as I grew older, Empire took over as my favorite as its depth and darkness began to appeal to me more. But I still love Jedi.

  4. And I’ll do you one better … I was too young to wait outside theatres in 1983 at midnight to see Jedi. But I did it for Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. (Couldn’t do it for Revenge because by that time I had an avid and dedicated 5 year old fan who would’ve killed me if I didn’t take him with me first-time-around.) .. BUUUUUT … I was the moron standing outside Toys R Us at midnight before the release of Phantom Menace waiting to get into the store, like it was the premiere of a movie, or Black Friday and we were getting flat screen TVs for $20 to buy toys and action figures. .. I remember finally getting in there and people are all standing next to each other, thumbing through figures of characters we had ot yest seen nor ben introduced to yet, saying, “Who’s this? Who the he11’s that guy? Or that THING?”

    1. I actually took vacation days for all of the prequel films and saw each of them twice on the first day. For Phantom Menace I waited in line for hours when the tickets went on sale a week ahead of time, which is probably the last time I’ll ever do that for a movie since I buy all my tickets online now.

      Yeah, I remember the craze surrounding the new action figures. People were buying them up in droves with the idea of cashing in later, but even if the prequels were the best movies ever made, those action figures would never be worth anywhere near those of the original trilogy because the market was flooded and everyone now knows to keep them in their boxes, so mint-condition figures will be much less rare.

  5. sorry – the end of that should’ve read:

    “or Black Friday and we were getting flat screen TVs for $20, to buy toys and action figures. .. I remember finally getting in there and people are all standing next to each other, thumbing through figures of characters we had not yet seen, nor been introduced to, yet, saying, “Who’s this? Who the he11′s that guy? Or that THING?”

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