You didn’t think you were going to make it out of 2017 without me writing about “Star Wars” again did you? Of course not, what with the recent release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and with the discovery of something I had been searching for in the archives since Rob Stroud mentioned it to me. So I bring to you, from the Dec. 1, 1980, Journal Gazette, this article from Nancy Purdy about the day that Darth Vader himself, accompanied by two Jawas, visited the IGA in Mattoon.
There was a time when if you had something to promote you sent a representative to our nation’s bounty of grocery stores. Surely I’ve mentioned the time when I was a kid and my parents wanted to hit K’s Merchandise up in Champaign, admittedly not a grocery store but hey just go with me, on the very day a promotion was being held for the brand new release of “7up Gold”, a sort of ginger ale-y version of that stalwart “un-cola”, where customers would actually run through the store to locate a little-person dressed up like an old-timey prospector. I’m not making that up.
Just imagine the chaos that could have gone down that fateful day in 1980 -- hordes of little Star Wars fans tearing hell through the IGA trying to find two hidden Jawas just to win a free box of C-3POs cereal only to run right smack into the Dark Lord of the Sith himself (mistakenly dubbed “First Lord” by Nancy) towering behind the pyramidal display of Alba 77 diet shakes.
When it came to scary screen villains, what competition did Vader have back then? Belloc from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? General Zod from “Superman II”? Sark from “Tron”? The scary red robot from “The Black Hole”? All right, I’ll give you that last one. At the time, Vader was most likely the lead choice of your kids’ nightmares. Or maybe not. Going by the article it seems like all kids in attendance were perfectly content to wait for their favorite bad guy to blow through those automatic doors and remind them to clear a date on their 1983 calendar for “Revenge of the Jedi”, which of course we know by now was retitled by George Lucas, just before release, to “Return of the Jedi.”
And such is the way of Star Wars. Back when the entire franchise was a product of Lucas’s vision, its future plans were constantly changing depending on his whims. As such, just about every mention in the article of what’s coming up with future Star Wars films ended up not quite being right, most specifically the exact nature of what Purdy says will be the next “two trilogies” after “Return of the Jedi,” one taking place “centuries” in the past and the other jumping back into the future, slated for release in 2001.
Just a bit off. George sold the whole shebang to Disney in 2012 thus ensuring there will be Star Wars movies for the rest of my life. And “the rest of my life” carried on last weekend when I found myself at the AMC in Mattoon for the Saturday early-afternoon screening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, which was, by my calculations, the 15th time I had been in a theater to see a Star Wars movie.
So how was it? Well, just like the previous two Disney-owned movies, I spent the first third or so enjoying it, but yet wondering if this maybe this just wasn’t “my” Star Wars anymore in the sense that no matter how good it is it just can’t mesh with the person I am now as opposed to who I was “back then.” A functioning human being just can’t sustain that kind of heated interest in something their whole lives, right?
But then there came a moment in “Last Jedi”, which I won’t dare reveal here, where suddenly all that mental hand wringing flew out the airlock and there I was, freaking out just like when I saw “Return of the Jedi” at age 5, wiping an actual man-tear from the corner of my eye, and jabbering like a chipmunk hopped up on Diet Coke Lime all the way from the lobby out to the car.
Part of the small, but annoyingly persistent, fan blowback “The Last Jedi” is receiving may have something to do with it’s the first Star Wars movie in a long while you could honestly call “challenging” or at least be something that’s clearly playing around with long held perceptions of what the franchise actually “is.”
Which brings us back to Vader and the IGA. I don’t know what those kids were thinking; sure we know now that Darth Vader wasn’t an irredeemable monster, but a once-talented kid with all the chances in the world who made a series of real bad life choices. But the kids of 1980 didn’t. Nor did those kids know that their visiting galactic terror that day was stuntman Tom Callahan, who as the article states was a former rodeo rider turned Fall Guy tasked by Lucasfilm to roam the hinterlands of America, spreading the promotional love for Star Wars in that time when we didn’t have the internet to do so for us; barnstorming small towns, heavy Vader suit in toe, ready to make sure every kid in that parking lot heads back to their parents begging to go see the next Star Wars movie that wouldn’t be out for another three years, no matter what it ended up being called.
As for “Becca, Chris and Jay Ramage”, pictured with Callahan (strangely enough) out of his Sith armor, I can only imagine they are today, somewhere in their 40s; whether they’re still into Star Wars or have left such things behind, whether they remember the day their parents took them to IGA to see Darth Vader or not. If the latter happens to be true in both cases, let this column be a reminder. You were there, you met freaking Darth Vader, and you ARE Star Wars fans.
…and I’m going to need your help to search the old IGA for those Jawas.