December 14th, 2015; perhaps the largest premiere Hollywood has ever seen, the hottest ticket in town, and the first public launch of Disney’s newest acquisition. Encompassing four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and stretching out of sight down the center of the street, the tent housing The Force Awakens experience would be home to 4000 fans and celebs alike. Somehow I’d managed to score an invite to the first Star Wars cinematic unveiling in over a decade. It’s been over for a day, but I’m still pinching myself, and reeling from the experience.
I’d arrived at 6am, in unusually-cold-for-Los-Angeles 45-degree weather. I and my fellow fans from LiningUp.net, those crazy die-hards camping out at the TLC Chinese Theatre since December 5th to raise money and awareness for the Starlight Foundation charity for children while awaiting the official opening on Dec. 17th, had been extended an invitation to view the red carpet proceedings from the corner of Sycamore and Hollywood, a nearly 12-hour wait. Even nine days of camping in the forecourt of the Chinese couldn’t prepare us for the cold, and the fancier-than-usual “Star Wars chic” clothes we’d been requested to wear were not the usual protection we enjoyed from the elements.
But we’re used to suffering waiting for Star Wars. if not the mere distance between installments, lines in 1981, 1983, 1999, 2002, and 2005 weren’t exactly picnics. But then they were all at the end of May, the traditional release time and a more reasonable climate for forming a fan-related refugee camp on the sidewalk.
Reprieved from the boredom of waiting all day by duties as ambassador and organizer, I instead had to endure about 30 different security checkpoints from Highland Street to La Brea. Metal detectors, patdowns, dog sniffs and bag searches were so frequent that I formed meaningful relationships with many of the security staff. But my rogue status gave me some unexpected perks, such as touring the event structure as they were building it, and speaking to organizers of the event to glean some hard-won super-secret information about their plans to take back to the troops.
Nearing 2:30 PM, the local Rebel Legion, 501st and other fan groups like the Mandolorian Mercs arrived to take seats in the bleachers. Pressed into a seat near the front, I was pleased to find Craig Miller, former marketing team member for LFL on Star Wars and Empire, and Bantha Tracks fan-club newsletter editor. Being the head of Fan Relations in the early days, he was full of stories of the original trilogy and many of the red carpet arrivals and, along with his wife Genny, made a great companion.
In preference to using Disney-provided actors and costumes, the red carpet was to be staffed by fans, who had worked for weeks creating replicas worthy of approval by Lucasfilm and the premiere. First Order stormtroopers and Resistance X-Wing pilots provided color to the “face character” fans, dressed as Rey, Finn, Captain Phasma and Kylo Ren, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with their arrival. Jimmy Kimmel show reporter Guillermo interviewed our fan costumers for the show, as they tried to hold their own against the usual geek barbs of the talk-show host; I enjoyed seeing my friends the target of so much attention.
With the fan groups secure in the stands, limos began to arrive, disgorging notables who elicited a cheer with each new reveal. R2-D2 and C-3PO led the procession into the tent. Guests to view the film like Stephen Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Spike Lee, Joseph Gordon Levitt (inexplicably dressed as Yoda), Geena Davis, Clare Grant and Seth Green, Jennifer Gray and Clark Gregg, Sofia Vergara, Frank Oz and more. Disney Chairman Bob Iger preceded filmmakers like JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy (and husband Frank Marshall), and composer John Williams. New-kid droid BB-8 made his first premiere appearance, and seemed to enjoy both the attention of the crowd and the surface of the carpet.
And of course the cast; returning Original Trilogy actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels. New additions to the Galaxy like Max von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Greg Grunberg and the impossibly tall Gwendoline Christie, who caused heart palpitations amidst the men of the 501st and stopped for selfies. George Lucas, accompanied by spouse Mellody Hobson and class act as always, was in good spirits as he came to see what had been wrought with his saga. And Carrie Fisher concluded the arrivals, with daughter Billie Lourd (but without canine companion Gary) working the carpet like the Princess she is and garnering the loudest of cheers from the gallery.
In an unprecedented move, the screenings were split among three local theaters. The classic TLC Chinese Theatre had the film in IMAX Laser projection and sound, Disney’s own El Capitan Theatre featured Dolby Vision and Atmos, while the Dolby Theatre was used as the largest screening venue. All told, seating was available for 3500 fans. But the tickets were luck of the draw, pre-assigned by name and verified with photo ID. Seemingly random, husbands and wives were assigned different sections or even different theaters all together. I got assigned seat B-10 in the center section of the Dolby; it sounded like I’d hit the “overflow” theater, and just a little too close to the screen for my tastes. My friend Jeff “Solo” Donoho, having a Dolby ticket himself, joined me for what was certain to be a very long walk.
But before we could even get to the theaters, we had to run the Gauntlet of the Tent. Flanked by giant Kylo and Luke lightsabers, the entrance funneled guests eastward into a block-long media carpet. Despite our dawdling at the entry, celebs were still underfoot and detained by reporters and photographers as we moved along, encouraged by staff to reach our destination as soon as possible. I made note of the displays I needed to return to after the film; the Kylo Ren Dodge Viper, Lego Episode 7 characters, armored/costumed mannequins, Infinity 3.0 gaming stations. The decor looked like a space station hangar, neon and leds blazing, and the entire structure reverberated with music and the thrum of the crowd.
As we neared the theaters, doors had been opened in the sides of the tent airport-terminal-style, with red carpet offshoots to the screening venues. First the Chinese Theatre on the left, then El Capitan on the right, and finally Dolby. Channeled into a chute to walk thought the Hollywood and Highland center to the Dolby, I was surprised to see people lining the walk, looking for autographs. I’m sure people were either putting me on or mistaken of my identity, but they kept grabbing my hand earnestly and thanking me. I have no idea why, but it certainly added to the “celebrity experience.” Perhaps they thought I was George … or Richard Dreyfus; though I think I look like neither of these men, it does occasionally happen.
Entering the welcome warmth of the theater – you’ll know it as the location of the annual Academy Awards Oscar presentations – we had to divest ourselves of cameras and phones, checking them for security and leak prevention, to be retrieved later. After a quick restroom stop to avoid having to leave in the middle of the two hour, 15 minute film and collecting some popcorn in souvenir buckets, we went in full-throttle. The Dolby, meant for live presentations, is a very large theater with several balconies; but per our tickets, Jeff and I made our way to the ground-floor orchestra level, encountering and greeting friends and celebrities alike. Being in different sections we split up, and I made my way to my seat only to discover I was front row, center seat of the entire theater. The giant screen seemed reasonably far away so, surrounded by my friends and fellow fans, I relaxed and readied myself for the film I’d thought we would never see, and hoped was really good. We’d been here 15 years ago with The Phantom Menace – which I’d liked – but today wanted something more familiar and original-trilogy-ish.
But Disney wasn’t done with the pomp and circumstance. Despite the feeling that I was in the “overflow”, third class theatre, I soon found I was very, very mistaken. Bob Iger entered the stage to introduce the film, and then brought out Kathy Kennedy, who brought out JJ Abrams, who brought out the cast, droids and humans alike. Unbelieving of my good fortune, I had found myself within arms distance of the filmmakers. Applause was given for everyone, but standing ovations for George Lucas, John Williams, Harrison, Mark and Carrie.
And then the stage cleared, and the lights dimmed …
… and we sat on the edge of our seats for two hours. I realized, as the credits rolled, that I had fingernail marks in my hands from clenching my fists, totally into the movie.
I certainly won’t spoil the film for you, but suffice to say there were tears (manly ones, of course) and cheers (until we were hoarse) and a collective sigh of relief. It’s a good film, with great performances. And it is Star Wars – original trilogy style in feel and look and action and story, and it passed the torch to the new generation magnificently. It was like coming home and warming yourself with that comfortable sweater you haven’t worn for a while, with the bonus joy of finding money in the pocket you didn’t know you had. Cheesy as it sounds, the Force really has awakened, and it’s good.
As the lights came up I reclaimed Jeff and my phone, and hit the after-party. Really too much to describe, but I found myself in conversations with actors and filmmakers like Peter Mayhew, Geena Davis, JJ Abrams, Andy Serkis and Frank Oz that I’ve admired for years. Tremendous food, terrific discussions on the film, and a heck of a party that ended right at the stroke of midnight. Certainly well worth the long day’s wait, and the numbing cold- and what a reward for being a dedicated fan! Surrounded by my LiningUp.net, 501st, Rebel Legion, Saber Guild and Mando Merc brothers and sisters, and many other fans from all walks of life, it was the best place on the planet to be a Star Wars enthusiast. Reflecting on all the charity things we’ve done in the past, doing good works for the world in the name of some silly science fiction movies, this was an unintended reward to participate in such a major slice of celebration for a universe I love.
Disney and Lucasfilm provided free entry to the event with no expectations. Special thanks to Lucasfilm, Disney and the TCL Chinese Theatre, who were so kind to accommodate the Liningup.Net fans in the red carpet, the screening and the afterparty.
Shawn “Obi-Shawn” Crosby is not only the creator of the now-famous Z-Wing custom Star Wars car, he is also a gifted voice actor, hosts Docking Bay 94 here on SCIFI.radio each Thursday evening, and is the morning DJ here five days a week on Good Morning, Tatooine! He does more than 160 charity events a year in the persona of Obi-Wan Kenobi, with the blessing of LucasFilm Ltd. He
He is also one of the most modest, self-effacing men I have ever met, and will probably be appalled that I changed his article title to include his name and made his picture the featured image for the article.
— Gene Turnbow, Acting Editor & Station Manager