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Star Wars' San Francisco Roots 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015
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Among the many things that make San Francisco the coolest place in the world is the fountain, crowned by a life-sized bronze Yoda, outside the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio. Just inside the center's lobby are similar statues of Boba Fett; R2-D2; a six-foot, six-inch Darth Vader; and other Star Wars favorites. An hour north is Skywalker Ranch, home to both the Skywalker Sound facilities and the Lucas Research Library. The Ranch is not accessible to the public, but it's nice to know it's there.

In spite of those bragging rights, the Bay Area is by no means Star Wars' only birthplace. The film was shot in Tunisia and England, and the production offices, as well as the visual effects house Industrial Light and Magic, were in Los Angeles at the time. ILM didn't relocate to the Bay Area until 1978 (moving to the Presidio in 2005), and even Skywalker Ranch wasn't complete until well after the original trilogy. But the Bay Area played a pivotal role in the early days of the saga, both geographically and symbolically.


Although the Coronet Theatre on Geary Boulevard was one of 32 cinemas in the nation to show Star Wars on the film's official opening day of May 25, 1977, the first public screening was on May 1 at the 982-seat Northpoint Theatre at Bay and Powell streets — the same theater that had premiered Lucas' second film, American Graffiti, in 1973. There were private screenings earlier, but among the general public, San Francisco got the first look. (The other feature on the Northpoint's single screen was the Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot, whose 67 F-bombs made it as much a pioneer in cinematic profanity as Lucas' film was in visual effects.)

The Star Wars screening was invite-only, via flyers handed out at other local theaters, which cryptically described the movie as "A Live Action Fantasy Adventure Filmed in England, Tunisia, and Guatemala." To keep the uninvited curious away, the Northpoint's marquee referred to the film in small print as Alaska. That Lucas owned an Alaskan Malamute (named Indiana, no less) might have accounted for that particular code name.

According to Dale Pollock's Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, Lucas brought in a tape recorder to capture and study the audience's reaction, thus creating the most historically significant bootleg in Star Wars history — even more coveted than the VHS copies of The Star Wars Holiday Special that circulated in the 1990s. The Holiday Special is now all over YouTube, but that first audience recording still has not surfaced.

Paul Huston, one of the model-builders at Industrial Light and Magic, was there, too. (He's the only ILM employee who has worked on all seven Star Wars films.) Huston says he did not expect the audience's fervent reaction.

"I was as surprised as anyone when the audience loved it, and gave a standing ovation at the end," he says. "People back at ILM were quite amazed when I told them the reaction at the screening."

Also in attendance at that now-legendary screening was 20th Century Fox studio head Alan Ladd, Jr., called "Laddie" by his friends and associates. Star Wars had been rejected by United Artists and by Universal Pictures, but Laddie saw potential in the picture, even if nobody else at Fox did. In Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars, he recalled being brought to tears by the audience response to the Star Destroyer flying overhead, seeing his studio's gamble pay off so spectacularly. (Lucas has since said in interviews that the success of the film was far more emotional for Laddie than it was for him.) When the audience continued carrying on even after the movie ended, Laddie said, "I had to get up and walk outside because of the tears."

But it was a response that proved hard to replicate, and he recounted a far less successful screening in L.A. the following night. "I went to dinner [after the L.A. screening] and was so depressed," he said. "I was saying to a couple of people, 'You should have been in San Francisco, you should have been in San Francisco...'" Good advice in any situation, actually.

The city's influence on Lucas' career can be traced back to the independent film studio American Zoetrope, which Francis Ford Coppola founded in a SoMa warehouse in 1969. Flush with money from Warner Bros. — which, like all the struggling major studios, was desperate to ride the profitable youth wave exemplified by Easy Rider, and fell sway to his legendary powers of persuasion — Coppola wanted to prove that good filmmaking was possible outside of the Hollywood studio system. But it wasn't just about getting away from Hollywood; American Zoetrope could have set up shop in Modesto, the hometown of Coppola's co-conspirator George Lucas, to make the same point. The fact that S.F. was the epicenter of the counterculture attracted Coppola. While there was plenty of top-notch filmmaking equipment, his lavish studio also presaged the excesses of the city's later dotcom booms, in which startups with too much money spent it on all the wrong things, like espresso machines and pool tables.

As a 1970 profile in Show magazine declared, "The movie business is alive and well and living in San Francisco." This was a bit of an exaggeration, as American Zoetrope was the only filmmaking game in town. Their first and only feature, Lucas's 1971 sci-fi dystopia THX-1138, tanked at the box office, bankrupted the studio, and put Coppola $300,000 in debt to Warner Bros., which had co-produced the film — yet another way Zoetrope foreshadowed the boom-and-bust lifespan of the dotcoms to come.

In spite of that heartbreak, Lucas maintained an affection for San Francisco and what it represented to an artist, particularly as he was negotiating to maintain creative control on Star Wars.

"I didn't mind getting input from the creative people around me — but not the executives," he would later say in J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars. "I grew up in the 1960s. I was very anti-corporation, and I was here in San Francisco, where anti-authority is even more extreme."


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Sherilyn Connelly

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