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Star Wars' San Francisco Roots 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015

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."

A few weeks after the Northpoint screening, San Francisco hosted Darth Vader's first public appearance. Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and publicist Charles Lippincott wanted Vader to appear at the May 1977 American Booksellers Association Convention to promote the second printing of Alan Dean Foster's ghostwritten Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, which had been published in November 1976. Think about that: The novelization came out eight months before the movie! And it did well enough to warrant a second printing before anyone had seen the film. (The second issue of Marvel's comic adaptation had also dropped by then.) Considering that Star Wars was an otherwise unknown entity at that point, that's as impressive a feat as The Force Awakens grossing $50 million four weeks before its release.

To be their public Darth Vader, Kurtz and Lippincott chose one Bryce Eller, who was six-foot-five and already quite experienced with costumes. He worked at the Don Post Studios, which was best known for latex Halloween masks (including the legendary William Shatner mask used for Michael Myers in Halloween), and had landed the soon-to-be-lucrative Star Wars license. Eller had helped build the Big Mac and Mayor McCheese suits for McDonald's commercials, and he also wore a suit of the robot Gort (of The Day the Earth Stood Still fame) for an unaired television pilot, so he was more than qualified. As Eller told in 2006, he had a "perfectionist tendency," visiting the editing suite to watch Star Wars' opening scenes to learn how Darth Vader moved and what he sounded like. The sympathetic Moviola operator allowed Eller to record James Earl's Jones's voice on a portable cassette recorder, thus creating the second most important bootleg in Star Wars history. Eller says he then "stayed up half the night in the St. Francis Hotel doing the voice over and over again" — not that anyone at the Convention could appreciate his vocal mimicry, since the film wouldn't be released until a few days later.

All the same, Eller's San Francisco gig led to many more high-profile appearances as Vader. He enshrined the villain's footprints outside Mann's Chinese Theater, joined costume designer John Mollo onstage at the 1978 Academy Awards when Star Wars won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, and, in what may be his true bid for immortality, appeared in a sketch with comedian Paul Lynde on The Donny & Marie Show. When alien anthropologists rummage through the ruins of our society in the deep future, we can only hope that's the first clip they find.

The Star Wars franchise is a reliable cash bantha in 2015: Ticket pre-sales for The Force Awakens began on Oct. 19, and according to Fandango, it sold eight times as many tickets that day as the previous first-day record holder, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. By Nov. 20, still a month out from the film's release, The Hollywood Reporter reported that it had grossed $50 million, doubling the total pre-sale gross of The Dark Knight Rises. The Sith-like financial company Morgan Stanley has predicted that the film will gross upwards of $2 billion globally, beating Jurassic World's $1.6B — and if The Force Awakens does nothing other than knocking the terrible Jurassic World down a peg, it'll all have been worth it.

But as Ladd's tears of relief at the positive response to the Northpoint screening suggest, Star Wars was initially considered a titanic risk — especially by the people who worked on it, like Paul Huston.

"At the time, if you can believe it, no one knew how the film would do," Huston says. "On a long project, you tend to lose perspective, and it was quite different from anything else at the time. [Visual effects producer] Jim Nelson had his name taken off the credits because he thought it would bomb."

Instead, the film grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide and became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, affording Lucas the opportunity to pull up stakes and permanently relocate his operations from L.A. to Northern California. For his part, Colorado native Huston was thrilled to learn that Industrial Light and Magic was moving to San Rafael.

"Being from Colorado, I craved being in a beautiful environment! I relocated to Marin and never looked back," he says.

The gravitational pull that brought Paul Huston and ILM from Los Angeles to the Bay Area only worked in one direction, though. In the early stages of planning Skywalker Ranch, Lucas approached local legend Bob Wilkins to be its president. Wilkins started out as a horror host in the late 1960s on Sacramento's KCRA — where he coined the immortal phrase "Watch Horror Films...Keep America Strong" — and went on to host the beloved Creature Features on KTVU in Oakland from 1971 through 1979. Wilkins had a clear love for science fiction, producing two Star Trek specials and hosting the kiddie show Captain Cosmic, which showed the best and worst (mostly the worst) of international sci-fi movies and serials.

In his wonderfully silly red spaceman suit and helmet, Wilkins interviewed many of the Star Wars cast on Captain Cosmic, including a memorable appearance by C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels in which Daniels gamely tried to be enthusiastic about the upcoming Star Wars Holiday Special.

It was during the end of his KTVU run that longtime fan Lucas offered Wilkins the gig of running Skywalker Ranch, to be the one to talk to the press and do all that human-interaction stuff that Lucas found distasteful. Wilkins was already planning to leave television altogether to return to advertising, but there was one caveat: The Ranch didn't exist yet, and Wilkins would have work in Los Angeles for the first few years. Recounting the story to Carpe Noctem magazine 1998, Wilkins says he told Lucas, "'I would never take my family to Los Angeles, but thanks for the offer.'" Bam! Bob Wilkins: Keepin' it 100 percent real, Bay Area style.

Star Wars is more of an international phenomenon than ever, and in spite of the Disney purchase, Lucasfilm remains local. The Force Awakens also bears the honor of being the first Star Wars film in which the majority of the visual effects were produced within the City and County of San Francisco.

We've more than earned our Yoda.


About The Author

Sherilyn Connelly


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