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Star Wars' San Francisco Roots 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015

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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.


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Sherilyn Connelly


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