Little Rock Look Back: The Return of STAR WARS Day

Today, May the 4th, is Star Wars Day.  This year marks 40 years since the first (fourth?) movie first opened!

The classic film first opened in May 1977 (though after May 4).  It did not reach Little Rock until June 24, 1977.

Given its status as a sleeper hit, it is no surprise that it came into Little Rock largely unnoticed.  In that day, major films opening on a Friday would be heralded the previous Sunday with a substantial advertisement.  The first Star Wars ad ran on Thursday, June 23, 1977, the day before it opened.  By contrast, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, which would play at the same theatre, had a large ad on Sunday, June 19.

While Star Wars would seem like the perfect movie for the great UA Cinema 150, it did not play there.  The film playing at the 150 was A Bridge Too Far, which was, at least an action movie.  Star Wars did not even open at a UA theatre.  It opened at the ABC Cinema 1 & 2 (located at Markham and John Barrow) and at the McCain Mall Cinema.  (The ABC Cinema location is now home to discount cellphone and discount clothing businesses; a cinema has returned to McCain Mall, but now in the location of the former MM Cohn’s store.)

The day it opened, there was a fairly large ad which incorporated the familiar beefcake Luke, Leia in flowing gowns, and Darth Vader mask.  On the Sunday after it opened, there was a slightly smaller ad with the same artwork.  McCain Mall also ran a small add for both Star Wars and Herbie. It noted that Star Wars was a film that management “does not recommend for children.”

Three years later, The Empire Strikes Back opened nationwide on May 21, 1980. Opening a film on the same date was a newer phenomenon, due in part to the success of Star Wars.  For the opening weeks, The Empire Strikes Back played an exclusive showing at the UA Cinema 150.  It would eventually play at other theatres in Little Rock.   It is interesting to note what was playing at the two theatres which had originally screened the 1977 film.  The McCain Mall Cinema was showing Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Fog. The former ABC Cinema was now the Plitt Southern Theatre and showed the Bill Murray comedy Where the Buffalo Roam and the “Get Smart” movie The Nude Bomb.  None were likely to attract the same number of audience members as The Empire Strikes Back.

On the day The Empire Strikes Back opened, the Arkansas Gazette had four different stories about the movie in that day’s edition.  While the Arkansas Democrat did not have any stories that day (though they would in subsequent days), they did carry a story on David Letterman preparing to start his (what would turn out to be short-lived) morning TV show.

On May 25, 1983, The Return of the Jedi opened.  Like the first film, though it would have been perfect for the Cinema 150, it did not play there.  Instead it played at the UA Cinema City (Breckenridge Village), the UA Four (at Geyer Springs and I-30 – now the Ron Sherman production studios), and at McCain Mall.  Flashdance was playing at the Cinema 150. In a forerunner of what is now standard practice, The Return of the Jedi played simultaneously on two of the seven screens at UA Cinema City and two of the four screens at UA Four.  While this is now part of the modus operandi, at the time, it was extremely rare to have a movie play on more than one screen in the same complex.  Though each of the theatres was smaller than the Cinema 150, the five combined exceeded the availability if it had played an exclusive run at the Cinema 150.

By the time The Return of the Jedi opened, the former ABC Cinema was now part of the ill-fated locally-based Rand Cinema chain and was known as the Markham 1 & 2.  It was showing the Roy Scheider film Blue Thunder and Dan Aykroyd in Dr. Detroit.

The cost to see The Return of the Jedi in Little Rock in 1983 was $5.00 for adults and $2.50 for children.  (That would be the equivalent of $12.37 today for an adult ticket.)