“Star Wars” and the Coronet in 1977: An oral history
I was in the Chronicle’s basement archives last fall, looking for something else, when I came across a small brown envelope with just a few words in blue marker: “Star Wars — Movie at the Coronet: Theater lines.”
I was so excited I didn’t even wait to get to the light table that was five paces away. I pulled out a negative, held it up to one of the overhead fluorescent lights, and immediately recognized the mob of people surrounding the old Coronet Theatre on May 28, 1977 — three days after the opening of “Star Wars.” The photos were posted on The Big Event the following Thursday.
The Coronet was still known as “the ‘Star Wars’ theater” when it was demolished in 2007. But I was still pleasantly surprised when scores of local residents, “Star Wars” fans and Coronet employees posted comments and sent e-mails with vivid and lasting memories. I immediately planned a Pink section story and the oral history you’ll find below.
If you enjoy this project, please share it with your friends on social media, by e-mail or any other means. I’m looking forward to your Coronet/”Star Wars” memories in the comments …
(Photo: Gary Fong/The Chronicle 1977)
The Coronet opened in the working class Richmond District at a time when the theaters on Market Street had reached their peak of popularity, and more theaters were being built in Bay Area suburbs. The Coronet boasted more than 1,350 seats – including larger rocking loge chairs – and was marketed as a luxury alternative to older movie houses.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (Nov. 2, 1949 article): The utmost in theater comfort will be unveiled this evening when the Coronet, San Francisco’s newest movie house – and first of major importance to be built in 15 years – will open its doors at Geary Boulevard near Arguello Boulevard. First nighters will see “I Was a Male War Bride,” a riotous comedy starring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan.
JOHN STANLEY (Chronicle reporter, 1960-1993): I remember seeing “Ben Hur” there in 1959 … when I first moved to San Francisco. I had seen all my movies at the Napa Uptown Theater, or the Fox Theatre (Napa), until it was torn down in ’54. Going to the movies in San Francisco was a novelty and a rarity. … To see “Ben Hur” there, that was a major moment for me. I just loved it. I saw it at the time it opened and then came back a month or two later. It may have played five or six months there, if not longer.
GARY MEYER (Booked “Star Wars” at the Coronet for United Artists in 1977): The Coronet had a reputation for great projection and sound. It showed 70mm. The two best sound systems in the city were the Northpoint and the Coronet. … If you were a filmmaker and you knew the theaters of the city — if you were George Lucas or Francis Coppola — those were the theaters you wanted to screen your film in.
CRAIG BARRON (16-year-old “Star Wars” fan in 1977): Back in the 1970s, it was a very interesting time for films. This was the era of the “Godfather” series, and “Taxi Driver” had come out the year before. “Dirty Harry” had come out about a vigilante cop. These were all intense, serious adult films, and there just wasn’t anything a 15 or 16-year-old would want to go see. Hollywood hadn’t made adventure films in a long time. I think that’s one reason why it took off. It was fun to go back to the movies again. … Lucas reinvented that kind of feel for another generation. And we were ready.
Despite the surprise success of Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” there were few expectations by the studio for “Star Wars.” Lucas famously negotiated for the merchandising and sequel rights, in exchange cutting his writer/director’s fee.
GARY MEYER: I’m in Los Angeles, having dinner with the head of distribution and marketing for 20th Century Fox, a man named Peter Myers. I said, “Have you seen ‘Star Wars’ yet?” And he said “Oh my god, we screened it for (Fox studio chief) Alan Ladd, Jr. and the whole board, and they fell asleep. We’re going to shelve the film.” He said they didn’t have that much invested in it. He was going to shelve the film and he didn’t care.
I said, “Don’t you know what’s been going on?” Lucas had been doing this convention slideshow. And he was publishing the paperback books and comic book series on his own, because he owned the rights. And he must not have talked to Fox about it. They didn’t know. They didn’t even know this was going on.
JOHN STANLEY: They were playing the trailers for “Star Wars,” and as I recall I don’t think they were showing you a lot of the characters. They were hinting with these trailers — that Star Wars was going to open the door to this incredible new universe for the viewer. And I think those trailers absolutely worked. They just attracted an audience and prepared everyone for wanting to see that film.
CRAIG BARRON: There was a trailer that had Vivaldi music. But there wasn’t a lot of information about this movie. It took us all by surprise.
GARY MEYER: Their other film for the summer was “The Other Side of Midnight.” That was their film they had big hopes for. When it came time to book, they said, “We want ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ in the big important houses, and you can do whatever you want with this ‘Star Wars’ movie.” Luckily in San Francisco we had the Alexandria and the Coronet. I said, “The Coronet is where I want to play ‘Star Wars.’ I want the presentation, I want the giant screen.” … And my bosses didn’t care. I had been right about “American Graffiti.”
“Star Wars” opened on a Wednesday in just 32 movie houses in the U.S., including the Coronet. Only one other Bay Area theater – the Century 22 in San Jose – opened on May 25. But first there was a May 1 preview at the Northpoint near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Among the attendees was the lucky Mt Tamalpais High drama class of Dan Caldwell …
ANN KILLION (Mt. Tam high school student in 1977): A lot of drama students had been extras in “American Graffiti.” The sock hop was filmed at our gym. So I think there was a relationship. I remember it seemed super early to get up on a Sunday morning but they made it clear that it was a special privilege. And free. So a bunch of us went. I remember being blown away from the opening credits on. It was so cool. I came back raving to my friends and paid to see it probably five more times. I’ve always felt privileged to have been in the test audience. I think we filled out a survey afterward but I’m not sure. (It) taught me a good lesson about waking up early on the weekend.
Word of mouth was strong, and San Francisco Chronicle critic John L. Wasserman’s review championed the film, calling it “the most exciting film to be released this year – exciting as theater and exciting as cinema. By Friday night May 27, Coronet lines were around the block.
CRAIG BARRON: It was like Woodstock. Imagine bringing in thousands of people into a small area that’s really not set up for that.
BETH MacLEAN (Sixth grader in 1977 and resident of Jordan Avenue, one half block from the Coronet): Our neighborhood had just transformed. At times they would have the ticket buyer line on one side, and the ticket holder line on the other side, and they would get so long that they would meet in the back by Rossi Park.
Our neighborhood went from one that you could pull up and park in front of your house, to a neighborhood that was impossible to park in. Overnight. I think it was shortly after that that they the parking permits in, and the stickers. (We) were consistently picking up wrappers and garbage and junk from in front of the house.
CRAIG BARRON: The thing that was interesting about the Coronet was it was a theater out in the neighborhoods. You had to ride a bus for a long time to get out there. And once you were there, there was nothing else to do except go home. You ended up staying and seeing the movie again. I think a lot of that had to do with the lines.
AL LEVIN (Coronet manager, quoted in a June 3, 1977 Chronicle article): I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re getting all kinds. Old people, young people, children, Hare Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker players, we have chess players; people with paint and sequins on their faces. Fruit eaters like I’ve never seen before, people loaded on grass and LSD. At least one guy’s been here every day. It’s an audience participation film. They hiss at the villain, they scream and holler at everything else. When school gets out, the kid’s’ll go crazy.
Courtesy Michael Hylton
Locals and theater employees expected lines to get smaller after opening weekend. But as buzz spread for the movie — with stories about the lines in newspapers and on television — the crowds got bigger in the following weeks. The Coronet increased staff, including extra ushers to monitor the parking lot and driveways of two local gas stations.
MICHAEL HYLTON (Coronet employee in 1977): The Coronet was really my first true job outside of delivering the Chronicle. I don’t know if it was two or three days after the movie opened. We (Michael and twin brother Alan) went to the Coronet to apply for a job, and that day we were both hired. It was already crazy and chaotic over there. There were already long, long lines every day. We were working hard from day one.
ERIC GOEBEL (Coronet projectionist in the 1980s and 2000s): I started at the Alexandria, but my eyes were always on the Coronet. … The guy that ran the (projection) booth was Guido Girolo, and he was just a consummate professional. The booth was in fantastic shape. … The staff was really exceptional, really cohesive. We used to do things together outside of work. We would go to Yosemite, Disneyland, stuff like that. Looking back on it, I knew it was a great place to be, but didn’t realize how fully special it was until it was over.
MYCHAEL HYLTON: There were times we would have a parties. At (11 p.m.) after the last showing, Eric would turn up the music. We’d have a party and drinking and stuff like that at the Coronet. It wasn’t legal, but that’s what we did.
The success of “Star Wars” impacted the local economy in unexpected ways. A bartender at nearby Z’s Buffet invented a “Star Wars”-theme drink. A nearby liquor store made a killing on candy. Other businesses weren’t happy to see the huge crowds.
LARRY NASEY (Union 76 gas station manager, 1977): We had no idea the lines would be like that. I know my boss didn’t. … And it never let up. Even though it was a large station, we only had one bathroom. We tried to leave it open for a while. … We had a wall in the back. There was a little bit on an angle. Guys were urinating on the wall, and watching the urine trail, making bets on who would hit the wall first.
Kate Grey and Beth MacLean in 1977, 2012
KATE GREY (MacLean’s sister, a high school sophomore in 1977): I remember the social aspect of it. For me, there were some boys down the street who were extremely cute and I had a crush on. And they would go hang out there and skateboard up and down the line. My girlfriends and I, and maybe the guys too, we would literally just roam the line. I don’t know what the purpose was. We were teenagers. We would roam the line. It was a form of entertainment in and of itself.
BETH MacLEAN: I remember friends trying to make money off the line. A boy across the street got pretty entrepreneurial about it. Made coffee in a big coffee percolator. I think he sold hot dogs, too. (He) put it in a wagon, would take the wagon up there, and would sell food instantaneously. Keep in mind there wasn’t a Starbucks on every single corner. I ended up doing it a couple of times too until my parents realized I was using their coffee to do it, not buying my own supplies.
CHARLES LIPPINCOTT (Lucasfilm publicity, quoted in a June 3, 1977 Chronicle article): The merchandising income may near a million by itself, and that’s probably conservative.
Michael Rhine in 1977, with children in 2013 (Photos: Gary Fong, Brant Ward/The Chronicle)
While the Chronicle photos confirm that no one on May 28, 1977, was dressed up – or even wearing a “Star Wars” T-shirt – something special was happening in that line. The feeling was electric. For some young fans, the experience was literally life-altering.
MICHAEL RHINE (12-year-old “Star Wars” fan in 1977): I wanted to go with my dad. We showed up and the lines were just crazy, and he was angry. So he said, “Get out of the car and get in line, I’m going to park.” I hit that corner spot, and got in line and was just standing around looking for him and checking things out. And sure enough some guy walks right up, looks right at me, and starts taking pictures.
GARY FONG (Chronicle photographer, 1972 to 2005): Every photo I’ve made, if I look at it, everything will come back including the exposure settings. … (May 28, 1977) was one of those bright 1/250 f/16 days. Bright and sunny, you couldn’t get away from it. By the time I was there shooting it was mid-afternoon the light was terrible. If I could have chose, I would have come back. You know how schedules are …
CRAIG BARRON: It was a communal feeling. Even though you were waiting in line, everybody was having fun and excited about the experience they were going to share as a group. It was like a party — like having friends you didn’t know who you shared something with. … They passed out these little buttons that said “May the Force Be With You.” I remember wearing that to school the next day and everyone coming up. If you can imagine it there were saying “What’s that? What does ‘May the Force Be With You’ mean?” … “You’ll know soon enough …”
GARY FONG: (After the photo shoot) I remember passing it a couple of times when I was on the way to work, driving down Geary Theater on my way home. Finally, I said, “I’ve got to check this movie out. I’ve got to go one of these days.” … I did see it, and I loved it! Every time it’s on I end up watching it on the television.
MICHAEL RHINE: As a 12-year-old, it was the greatest thing I ever saw. … I can’t tell you how many times I saw it at the Coronet. It must have been a dozen.
MICHAEL HYLTON: At least 200 times.
CRAIG BARRON: How many times? I couldn’t even possibly count. Clearly it’s something that changed my life. I have to say that. Ultimately it shaped what career I ultimately wanted to pursue.
Courtesy Michael and Alan Hylton
“Star Wars” was arguably the biggest leap forward in special effects since “King Kong” in 1933. It quickly spread to other theaters throughout the Bay Area, but the Coronet continued to profit throughout the summer.
CRAIG BARRON: This was definitely a modern film. It took all the existing technology that was available for special effects and raised the bar. It added motion control and computer control to photograph the spacecraft. High quality lenses — everything just stepped up a bar and created this whole new industry. It was really a renaissance for visual effects that started with that film. And I very much wanted to be a part of that.
GARY KURTZ (“Star Wars” producer, quoted in a June 3, 1977 Chronicle article): “I don’t want to guess what “Star Wars” may do. People make huge projections, then a picture does $60 million at the box office and then everybody has long faces. And the thing that’s important to me is not the dollars, but the people represented by the dollars. The biggest profit of all may turn out to be the fact that “Star Wars” will encourage other filmmakers to follow suit. I think we’ve touched a nerve not touched by Hollywood for many years.”
GARY MEYER: There was a fight with Fox. There was a huge nasty fight. They had no expectations for the movie. But once it started doing big business …
HERB CAEN (Chronicle columnist, from a Nov. 10, 1977 item): “AH YES. An intergalactic collision of appropriately cosmic proportions appears inevitable out on Geary Blvd., where Fox’s “Star Wars,” directed by San Anselmo’s George Lucas, has now passed the $2 million mark in ticket sales at the Coronet. The problem is that the Coronet also signed a contract to bring in Columbia’s $22 million blockbuster, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” on Dec. 16, and Fox is danged if it will move “Star Wars” to a less desirable theater.”
Photo: Courtesy Jim Cassedy
“Star Wars” moved and “Close Encounters” was another hit – the two movies made more than $3 million for the Coronet in less than a year. United Artists Theatre Co. filed for bankruptcy in 2000, and the Coronet was put up for sale. Institute for Aging bought the property with plans to raze the theater and build a nursing home. The last screening was “Million Dollar Baby” on St. Patrick’s Day.
ERIC GOEBEL: Knowing it was going to happen didn’t make it any easier when the day came. I regret that it didn’t have more fanfare like the closing of the Fox in (1963). I think (the theater owners) and the Institute on Aging were worried about protests.
BETH MacLEAN: We went to see “Star Wars” when it came out (as a reissue in the 2000s). My husband and I said “We really have to see it.” Standing in line next to me was my next-door neighbor from growing up. We knew the Coronet would be closing.
ERIC GOEBEL: One night, and I know this sounds nuts, my friends and I are having a few drinks. And they decide to drop by the demolition site. The one wall — the back wall next to Round Table — is left. So I jump out, jump over the fence. I was crying. This is almost like the exorcism, so to speak. I found the stairway — there was a little sliver of a stairway on the Round Table side that went all the way to the top. I knew I found the booth because I saw the square opening where the dumbwaiter was. My friends said, “Oh my God, he’s going to kill himself.”
I shouted — that was really when I released all the anger. And then I made my way back down. And that was the moment that I let go.
KATE GREY: I realize that it has more to do with that line experience than it does with the film itself. To me, it’s about a unique time in society, a time when movie theaters weren’t multiplexes and all divided up. We didn’t have TiVo. We didn’t have DVDs. We didn’t even have VCRs then. You either went to the movies, or you watched it live on TV. It was just a seminal event that’s never going to occur again.
MICHAEL HYLTON: I probably have 25-30 friends from those Coronet days who I’m still in contact with. We have reunions. There are certain jobs where you get long-term friendships, and that was one of them. We were young, having fun.
BETH MacLEAN: It pains me every time I drive by it. … It was a great old theater, and those barely exist any more. I remember hearing they were going to demolish it, and getting it. From a business perspective, you understand the demise of the old movie theater. But it was still heartbreaking. It was our history.
Photo: Gary Fong/Chronicle 1977
Photo: Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle
Craig Barron went on to work on “The Empire Strikes Back,” later founding his own special effects company Matte World Digital and winning an Academy Award in 2009; Gary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theaters, and is currently a co-director of the Telluride Film Festival; Eric Goebel is a projectionist at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco; Ann Killion is a Chronicle sports columnist.
Thank you to everyone who participated, and apologies to those who weren’t quoted — especially Alan Hylton and Jim Cassedy who provided images and historical context for the piece. I’ve invited George Lucas (through a Lucasfilm representative) to share his Coronet memories in a short Q&A, which is a long shot. As C-3PO might say, “The odds of George Lucas conducting an interview for your stupid blog are about 3,720 to 1!” Never tell me the odds …
Follow me on Twitter and follow The Big Event on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss future features like this one. If the “Star Wars”/Coronet piece does well, I have another idea for a local oral history this summer.
PETER HARTLAUB is the pop culture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and founder/editor of The Big Event. He takes requests. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @peterhartlaub. Follow The Big Event on Facebook.