Tonight's episode of Star Wars Rebels is not actually the first celebration of Empire Day...
Original artwork for the 1980 Empire Day event.
With today’s launch of the Star Wars Rebels episode “Empire Day,” it seems fitting to serve up a little piece of forgotten Star Wars history associated with this specific term. Back in 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back was set to open with a royal premiere in London on May 20, someone on the promotional team at Lucasfilm or 20th Century Fox was inspired to resurrect the British “Empire Day” holiday, which had been observed by members of the British Empire between 1902 and 1958 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24. Though the “Empire Day” name would later change to British Commonwealth Day and finally to Commonwealth Day in 1966, the promoters were betting that there would still be enough cultural memory to make the “Empire Day” moniker resonate with the public for Empire’s launch.
Jeeps hauling a legion of Stormtroopers must have been quite a sight for Londoners during the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
And resonate it did -- on May 20, a legion of stormtroopers were released throughout London’s mainline and Underground stations to hand out buttons reading “Happy Empire Day” and to stage whimsical photo-ops throughout the city for syndication in the region’s newspapers and magazines. T-shirts, posters, and buttons bearing the “Empire Day” logo still survive today in various collections, although most folks in the states scarcely know what the phrase is in reference to. Until today, that is -- Happy Empire Day (and Life Day)!!
Empire Day made the front page of the May 20, 1980, issue of the London Evening News and depicted the Empire cast giving the captain of the Concorde jet that flew them from the states the gift of a miniature Millennium Falcon.
Thanks to Bob Miller for providing the scan of the Evening News and to Jonathan Rinzler’s The Making of The Empire Strikes Back for the Empire Day photos