We feared the worst when we saw the two men in dark suits walk up to Ned’s house in the middle of the day. So when Ned, who was probably about 10, burst out of his front door about an hour later, screaming, we were sure something was wrong.
“Cable,” he huffed and puffed, after running right toward us. “We’re going to get cable!”
“What?” we asked, sitting on our trick bikes and skateboards. “What is that?”
He didn’t really know, actually. All he knew was the next part.
“We’re getting Star Wars! On TV!”
. . .
Back in those days — the misty, rad ‘80s — cable TV was just a rumor. It was some far-off California thing. By the time it reached us in the Midwest, it was literally two men from Cablevision who sold it door-to-door. I remember watching them come out of Ned’s house and take hours — hours — to reach our own. As we waited, Ned basked in his own sunny future of watching Star Wars in the comfort of his own home. It seemed like something out of the Jetsons. Eating lunch while watching the Trench Run? Finishing your homework in time to watch Luke ignite his father’s lightsaber for the first time — my bad — the millionth time? The mind boggled. We had heard enough. My brother and I ran inside and briefed my mom on everything we knew about cable TV and why it was absolutely necessary that we get it as soon as possible.
So when the two men with their magical promises (they were ancient and wise, probably 24 years old) finally sat with my mom at the glass and wicker kitchen table, we were exiled back outside. We could almost hear their pitch: the kids can watch Star Wars they said, over Ecto-coolers. Even though they were hawking a bizarre, almost imaginary technology, these guys had the easiest sales jobs of all time. No parent could get out of that argument.
Outside, we were nervous and jittery. We had no idea what it cost to get cable or how it worked. We just knew what Ned said: Star Wars. Looking back, these were #firstworld80ssuburbanproblems at their finest. But still.
By then, Empire had come out. Jedi was on its way. Aside from the theaters, the only way to watch Star Wars was on home video, which you could rent at your local Video Hut, Shoppe, or Island. Just as cable was being lain in our neighborhood, Star Wars came out on both Betamax and VHS on May 27, 1982.
But VCRs were really expensive in those days; not many people adopted them right off the bat. Even if you did have one (or sometimes rented one, as we did at first), your time with your favorite movies couldn’t last. Even though you could pause that final head-kick in Karate Kid (which itself took Miyagi-like precision), everything was always due back three days later. What if something unexpected happened, like a trip to grandma’s or some type of unforeseen, totally unjustified punishment? A weekend was never enough. The movies always went back — to places with names like Total Video, Network Video, or Tapes-to-Go. They were your true master.
Star Wars made it even worse. How many Friday nights did we walk into a video store to be confronted by that blank wall where all the empty boxes of Star Wars should be? Sometimes we’d hang out in the store even as our mom flashed the lights outside, just hoping somebody would bring one back. No one did. There were rumors that people tried to copy Star Wars videocassettes with elaborate systems involving giant camcorders and trips to Radio Shack, but that never worked, either. And even when it came out to buy, on September 1, 1982, on VHS, it was listed at $80. That was Silver Spoons territory.
That’s why cable was so appealing to the first generation of fans (is there a name for us? IVs? Nerds? Old people?), because even though we (or our parents) could rent it, we couldn’t own it. That might sound annoying and selfish (and it kinda is), but keep in mind that we were 10 years old and that Star Wars was all about extending that experience as much as we could into the real world. Watching the actual film at home — even on a cathode ray TV with handsome built-in wooden cabinets — was the ultimate expression of that.
We had also heard rumors of some shorter versions you could watch on home projectors (which were true: Ken Films released a silent, 17-minute “Selected Scenes” 8mm reel as early as 1977), but those droid-like projectors took forever to set up and always — always — had a burnt-out bulb. Cable would be easy. Different.
Months later, the cable guy finally came and turned it all on with something we swore was a hydrospanner. He gave us a black and brown box with rows and rows of tiny switches. We had never seen anything like it. It was plastic and seemed to be filled with air. It connected to the back of the TV with a brown wire. To anyone under 20, this thing must look like a covered wagon.
My brother and I watched SportsCenter, which was on a set that looked like a game show. My little sister watched Pinwheel on Nickelodeon. And when my mom wasn’t looking, we would push a toothpick into channel 20 and hold it part way down while pressing channel 21 to try to hack Showtime. It looked like Superman ice cream. I remember my parents telling us that we still had to play outside once in a while.
Some markets were able to see Star Wars on very early versions of pay-per-view. But its big premiere on HBO, for everyone who subscribed, was on February 1 at 7:30 p.m. It was on a Tuesday.
Apparently Star Wars wasn’t a ratings powerhouse, though I know it was in our house. Star Wars on cable (it was also on Showtime and the Movie Channel) was where lines we knew began to become whole scenes we could recite by heart. But even if we didn’t watch it, all the way through and all of the time, it was good to have it there. On a different kind of shelf.
There is some trivia about that first showing. 7:30 p.m. wasn’t the actual premiere. The film actually had a last-minute “Schedule Change” to show it at 1 a.m. on Monday. But more importantly for us, it ALSO ran that Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.
I wonder how many of us started practicing their coughing the night before.
Brad Ricca is the author of the award-winning Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, now in paperback. He also writes the comics column “Unassuming Barber Shop” at The Beat. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.
Special thanks to William Claspy, Sean Mulder, and Duke Schork for their help with this essay.