The Empire Strikes Back: A Memoir by Uncle Jay
By Uncle Jay Cicalese
UPDATE: Uncle Jay has a video that compliments this piece, you can find it at the bottom.
If you know me, we've probably had a few discussions on movies (or how to beat a murder rap) at one point. When I often get asked what my favorite movie is, it’s not a simple answer. Martin Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker of all time and "Mean Streets", "Taxi Driver", "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" always battle it out for the top slot of what I think to be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, depending on how I feel that day. But there is a 5th film in that mix…
…and that is “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The sequel to “Star Wars” was one of the most anticipated sequels in film lore. When George Lucas’ space opera took Hollywood and film-goers by storm in the summer of 1977, the sequel was automatically green lit, and expectations were high. Three years later…not only were expectations met, “The Empire Strikes Back” managed to exceed the first installment’s value as a film itself and takes a seat among the best science-fiction films of all time. With a different director, additional writers, over double the budget and a slew of cool new characters…not to mention, darker in tone, wondrous concepts, Billy Dee fuckin’ Williams and a ballsy cliffhanger ending, ”Empire” was indeed a sequel to be reckoned with. We even got a little incest with our “Star Wars” this time…crazy!
I was 6 ½ years old when “Empire” was released on Wednesday, May 21st 1980 and I remember it vividly. I was a “Star Wars” junkie! Had all the toys, the sleeping bag, toothbrush, comics, cockring, you name it. I was heavily excited, probably the most excited I had ever been in my short time on Earth.
My mother decided to take me, and my two cousins. She piled us into her old Country Squire station wagon that following Saturday, the 24th to catch the 12:30pm show at the now long long gone Menlo Park Cinema in Edison, NJ…only we never made it. A flat tire pissed on my parade. While cruisin’ down Route 1&9 South right near the Newark Airport, BOOM! And not just flat, shredded! So, we headed back toward the Ironbound (the section of Newark I grew up in) and pulled into a diner/truck stop called “The Ramp” on the corner of Stockton and Delancey (yes, fellow Newarkians this place is now that ghetto shithole 118 Lounge). My cousins and I thought that the day was a bust…that is until my mother said the words “We’ll just have to go to a later show.” My cousins and I looked at her as if she was an Egyptian Goddess, because had anyone else had taken us, namely my old-school Grandfather who did things on Italian time (early or not at all), the day indeed would have been bust. Hippie artist parents are awesome!!
It took a couple of hours: remember this was 1980, a Saturday, no spare, no jack, my mother and three kids 12 and under! As I recall, one of the truckers there, his name was “Jack” of all names, helped us out. He drove out to one (of the many) junkyards in Newark and snagged a tire for us and put it on, no charge. To think that this kind of hospitality happened in Newark, on the site of the 118 Lounge no less.
And once again, off we went.
At this point it was about 3pm and we had missed the next showing. 5pm was the next show. So to kill time, we went to the Menlo Park Mall…hold on now…this was not the Menlo Park Mall you might know today…this was the 1980 Menlo Park Mall…it was dark, dingy and a whole lot smaller. The cinema was off of Route 1, and not part of the mall like it is now and has been for the last 20 years. To make me even more nervous about time, as luck would have it, a survey team for a toy company approached us in the mall asking about a line of action figures that they were thinking of putting out. Of course we agreed, as long as we were out on time. They escorted us to a conference room in the back hallways of the mall into a screening room and showed us a video they put together showcasing the toys. The figures were military based…rescue team/espionage type fare (think Dutch’s rescue team in “Predator” and Aldo Raine’s “Basterds” rolled into a Hasbro line). I thought they were awesome…lots of knives and rifles! But, man oh fuckin’ man, was I watchin’ that clock.
We get to the theater and there’s already a fairly decent line formed (I’m estimating this is around 4:15pm, because we were on line for a half hour or so). Distinctively, I remember standing on line laughing hysterically with my cousin because in front of us was the theater marquee sign clear as day…the other film that was showing was Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”, however someone or something removed the ‘J’, so the sign read “ALL THAT AZZ”…hahaha!! Priceless! I recently stumbled across of photo of this that someone actually took from that day or that week…I’m so glad that someone with the same sense of humor captured that at least.
And then it was time…
The Menlo Park Cinema was a big theater with a balcony. It was “twinned” sometime in the early 70’s but was still huge even after the change. I remember sitting there with my Nik-L-Nip Wax Bottle syrup candy anticipating the further adventures of Luke, Han and Leia. I don’t recall what trailer(s) preceded the film, back then you only got about 1 or 2 trailers…not the 8 to 10 trailers you fuckin’ get today, which basically amounts to a feature in itself.
In a nutshell, the film’s title is straight to the point, the Empire does strike back with a vengeance, as Darth Vader is one reckless mofo in this one. “Empire” follows the events of “Star Wars” three years later. The Rebel Alliance is hiding out on the ice planet of Hoth. The Empire of course locates them there and an awesome battle ensues in which the Rebels get their asses handed to them with the aid of Imperial AT-ATs. Luke, under the ghostly influence of his deceased mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, decides to seek out Yoda, the last remaining Jedi Master to engage in training to become a Jedi Knight. Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO spend a good portion of the movie running from the Empire, dodging Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters, Asteroids, Myknocks, Bounty Hunters and Space Slugs! They decide to take refuge at a resort/mining operation Cloud City, which is run by Han’s old scoundrel buddy, Lando (Billy Dee Williams in full intergalactic pimp mode and threads). Luke fails his training, C-3PO is blown apart, Lando is forced to betray Han and Leia, Han gets frozen in Carbonite and taken away for bounty by Boba Fett, Vader kicks the living shit out of Luke…chops his hand off then confesses that he’s Luke’s Papa, and the film generally leaves you on a down note with a crap-load of unanswered questions. To a 7-year old, that’s some deep shit to mull over…especially when you won’t know the answers till your 10!!
And yes, I made my mother, or whichever adult guardian I could find, take me over and over again! Even during the re-releases in '81 and '82.
“The Empire Strikes Back” is indeed, hands down, the best of all the “Star Wars” films. It’s edgy, sharp, imaginative and well structured. It’s a sequel that takes the magic of the preceding film and dares to take it somewhere different entirely…and still keep that same magic. The sets, the characters, the writing, the direction…all in top form. Yes, I got caught up in the "Boba Fett is Awesome" bandwagon, but at least I can say that I was on the bandwagon since day one. He's still a cool fuckin' character.
I can’t believe that “Empire” is 40 years old. Being a kid at that time was the best, venturing into the 1980’s which would generally be my coming of age decade. I can remember the music on the radio, the current events, my Atari 2600, my family and friends, some gone some still around…none forgotten. It was a time in my life when I was very happy, and when I personally think of “Star Wars”, I think back to these times: the shenanigans, the hijinks, the simple fun, the trouble I got into …which just enhances my love for those movies.
A couple of months after this glorious Saturday in May, in the midst of summer 1980, I would meet one of my closest childhood friends, Paul. I was in my living room, and I overheard some kids talking about "Star Wars" outside. I lookout the window and there's a kid, a little older than me, talking to some of the other kids on the block that I already knew. I ran out there and we immediately bonded as friends, over "Star Wars"...he would be a close friend pretty much through most of the '80s until he moved away, since which I haven't seen him since. A few months ago, he found me on Facebook...one of the many cool factors of that social network. And, yes, one of the first things we spoke about was Star Wars.
Anywho, Happy 37th Birthday to one of the greatest movies ever made.