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Space Invasion

By Esther Iverem and Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 1, 1997; Page C01

On Earth, it was day, then night, then day again.

As the hours passed in 1997, hundreds of people in the Washington area -- the capital of an empire called the United States -- huddled or attempted to sleep in near-freezing temperatures. On a dirty city sidewalk, they camped out with pillows, sleeping bags, blankets and tents. But they weren't homeless folks, beggars or patients released from mental institutions too soon. They were waiting to buy tickets to the re-release of "Star Wars," the 1977 space adventure film that one critic said is "for a generation without fairy tales."

The scene outside the Uptown Theatre on Connecticut Avenue NW looked a little like "that wretched hive of scum and villainy," the space port Mos Eisley. Scruffy students from universities like American, George Washington, Georgetown and Maryland wandered around sheathed in moth-eaten blankets that dragged on the ground. Some of them were not even born when the movie hit theaters the first time around. But thanks to their parents, they grew up on "Star Wars" anyway -- its duels between the evil empire and good-guy rebels immortalized on videotape. On the sidewalk, they brandished "Star Wars" swords and masks. Their eyes lighted with childhood memories of all the action figures -- R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker -- that they played with until the heads or limbs fell off.

"Action figures?" responded one freshman at American, 18-year-old Rebecca Torrey of Hornell, N.Y. "The question is, Which ones didn't we have?"

For company, Chris Safarik, a recent graduate of Catholic University, brought along his foot-tall limited-edition Yoda doll -- "cast from the original mold," he said proudly. He purchased it last summer for a mere $400. Several young women lying underneath blankets temporarily appropriated Yoda and placed him at their feet. Safarik, 23, was happy to share, calling Yoda "the ultimate souvenir." His friend Chris Giunta, a District construction worker, stripped off his sweater and shirt to reveal his kind of souvenir, a big Darth Vader tattoo on his left arm. "I had to one-up his $400 Yoda," Giunta said.

Even though tickets did not go on sale until around 8:30 yesterday morning for the day's six shows, people began lining up at 5 p.m. Thursday. By Friday at 3 a.m., more than 150 people had gathered, resembling casualties of an Empire attack on Tatooine, crammed into tents and splayed atop beach chairs. Near one intersection, a group started a fire in an oil drum but it didn't last long. "We can't have no fires burning," a police supervisor declared, and the flames were quickly doused.

Others were in a more festive mood and brought guitars and Frisbees. Chris Foss, a 23-year-old employee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was among those pumping John Williams's soundtrack from a boombox. He has soundtracks from the entire "Star Wars" trilogy. "I'm playing it all night, or at least until the batteries run out," he said. Collectively, this produced enough noise to prompt neighbors to call the cops. "This is crazy," said Officer Angel Rivera, who spent hours trying to tame the crowd.

But he didn't need to quiet Caitlan Sgarlat, a freshman at Catholic. She had a paper due in five hours for her 8:10 a.m. English 101 class and was preparing to write the essay right there on the sidewalk. The topic was obvious. "It's going to be on Luke Skywalker," she announced. "It's supposed to be on people you remember."

"She's going to use the Force to write the paper," a friend chimed in.

By the time the box office opened, campers had endured a night of haughty stares from older, more fashionable moviegoers leaving showings of "Evita" and drunken abuse from patrons stumbling out of Ireland's Four Provinces restaurant around 2 a.m. They had been joined by hundreds more, and the line stretched for several blocks.

But the fun really got started when the box office opened. With no limit on the number of tickets per customer, some fans were seen buying dozens. By 10 a.m., those with good line position were being offered bribes to purchase tickets for others. One young man in a pea-green knit cap, wire-frame glasses and ragged pants brazenly scalped tickets he'd just purchased -- "I'm not taking less than $20," he was heard saying to those shivering in line. Panic quickly spread among those waiting as shows quickly sold out, even for a 900-seat capacity theater.

The mood got ugly, very un-fairy-tale-like.

"People are getting [ticked] off," said one law student. "The problem is that they didn't limit the number of tickets. I watched a woman buy $540 worth of tickets. And I said, `That's not cool.' "

Per Bjorklund of Rockville suggested that the police use cattle prods on all the offenders and "leave them in quivering piles on the ground."

Bob Jones, general manager for Cineplex Odeon theaters in the District, Maryland and Virginia, said he had not anticipated the demand for large blocks of tickets at the Uptown, which is popular among film aficionados because of its 70-foot-wide screen. Starting today, Jones said, patrons will be limited to buying 10 tickets.

The day's successes and failures were audible. Every now and then, a cheer would rise at the box office as someone finally secured some tickets. Every now and then, an adult would jump up and down and squeal as though he'd just beaten the Empire all by himself. One woman, with her hair in a topknot and wearing combat boots, hopped down the street sounding orgasmic, like Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally": "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"

A man in a Redskins jacket and fluffy hat walked away loud and disgusted. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" he turned and yelled at no one in particular. "I really like standing on line for five hours for nothing! [Expletive] the Empire!"

© 1997 The Washington Post Company