Kenner

#763: L’Empire contre-attaque

GETTING MORE TALE #763: L’Empire contre-attaque

We didn’t have a VCR in 1980.  You could rent them; this was usually reserved for special occasions.   That meant, unlike today, we couldn’t just watch the latest Star Wars any time we felt like it.  The best way to re-experience the movie was on your own, with action figures and soundtracks.  The Empire Strikes Back was my favourite album at that time.  I played certain tracks on those records so often with my kid fingers that they started to skip.

I used my parents’ big living room hi-fi.  Giant wooden speakers as heavy as oak doors.  A turntable, an 8-track, and a receiver.  Once I discovered Star Wars, I think I used it more than they did.  The Empire Strikes Back came in a luxurious gatefold, with photos from the film, liner notes, and a generous booklet.  It didn’t take long for the rips and tears to set in; that record was well loved.  Usually, I would plug in the set of headphones and listen quietly while turning the pages of that booklet.  On weekends, my sister and I would probably set up a big battlefield and re-enact the movies, with the soundtrack playing in the background.  The most frequently played tracks were “Yoda’s Theme”, “The Asteroid Field” and of course “The Imperial March”.  Sometimes we would ambitiously re-enact the entire movie in sequence using the whole soundtrack.

We had to improvise.  There were lots of characters and vehicles we didn’t have.  When the Wampa ice monster attacks Luke Skywalker and knocks him off his tawn-tawn, we had to use Chewbacca as a stand-in for the monster.  Before we had a Boba Fett, we used a Micronaut with an actual missile-firing backpack.  We didn’t have an AT-AT, so we used my sister’s cardboard Jawa sandcrawler.  The centrepiece of our play time was usually my huge Millennium Falcon toy.

Before anyone gets too nostalgic for the good old days, I’ll remind you those Kenner toys were actually quite shit.  My two biggest toys, the Falcon and the X-Wing, both broke immediately out of the box.  The wings on the X-Wing never worked right and I had to wedge marker lids in the wings to keep them open.  The hinge for the boarding ramp of the Falcon snapped when my dad put it together.  He tried to glue it, but ultimately the door was held on by an ugly piece of masking tape.  Sturdy toys they were not, and parts were always popping off.  The guns refused to stay on the wings of the X-Wing.  The canopy of the Falcon always popped open mid-flight.  It too eventually got locked down by masking tape.

During these huge play battles, my sister and I would take over the entire living room floor.  There was a coffee table that usually acted as Imperial headquarters.  You could park a TIE fighter on the shelf underneath.  All the while, John Williams and the London Symphony spun behind us.  I’d flip sides and cue up another track, or just play “The Imperial March” again.

When we were done playing Empire, we would do our own original stories.  We usually set these “pre-Empire“, since Han Solo was frozen in carbonite at the end of the movie.   He was a favourite character and we had two Han Solo action figures:  original Han and Hoth Han.  I loved Hoth Han.  Not only did he look cool but he was the only figure you could take his gun and plug into a holster on his hip.  It was hard to really make good coherant “pre-Empire” stories though, because we also wanted to play with other cool figures like Lando, and Yoda.  It didn’t particularly matter because we had tremendous fun without a logical story.

I’ll say it again:  improvisation.  We built a custom multi-level Cloud City out of cardboard boxes.  It had sliding doors and sort of an elevator.  We made our own figure-compatible vehicles out of Lego.  Before I had a figure of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, I took my Solo and put him in a glass of water.  If I put him in the freezer for a few hours, I’d have a frozen Han ready to go for the next adventure.  My dad was bemused to go into the freezer and find Han Solo in there so frequently.

No matter the story or setting, the Millennium Falcon was there.  You could fit several figures in it, with two in the cockpit, one in the gunner’s chair, and several tossed into the opening rear compartment.  The cool thing about the gunner’s chair was that it rotated in sync with the top quad-cannons.  The Falcon’s rear compartment was equipped with a space chess table (called Dejarik), a Jedi training area (you know, for that one scene), and a smuggler’s compartment with secret hatch.  This made it more of a playset than a ship, but it did have several features that made it more a ship than a playset as well.  Close up the rear compartment, raise the working landing gear, and you are airborne.  The Falcon also had sound effects and a large battery compartment where the escape pod would have been.  While playing on the living room floor, if the track “The Asteroid Field” was playing, you just had to get the Falcon ready for take off.  Close the ramp, the canopy, and the rear compartment.  Raise the landing gear and you were space-bound!  Then I’d fly the ship around the living room in sync with the swells and crescendos of the theme.  It really felt like Star Wars at that point.

In 1981, the first Indiana Jones soundtrack was released, also composed by John Williams.  It was official then:  Williams was my favourite.  I didn’t have very many records; most of the others were “Story Of” soundtracks with full narration and dialogue.  That was another way to re-live a movie in a pre-VHS household, but I kept coming back to the actual movie scores.  I outgrew the “Story Of” records but not the scores.  Even so, nothing topped the original two-record set of The Empire Strikes Back.  When Return of the Jedi was released in ’83, it was only a single record.  It didn’t have as many memorable cues.  I loved and cherished it, but not as much as Empire.

Besides, in 1983 something else happened besides the end of the Star Wars trilogy.  I was getting older, and there was this new song out.  I heard four words — “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto“, and my world shifted once again!  But that, friends, is another story.

 

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#542: Guy Zemmiton

A biographical tale about world-renowned bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano, a champion of improvised music…and my sister.

GETTING MORE TALE #542: Guy Zemmiton

My sister had a favourite Star Wars figure when we were small. There were so many to choose from. I had plenty of my own favourites. Droids such as IG-88 and 2-1B were cool and different. Yoda was special because he came with a record four accessories: his belt, cloak, walking stick and snake. But my sister’s favourite was Luke, in his X-Wing pilot outfit. It was released in 1978 and went beautifully with the X-Wing toy I got for Christmas that year. My sister Kathryn called him “Luke, the guy with the helmet on”. When she said “guy with the helmet on,” it came out as “Guy Zemmiton”. She was three.

We spent hours setting up massive wars on our living room floor. Guy Zemmiton would heroically defend the Rebellion from Darth Vader and the Empire. [See Record Store Tales Part 0: A Few Words for Days Gone By] Star Wars and its action figures were our universe back then.

We knew there was a second Star Wars movie coming.  The Empire Strikes Back was finally released right around the time Kathryn got incredibly sick.

One night she was complaining about a “sore tongue”.  I remember my parents frantically running around the house in the middle of the night.  “I want some juice,” I heard her croak from another room.  My dad said they had to take her to the hospital.  They got a babysitter.  I was incredibly upset and Kathryn remembered me looking down from the top of the stairs as they carried her away.   It was a rare condition called epiglottitis that can affect children and causes their airways to close.  Bill Bixby, star of The Incredible Hulk as David Banner, had a son who died of epiglottitis.  She was in that hospital in an air tent with a tube down her throat before she started getting better and visitors were allowed.

marvel_special_edition_esbThis whole time I was very worried and my dad decided to take me to see The Empire Strikes Back just the two of us, while my mom stayed with Kathryn in the hospital as she did every day.  In the movie theater lobby, they were selling oversized Marvel Empire Strikes Back comics and my dad bought one for me!  The movie was amazing.  I didn’t like seeing “Guy Zemmiton” being hurt, but the snow walker scene was an instant hit.  We left the theater to go and see my sister at the hospital.  I wasn’t to tell her that we had seen “Guy Zemmiton”, as we didn’t want to upset her.  That made it hard to explain where the comic came from, but I was so excited to see her.

A couple weeks later she came home, and dad took the whole family out to see Empire.  Kathryn was elated to get to see “Guy Zemmiton”, especially since there were so many scenes of Luke in that very outfit!  But my dad was a tease.  The whole time before the movie started he was claiming we were in the wrong theater.  “No Guy Zemmiton here,” he said.  “This theater is showing Captain Peachfuzz and the Penguins!”  He may have actually convinced her that we were about to see Captain Peachfuzz and the Penguins, and I was beginning to wonder myself!  It was with great relief that we saw “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” on the screen in big blue letters.  “I thought this was Captain Peachfuzz and the Penguins,” whispered my dad.

“Guy Zemmiton” was thrilling and my sister was in her glory finally having seen his latest adventure.   It was great for everything to finally be back to normal.

I read that comic book over and over again the whole summer, and later on we even got to go see Empire again.  It was at a drive-in and Empire was the second feature.  I think we both fell asleep long before the movie was over.

A lot of people say Empire is their favourite Star Wars, but for Kathryn, she really means it.  Empire was central to a scary time (that she still remembers clearly) when she almost died.  Not every three year old kid can claim that.