It feels like it was just yesterday.  And yes, I understand how much this sentiment “dates” me, but I don’t care!

25 years ago, on May 19, 1999, the Star Wars universe was officially expanded, with George Lucas’ launch of his prequel tale ‘Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace.’  This, of course, is the beginning of a film trilogy that all takes place before the events told in his original blockbuster Star Wars trilogy, which were rebranded in the 1990s to be Episodes IV, V, and VI.

Listen – you know all of this.  If you’re here reading this, you must be a Star Wars fan, or at least knowledgeable enough in the pop-culture vernacular to understand how this all works.  So this piece isn’t really about the movie, which you probably either love or hate (or, like many of us, have had your opinions on the film vacillate a bit over the years as new movies have been released, nostalgia takes over your brain, and the like).

This feature is about my personal experience with my first viewing of ‘The Phantom Menace,’ because I think it’s a pretty darn fun story.  With ‘Episode I’ being re-released in theaters this weekend for it’s 25th Anniversary celebration, I figured now is the time to “wax nostalgic” a bit about that magical time back in ’99.  So let’s dive in!

College had let out for the semester in April (my alma mater, Ball State University, go Cardinals!), and I was very excited to start my summer internship at eXtreme 96.3 FM, the alt-rock station in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.  I was going to be working alongside Duke, the producer of “The eXtreme Morning Sickness Show,” so that the on-air personalities of the show, JJ & Chad, could properly entertain the masses with their patented brand of shenanigans.

As we tried to pre-plan the Summer a bit in terms of fun things to do on-air – interviews, skits, and going live “remote” from various areas around town – one of the things that came up in my very first week was the thought of buying out an entire movie theater at a midnight showing of a new film.  At that time, the “midnight premiere” of a movie was still very much a celebrated affair, before studios started releasing films into theaters on Wednesday or Thursday evenings.  If you wanted to be the first person to see a brand-new movie, the 12:01am showing on Friday morning was where you simply HAD to be.

The hype surrounding ‘Episode I’ had obviously reached a fever pitch by that point, so it was an easy choice for the team to target that movie as “the one.”  The only problem, however, is that these tickets were anticipated to be hot items when they went on sale three weeks before the film’s release.  There was no way we could simply show up to the theater one day and buy 200 tickets for the premiere showing of the hottest film of the summer!

So, the ingenious plan was hatched: Duke would go to the movie theater an entire week before the tickets went on sale, and stay there for the whole damn week, to guarantee we were first in line (the theater at that time had very lax rules about how many tickets you could buy, you just had to be first in line to buy them – remember, this was by and large pre-internet days and there were really no scalpers or resellers at the movie-going level).

We would do live remotes with him every morning on-air to check in with him, make him to a “weather report,” lots of fun stuff to go along with the build-up of simply waiting in line.  Since no average person in their right minds would stand outside of a movie theater for a whole week just to get tickets to a movie, Duke technically was the line, until a few hardcore Star Wars fans finally joined him about 24 hours before the ticket launch and together, they formed an actual line.

At first, I was shocked that Duke was the one picked to stand outside of a movie theater for a whole week, but in retrospect, I can now see that since he was actually on payroll, it made sense for an actual employee of the radio station to perform this insane task, instead of making the intern (read: me) do it and open your company to a world of potential labor-law and working-hour lawsuits.

It ended up being a really cool experience for all of us; I was usually in charge of heading out to the movie theater each morning to take the necessary equipment to go live from the outside of the box office where Duke had set up an extremely rudimentary camp consisting of a sleeping bag and whatever food we were able to bring him.  We had amazing listeners of the radio station, and one listener was kind enough on Day 3 to bring a used reclining chair directly to Duke at the theater, so he did have a bit more comfort from that point forward, and it was pretty darn funny seeing a dude in a recliner casually sitting outdoors at the movie theater.

Finally, the day of the ticket sales came, and of course, Duke was first in line; I don’t think the box office staff was expecting it, but the radio station did buy out the entire theater for the Midnight showing, much to the chagrin of the people in line behind him (happy ending, though, as the theater manager immediately decided to host the movie on a second screen at midnight as well, for the general public).  We had a great time over the next three weeks giving the tickets away to the public, mostly by having fun call-in contests during the morning show or doing live on-air “remotes” from various locations around Fort Wayne, making people guess where we were or jump through various mental or physical hoops to earn said tickets.

The Midnight premiere of ‘The Phantom Menace’ was, in a word, electric.  The sci-fi loving fandom had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and my personal experience was coupled with being surrounded by radio station cohorts and listeners who just made the entire thing that much more enjoyable.  I remember vividly sitting in that theater and being enthralled by everything I was seeing: pod racing, Darth Maul, and even the “boring” Galactic Senate stuff didn’t seem so bad at the time.

It was a fabulous way to kick off an amazing summer; as I step back into a movie theater this weekend, 25 years later, to see the same film, I can’t wait to recapture that level of nostalgia.  If any of you reading this have fun stories about your first time seeing ‘Episode I’ in theaters back in 1999, I’d love to hear them in the comments below – and I hope you all get a chance to catch ‘The Phantom Menace’ in theaters this year as well!