'Star Wars' fanatics come out in force in Hampton Roads

Mike Holtzclaw
Contact Reportermholtzclaw@dailypress.com

At movie theaters around Hampton Roads, Thursday was the day for folks who want to do more than just watch the movie. It was the day for folks who want to experience the movie.

The movie, for those readers who have spent the past few weeks frozen in carbonite like Han Solo at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back," is "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The seventh film in the iconic space series opened on Thursday night, but the most ardent fans got started much earlier.

Scott Chaifin and his 12-year-old son, Matthew, were at the front door when the Virginia Air and Space Center opened at 10 a.m. They already had their tickets for the 7:10 p.m. IMAX screening, but they were willing to wait at the front of the line for nine hours in order to claim the best seats in the auditorium.

"I remember seeing 'Star Wars' when I was 7 years old, and I remember that 'oooh' moment when the starship went overhead," Chaifin said. Motioning to his son, who sat on the floor watching the original film on a laptop computer, Chaifin added, "This is his opportunity to experience that 'oooh' moment on the big screen."

Chaifin kept his son out of school so they could stand in line together. "There are worse ways to spend a day," he said with a smile. To put it mildly, he was not a fan of the prequel trilogy, but Chaifin went into "The Force Awakens" with high hopes.

"I don't think it can affect me the way that 'Star Wars' did when I was 7, and when nothing else like that had ever been done before," he said. "But I'm expecting that it will make me feel like I'm back in the 'Star Wars' universe again. That'll be enough for me."

Juan Rodriguez, a 27-year-old E-6 in the U.S. Navy, says he can't remember a time before he was a "Star Wars" fanatic. He was near the end of a recent deployment when his wife sent him a photo of two advance tickets she had just purchased for the first screening at Hampton Towne Centre 24.

"When I got that picture, I just went, 'Yesssss!'" Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and his 7-year-old son, Carlos, arrived at the cineplex more than four hours before the screening, wearing matching Jedi knight hoodies. Carlos identified his favorite character as Luke Skywalker and said he loved the movies because of "the spaceships and the light sabers and the fights with the Jedi."

The era of online advance ticket sales has changed the game when it comes to event motion pictures. At Fandango, the nation's top provider of advance movie tickets, "The Force Awakens" had already broken all previous presale records long before the calendar had turned to December, creating lots of advance sellouts and far fewer spectacles of anticipatory lines stretching down city blocks.

But the Commodore in Portsmouth, the classic art deco movie house with the biggest nonmuseum screen in Hampton Roads, does not sell advance tickets. For the big films, fans line up first thing in the morning to buy tickets for that day's showtimes.

Douglas Brown of Newport News wanted his first screening of "The Force Awakens" to be at the Commodore, and he wanted to be first in line. So he headed to Portsmouth on Wednesday evening and spent the night sitting under the theater's marquee awning, wrapped in a Pittsburgh Steelers blanket and resting in a wheelchair made necessary by a clotting disorder in his right leg.

An insomniac, he said he was up the whole night with just a few passing homeless people to chat with until the other fans started to show up around 7 a.m.

"I wish some of these guys would have shown up a little earlier," he said with a laugh. "Half the fun is standing in line. You meet good people."

In Newport News, the Paragon City Center 12 cinema wanted to make sure that fans got their money's worth. For Thursday night's screenings, the theater's lobby was filled with storm troopers, Jedi knights and other characters, all provided by members of the local chapter of the 501st Legion, a licensed national "Star Wars" costume group.

The authentically costumed characters, who will be at the Paragon on Friday and Saturday as well, mingled with the crowd, posed for photos and wielded light sabers, all while John Williams' iconic "Star Wars" musical score played through the lobby.

"We want these kids to experience the movies with as much excitement as we did when we were growing up," said Jackson Gill, a 501st Legion member decked out in full storm trooper regalia. "And when I say kids, I really mean adults, too. This is what 'Star Wars' is really all about — taking it to that next level, so that when they go home afterward they really know that they had an experience."

Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.

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