Classic Hollywood: Memories of 'Star Wars' and Johnny Carson

Hi, I'm Susan King, a longtime entertainment writer at the Los Angeles Times and your tour guide on all things Classic Hollywood. Each week I’ll lead you on a journey through notable births and deaths, the latest in vintage films arriving on DVD and Blu-ray, books chronicling the Golden Age of Hollywood, a preview of my upcoming Classic Hollywood column and seminal TV or movie milestones.

And this week’s movie milestone is near and dear to me: the anniversary of the opening of “Star Wars” on May 25, 1977. I know it’s officially called “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope,” but I’m old school, so it will always be “Star Wars” to me. And I was in the audience for the first show the day it opened 38 years ago.

Because I had a final exam the next day -- don’t worry; I passed -- I took my books with me to study in line at the old Avco in Westwood.

For me, it was a seminal movie-watching experience, seeing “Star Wars” for the first time with the dazzling special effects, that incredible Dolby sound, relishing Alec Guinness' performance as Obi-Wan and falling in love with Harrison Ford as Han Solo. The audience applauded several times during the film, and I remember some even giving it a standing ovation. Everyone was given a “May the Force Be With You” button on the way out. (And, yes, I still have it!)

(Lucasfilm Ltd.)

I saw the film eight more times that summer -- movies were a lot cheaper then -- and bought as much “Star Wars” memorabilia as I could afford. I have no idea, though, what happened to my Han Solo T-shirt.

Though I was disappointed in the last three “Star Wars” films, I must admit my heart skipped a beat when I saw Chewbacca and Han Solo in the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens” opening in December. Like millions of you out there in the galaxy, I can’t wait.

TV vault

There was nostalgia and a certain symmetry when David Letterman signed off Wednesday evening from CBS’ “Late Show.” I remember watching the first installment of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” back in 1982, when his first guest was Bill Murray. It seemed so appropriate that Murray returned Tuesday to say goodbye in his own inimitable way, by popping out of a cake!

Another late-night giant -- in fact, the “King of Late Night,” Johnny Carson -- bid farewell on May 22, 1992, after having hosted “The Tonight Show” for nearly 30 years. Everyone remembers the penultimate episode, with Robin Williams giving a tour de farce comedic performance and Bette Midler performing a touching rendition of  “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”

But the finale was poignant and simple. Carson showed clips and talked to his viewing audience. “And so it comes to this,” he said. “I am one of the luckiest people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. ... I bid you a heartfelt thanks. Good night.”

Sneak peek

In Sunday’s Classic Hollywood column, I preview UCLA Film & Television Archive’s new Archive Television Treasures retrospective opening May 29 at the Billy Wilder Theater with a 1955 musical version of “Our Town,” starring Paul NewmanEva Marie Saint and Frank Sinatra, and a charming romance, “Time for Love,” also from 1955, starring Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. Both Saint and Rowlands are scheduled to attend. The series, which continues through June 24, also features episodes from the sitcoms "Mr. Peepers, " “The Goldbergs” and a hard-hitting installment of the 1963-64 CBS drama series “East Side/West Side.”

Around town

A scene from "Rebel Without a Cause." (Warner Bros.)

I’ve been obsessed with James Dean for more years than I care to admit and have seen Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” so many times that I can not only recite most of the dialogue -- “you’re tearing me apart” -- but also hum Leonard Rosenman’s evocative score. “Rebel” screenwriter Stewart Stern died of cancer at the age of 92 in February. And American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is paying tribute Friday to the two-time Oscar nominee with a 60th anniversary screening of “Rebel,” as well as his 1963 political thriller “The Ugly American,” which starred Marlon Brando.

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week include Laurence Olivier (May 22); Douglas Fairbanks (May 23); Rosemary Clooney (May 23); Lilli Palmer (May 24); John Wayne (May 26); Peggy Lee (May 26); and Vincent Price (May 27)

Mood indigo

Iconic jazz composer/pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington of “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” fame died of lung cancer May 24, 1974, at age 75. Here is The Times' obituary on the legendary music man, as it appeared in the paper on May 25, 1974.

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and follow me on Twitter at @mymackie