Jedi Nights--and Days


Danny is on his cell phone, making plans to see a preview screening of “Instinct” as he waits for his father to deliver a La-Z-Boy recliner. Ken is stretched out on his couch, playing video games on his laptop. Shahin and Apollo are in beach chairs, watching TV on a set hooked up to a satellite dish.

It’s hard to imagine what creature comforts could possibly be missing on the sidewalk outside the Village Theatre in Westwood, where this resourceful band of “Star Wars” faithful have been on a marathon camp-out, awaiting Wednesday’s opening of “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.” Buy advance tickets at home? That’s for those without The Force. We’re in hard-core territory here on a balmy night a few days before The Opening.

The ringleader is Danny Alter, a 17-year-old Crossroads School graduate with the brash air of Holden Caulfield, if you could imagine Holden in Adidas sweats and an “Episode I” cap. First in line, Danny’s been holding court in an inflatable “Star Wars” armchair since April 7, except for a trip to Universal Studios to see the new “Terminator 2: 3D” ride and a three-day sojourn to the recent “Star Wars” convention in Denver.


Danny has his seat at the Village picked out: Row P, seat 107. He says theater staffers tell him it’s the favored spot for filmmakers when they come for preview screenings. “I spend 22 hours here every day,” he says. “I go home to Tarzana, take a shower, brush my teeth and come back.”

He loves the communal feeling: “It’s been a great experience because the people here come from different backgrounds and have different philosophies of life, but everybody gets along--it’s hard to have any arguments when all you’re talking about is ‘Star Wars.’ ”

When Danny first arrived with Apollo Nguyen, a 29-year-old who works in computer services at UCLA, they only had lawn chairs and sleeping bags. Now the camp-out has about two dozen regulars, ranging in age from 14 to about 40, who spend most of the day in line; when people need to leave, another regular keeps their place.

Surrounded by True Believers

You don’t have to spend much time here to know you’re among the true believers. Surrounded by T-shirt stands and doughnut shops, the camp-out is a tiny fiefdom of “Star Wars” zealots, who speak the same language and share the same religion--the gospel according to George Lucas.

Polite, affluent and always of firm opinion, they are products of America’s all-consuming pop culture--computer literate, media savvy and obsessed with movies, even if they’re hazy about anything made before 1977. When asked about their career ambitions, most have only one job in mind: film director.

They even have their own set of folk beliefs. Many of the acolytes are convinced that Lucas never attended USC, saying it’s just a media myth. The youngest camp-out regular is Sam King, a precocious 14-year-old who’s in ninth grade at Crossroads. He comes after school and stays until his mom picks him up.


He skipped school Wednesday when advance tickets went on sale: “All my teachers knew where I was. They must’ve seen me on the news.” He’s pretty sure his science teacher didn’t mind, since Sam got him a pair of tickets.

Shahin Ourian, who is 16 and “between schools,” borrowed a 27-inch TV from his parent’s living room one night so everyone could watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at 1 a.m. After a crowd gathered, the cops told them to knock it off. Shahin’s Ford Explorer, parked nearby, is the official car of the camp-out, used for pizza pick-ups and propane runs for the heaters.

Ken Brenan, 29, is taking a two-week vacation from his job at EarthLink to camp out. He has a portable stove for cooking eggs in the morning. He’s promised to barbecue hamburgers for everyone in line Tuesday night. (The first showing will be at midnight that night). He pulls out a prize wad of tickets from his wallet: The first stub is numbered OO1. “I’m holding a place for my mom,” he says. “She’s flying down from Nevada City to see the new movie with me.”

One of the few female regulars is Andrea Snyder, 18, who says she’s spent about 70 hours a week here, coming after classes at University High. When she spends the night, she gets up at 6 a.m. to shower and change at home before going to school.

“My brothers liked ‘Star Wars,’ but I’m the crazy one in the family,” she says. “I’ve always liked the mythology of the film, Yoda and the Force. I think the guys are more into the heroic parts, the chases and battle scenes.”

Just then a cell phone buzzes. A guy shouts to Andrea: “It’s your boyfriend!” He’ll have to wait--she’s in the middle of quoting a favorite Yoda maxim. “Tell him I’ll call him back,” she yells.


The camp-out has electricity, thanks to BJ’s Pizza next door, plus Internet hookups, two propane heaters, coolers, umbrellas, “Star Wars” videos and a communal soda cup with change to feed parking meters. Everyone pitches in to buy meals, getting burgers from In ‘n’ Out or pizza from Delmonico’s. Jerry’s Famous Deli gets rave reviews, largely because its rest-rooms are available all night.

Most passersby have been friendly, or at least curious. The only incident came one night when someone heaved a water bottle from a car, which shattered when it hit Sam in the shoulder. Now the regulars are more wary. When a pair of burly bouncer types stop and gawk, Shahin jokingly says, “You guys gonna beat us up and take our tickets?”

“We get a lot of drunks going home at 2 a.m., testing us for trivia or calling us geeks,” says Nguyen. “When people tell us we’re crazy, we always say, ‘Yeah!’ ” For all the razzing they’ve taken, though, they boast that when everybody was getting busy signals on MovieFone or the ‘Net when tickets went on sale at noon last Wednesday, they were first in line at the box office.

Late Thursday, Danny’s dad pulls up in a Land Rover with a La-Z-Boy in the trunk. Danny appears unimpressed as dad, wearing a Madonna T-shirt, unloads the recliner. “The one I sat in the other day was a lot more comfortable,” Danny says. “But then he saw one that was cheaper, like it was from a garage sale.” He sniffs the upholstery. “I think it smells.”

“You’re so spoiled,” Nguyen groans. Danny lowers his voice. “I like it,” he says. “I just don’t want to act like I like it in front of my dad.”

While Danny installs his new recliner, Nguyen tries to explain “Star Wars’ ” intense following. “When you’re watching ‘Star Wars,’ you’re in his [George Lucas’] world--you never think about going back to real life, to school or your job. You don’t even notice you’ve left the real world till you walk out of the theater and you go, ‘Hey, I’m back again.’ ”


For Shahin, the movies offer life lessons. “You start to understand all sorts of things--romance, fear, anger and discipline, how you have to be persistent and work hard for what you want. My favorite subject in school was world history, because I could see how all the heroes and myths were just like the ones in the ‘Star Wars’ films.”

Most of the regulars aren’t surprised that the early ‘Phantom Menace’ reviews have been tepid. “All of us are trying to not get too worked up,” says Andrea. “I don’t expect it to be as great as the first one. But the camp-out has given me a great experience before I have to decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

After Wednesday, the believers will disperse. “We probably won’t see each other until ‘Episode 2,’ ” says Sam, preparing to go home one night. “Now I have to get some sleep and figure out how to B.S. my teacher. There’s no way I have the strength to do 24 lines of Greek translation before I go to bed.”

He shouts “Bye, everybody,” and holding his light saber, waves to his mother as she pulls up to the curb. “She’s a big fan, too,” he says. “She went to all the ‘Star Wars’ movies when they first opened and now she’s passed all her action figures along to me.”