Everyone has cornerstone events in their lives that alter the trajectory of their very existence.
One of my biggest ones came 20 years ago in the rain and mud when my girlfriend and I joined a sea of tens of thousands of fellow Star Wars fans at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver for the first Star Wars Celebration.
The event itself wasn’t life-changing, but I’ll address that in a minute. The first Star Wars Celebration was held April 30 through May 2, 1999. It may seem like it was a long time ago in a city far, far away, but for me it was like yesterday. I was born and raised in the Denver area and was an instant Star Wars fan for life the minute the original movie zoomed across the silver screen before my nearly 12-year-old eyes in 1977.
I was a veteran of several comic cons by the time the celebration rolled around but my girlfriend was a convention rookie. She was wide-eyed and awestruck when we first walked into the museum and all things Star Wars came at us in a rush.
The celebration was the first such fan event for Star Wars and it was designed to help launch “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” Thanks to the connectivity of Facebook I was able to reminisce about the event with the man who made it all happen, Dan Madsen, along with C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels.
“We had a momentous time putting that one together,” Madsen told me in a phone interview.
Madsen has the distinction of being the founder of both the official Star Wars and Star Trek fan clubs, among others. He was the owner of FANtastic Media, which published fan magazines and sold merchandise. He was approached by Steve Sansweet of Lucasfilm about holding some kind of fan event to help kick off the first prequel movie.
“I flew out with my team and we met with them for a day or two days,” Madsen said.
During the meeting it was determined that Lucasfilm wanted a “convention-type event.”
“We came back to Denver and hit the ground running,” Madsen said.
They decided to hold the celebration in Denver because it was centrally located in the United States and Madsen and his team were already in position there. With the Mile High City’s big convention centers already booked, however, Madsen and his team of about 100 employees hunted around for a venue that could accommodate about 10,000 people. What they found was Wings Over the Rockies and its giant hangar-turned-museum. As cavernous as the venue was, it still wasn’t big enough. Two large tents were erected outside to house the main events stage and a secondary stage.
The next step was to get registrations. The word was put out in the “Star Wars Insider” magazine that Madsen published and in press releases sent to media around the world.
“This was just prior to the Internet taking off,” he said.
Anthony Daniels, the actor best known for playing C-3PO, came on as the master of ceremonies.
“He was one of the saving graces,” Madsen said.
“It had been 16 years since the last Star Wars things had happened,” Daniels said in a phone interview from London.
Daniels came out a couple weeks early to help get things organized. He almost wasted his time.
“Two weeks before the event was the Columbine High School shooting,” Madsen said.
“It was one of the first massacres and it left us … We didn’t know what to do,” Daniels said.
Lucasfilm wanted to call it off. Madsen and Daniels objected and called on Denver Mayor Wellington Webb to intervene. Webb convinced Lucasfilm that the event was what Denver needed to help the healing process. With the event back on, it was turned into a fundraiser for the families of the victims of the shooting.
“We sent a message that these people who do these ugly things aren’t going to win,” Daniels said.
At that point everything looked good. Vendors were in place, artifacts and movie props were on display, actors from the new movie were set to appear, and ticket sales more than doubled expectations.
On opening morning, Daniels opened the curtains in his hotel room to look out at the mountains. They weren’t there.
“I couldn’t see them. It looked like some kind of a joke,” he said.
Heavy rainclouds settled over the Front Range.
“That weekend we got the worst rain in 90 years,” Madsen recalled.
Daniels rushed to the venue and upon seeing long lines of drenched fans, he opened up the tents and let people in to get out of the rain. The tents had been erected on an old runway that was now grass covered. It became a sodden swamp under the trampling feet of 20,000 force-full fans. Plywood boards and wooden pallets were hastily dropped into place to make walkways, but they sank into the muck almost as fast as they were put down.
Ironically, the miserable weather served as a uniting force for attendees.
“Out in the lines people were smiling and making the best of it,” Daniels recalled.
“One of my favorite memories was seeing the camaraderie of the fans as they stood through the mud and rain,” Madsen said.
It was while standing in a long line on one of those makeshift sidewalks that I had my cornerstone moment. With plenty of time to talk, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Sandy said yes and in December we will celebrate our 20th anniversary.
Star Wars has always been a big part of our lives. We’ve never attended another Star Wars Celebration, but we’ve never missed the opening day of a Star Wars movie.
As memorable as the celebration was for us, Daniels recalls it as a “Woodstock-type experience.”
“It’s a badge of honor that you were there,” he said, adding that Madsen deserves a lot of credit for working through the tragedies of Columbine, the weather, and the financial fallout after it was over. “Dan was left to pick up those pieces,” he said.
Daniels said he talks at length about the celebration experience in his new book that comes out in November called “I am C-3PO: The Inside Story.” He called that first celebration “a key moment in the fan life of Star Wars.”
As for Madsen, he has attended four or five of the celebrations and just returned home from the one two weeks ago in Chicago. He said it was the best one he has seen yet. It was at that celebration that the trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IV: The Rise of Skywalker” debuted.
“I have high expectations for that movie,” he said. “This is the one that fans have been waiting for. I think it’s going to wrap up the Skywalker saga beautifully.”
“I had the best time working on it,” Daniels said. “I think it’s a very satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker story.”
Naturally, Sandy, I, and our children will be at the opening night screening in December. With today’s digital technology we won’t have to stand in line to buy tickets, but I will always remember standing in line for Star Wars and coming away with the love of my life!