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May the 4th, Star Wars Day, builds excitement for new movie

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Jim Dietz, of Murrysville, has been collecting Star Wars memorabilia for 15-20 years.
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Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup
HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 3: Carrie Fisher arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Sorority Row' at the ArcLight Theatre in Hollywood, California on September 3, 2009. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup)
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June 21, 2006 Westwood, Ca. Mark Hamill 'Superman Returns' World Premiere Held At The Mann Village Theatre © Tammie Arroyo / AFF-USA.COM
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Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher in 'Star Wars'
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C-3PO and R2D2 of Star Wars
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Getty Images for Disney
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 16: Actors Mark Hamill (L) and Carrie Fisher speak onstage during Star Wars Celebration 2015 on April 16, 2015 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)
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Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Danielle J. Volkar of Monessen, became a formal member of the Rebel Legion as Ammi Ziva. She is part of a large community of fans who have made “Star Wars” a part of their lives.
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Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Brayden Bichsel, 7, of Export, is a huge Star Wars fan with his favorite character being Darth Vader. Brayden first encountered Darth Vader through the Lego video game incarnation of “Star Wars.” Darth Vader is one of his favorite characters “because he has a cool lightsaber.'

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …

Perhaps it only seems like a long time ago. It’s been 32 years since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie in “Return of the Jedi.” It’s been 38 years since the Millennium Falcon first flew across screens in the original “Star Wars.”

Mark Hamill, the actor who portrayed Luke, is now 63, the same age Alec Guinness was when he first portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“Star Wars” hit the big screen May 25, 1977, with all of the five movies that followed through 2005 also debuting in May. Fans have adopted “May the 4th” (as in “May the force be with you”) as Star Wars Day, although this year. they won’t have a new movie to celebrate until December, when Episode VII, “The Force Awakens,” debuts.

The ’70s were a tumultuous time. America had just emerged from an oil crisis that saw gas prices skyrocket to more than 80 cents a gallon. The war in Vietnam had ended, but the country entered a new Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Out of this era, “Star Wars” emerged.

“It was very specifically a fantasy — that’s what the 10 words on the screen at the very beginning announce — with no connection to the gruesome world of the 1970s. It was designed to be accessible to adults and children and inner children,” says Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.”

“Star Wars” soared on word-of-mouth recommendations. It became a contest of “how many times have you seen it” — with many logging 10 or more times. All this with no hype, no YouTube trailers, no image leaks on Twitter, no Facebook likes.

Along with “Jaws,” the film invented the concept of the summer blockbuster.

“ ‘Jaws’ said it could be done once. ‘Star Wars’ said it could be repeated — and in a genre that nobody believed could actually make money,” Taylor says. “Science fiction was a largely low-budget phenomenon until ‘Star Wars’ proved there were billions to be made from it.”

The franchise went on to make more money and become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” Taylor says.

For the first generation of “Star Wars” fans, the film was an experience. It was immersive without the obtrusive 3-D. You could feel the ships soaring over your head and hear that signature “shwoop” as a lightsaber fired up. Fans came dressed as their favorite character, and many continue to wield lightsabers at comic-cons and fan events, including the Star Wars Celebration held each April in Anaheim, Calif.

“I can remember being this little kid who was fascinated with the characters. Broom handles, tree branches and almost anything I could get my hands on became a lightsaber with sound. Jedi were the good guys,” says Danielle J. Volkar, owner of Any-Kind-A-Wear in Monessen, a clothing store specializing in cosplay.

Volkar became a formal member of the Rebel Legion, a process that included having her Jedi garb approved. She is part of a large community of fans who have made “Star Wars” a part of their lives.

“I have been able to meet many new friends and acquaintances who share the same love for ‘Star Wars’ — whether they are Jedi, Mandalorian or Sith,” Volkar says.

Each movie — “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,” “The Phantom Menace” and so on — has brought new Rebel Legions of fans.

The leap to the small screen introduced a new generation to the “Star Wars” galaxy through Betamax, VHS, laser disc and DVD. They, too, seem like objects from a long time ago. With each iteration, fans lined up for what seemed like monthly new editions of George Lucas tinkering with his masterpiece.

Then, there were the toys. The action figures allowed kids to create their own adventures while they awaited the next installment.

Jim Dietz of Murrysville has a “Star Wars” collection of more than 300 figures, 50 vehicles and playsets, and more.

“When I was a kid, I had a lot of the sets and figures,” Dietz says. “But we moved around a lot, and when my toys got put into a storage unit, we forgot about the unit and it lapsed. Someone got a great deal on that stuff at an auction.”

Dietz has spent years reclaiming the toys of his youth. His biggest regret is the loss of the almost Holy Grail-like blue-suited Snaggletooth: “It came with the Sears Cantina playset I had when I was a kid. That figure is now worth over $5,000.”

Some wise Yoda-like collectors had the foresight to keep one set of toys for play and one for saving. A pristine, in-the-package, vinyl-caped Jawa can sell for upward of $12,000.

For Dietz, not every piece is behind glass. He and his daughter, Violetta, 4, frequently play with the action figures.

The lightsaber has been passed to a new generation through video games.

Brayden Bichsel, 7, of Export first encountered Darth Vader through the Lego video-game incarnation of “Star Wars.” Darth Vader is one of his favorite characters “because he has a cool lightsaber.” He also identifies with young Anakin Skywalker: “It’s cool because he’s a kid, and he gets to be a Jedi.”

Setting aside young Brayden’s worrisome path to the Dark Side, it’s clear he loves the characters and loves being the characters. His favorite game, “Kinect Star Wars,” allows him to wield a lightsaber, advancing, attacking, parrying and lunging like the powerful Jedi that he is.

“My mom and dad like ‘Star Wars,’ but I like it a lot more,” Brayden says.

His words almost echo Luke Skywalker in the new trailer: “The Force is strong in my family.”

In 2012, Disney purchased LucasFilms and, with it, the entire “Star Wars” franchise.

Some ponder whether Disney will embody the Evil Empire or provide “a new hope.” In December, the world will find out with “Episode VII.”

No doubt, the “Star Wars” galaxy will remain a Force to be reckoned with.

Joe Wos is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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