My trip to England and the set of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

In 1979, when I was a freshman at college, I entered a contest sponsored by The Official Star Wars Club. The goal was to draw a humorous cartoon based on the characters from Star Wars. I sent in a cartoon in which Chewbacca tried to disguise himself as an Imperial Stormtrooper, and his fur was bulging out from the seams. I had absolutely no expectation of winning. I got a call from my home a few weeks later from my very excited mother. A telegram had arrived. “You won the contest!” she exclaimed. That was cool, I thought. “Which prize did I win?” I asked. I thought maybe I had won one of the lesser prizes, like a set of books or toys. “You won the grand prize!” she shouted. “You won a trip to England to be on the set of the sequel to Star Wars!”

I was told later that George Lucas himself personally chose my cartoon as the winner from a group of ten finalists.

Bantha Tracks 5
Starlog 31

Bantha Tracks issue 5 page 3

Click above to Enlarge

Starlog issue 31
Starlog 31 Page 14
Blacksburg Sun

Starlog 31 Page 14

Click above to enlarge

Blacksburg Sun April 29, 1979

Click above to see cartoon enlargement

The story was covered in Bantha Tracks issue 5 (the newsletter of The Official Star Wars Club), Starlog issue 31 (which also included a picture of my runner-up entry for a pinball backglass design), as well as two Virginia newspapers. And the following entry appeared in a paperback book detailing the production of The Empire Strikes Back.

Making ESB 1980

From Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back by Alan Arnold, a Del Rey Book First Edition September 1980

Tuesday May 22 (1979)

The Star Wars stage began its movie life today. The set that has been built on it depicts the huge hangar on Hoth. On this set are arranged the Rebel fleet of snowspeeders and the huge, full-scale Falcon. All the principals and hundreds of extras were on call today, and the two film units combined to work simultaneously.

“Completing the soundstage is the culmination of seven months of planning, building, and set preparation,” said Kurtz. “And the result will be a permanent facility for filmmakers in England.”

True, but nobody came to the opening. There had been talk of a press reception. Fox suggested asking Prince Charles. We thought of having R2-D2 open the mighty scenery doors by remote control. But nothing came of these suggestions. It was thought more prudent to get on with the work, bearing in mind we are behind schedule.

But there was a visitor nonetheless – eighteen-old Matthew Pack (Note: they spelled my last name wrong) from Chester, Virginia, who had won a Star Wars Fan Club competition. His prize of a trip to London coincided with the stage’s opening day and he was overjoyed.

Kersh was impressed, too. This stage is the largest interior he has ever worked on. “Of course, I’ve worked on bigger sets built on location, but this is by far the biggest interior,” he told me. “You might say that it’s reversing the trend in recent years of filmmakers going on location to achieve bigness. But outer space is colossal and where can you go to film that? You have to build to show the bigness of space.and that’s what we have done.

But it’s a pity, I feel, that we didn’t open the stage with a fanfare. A movie stage, like a theater, is consecrated to make-believe. Who knows what shadow worlds will have brief lives on it over the years to come? Palaces and spacecraft, streets where no one lives, ships that sail no oceans, and jungles where birds don’t fly – all may have their day in this cavern of entertainment. But nobody except that boy from Virginia will remember the thrill of the first day.

For the thirtieth anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back a new lavish hardback was published in the fall of 2010 detailing the production of the film, and my visit was mentioned on page 161.

Making of ESB 2010

From The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler, LucasBooks First Edition November 2010

Because production was so far behind, plans to celebrate the stage’s opening - a press reception attended by Prince Charles, and so on - were dropped. One visitor did show up, however: 18-year-old Matthew Pak from Chester, Virginia, who had won a Star Wars Fan Club drawing competition. Another visitor was Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that the new structure was second in size only to the James Bond Stage at Shepperton: “Amid the busy jumble, crowning a slight rise of land like a dark castle, stands a huge and brand-new sound stage.”

I’m not exaggerating that Jack Magic has its roots in this wonderful life experience. It was there that I decided that I wanted to create a grand fantasy adventure of my own someday.

Click photos below for larger versions and descriptions.

Harrison Handshake Carrie and Matt
Meeting Harrison Ford
Reading lines with Carrie Fisher
Lunch with cast Lunch with cast 2
Lunch with the cast
Lunch with the cast
Kurtz and Kirschner Matt and Kurtz
Kurtz, Kirschner, Mom, and Me
Matt and Kurtz in the ice cave
Kenny Baker and Matt
Matt Drawing
Kenny Baker and Matt
My drawing of the set

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