It is not every night that a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia in an evening gown of sorts, the brown hair in signature elaborate braids, greets the average Missoulian. But Saturday, the first night of the third year of Missoula’s Outdoor Cinema, with The Empire Strikes Back on the playbill, the figure’s 6-foot presence is more than appropriate.
Upon entering the gates, draped with strands of white and colored lights, one woman gives the cardboard cutout an authoritative once-over. The one-dimensional princess, however elegant in her gold get-up, does not look right to this discriminating Star Wars fan. “This is the wrong episode, isn’t it?” she asks with suspicion.
The wind, in mild agreement, topples the figure.
Folks stroll onto the Head Start campus, at the former Whittier School, on the corner of Howell Street and Worden Avenue, which will be home to the Missoula Outdoor Cinema (MOC) every Saturday evening during July and August. MOC started two years ago. It is one of many outdoor cinemas cropping up around the world, informally taking the place of drive-in move theaters. Last year was MOC’s first full season. About 2,000 people altogether attended. Admittance is donation only, and profits go toward the North Missoula Community Development Corporation.
Tonight, by show-time, 9:45 p.m., approximately 200 people cover the lawn. Many have walked or biked to the show. Unlocked bicycles lean against the chain-link fence surrounding the playground. Some of the smaller movie-fans have arrived by red wagon. Supplies—essentials like blankets and pillows and sweaters—have been transported by wheelbarrow. One hoodie, chocolate brown, says “Northside” across the chest, with a blue star sewn beneath. Families assemble themselves on blankets or lawn chairs. The more ambitious moviegoers haul in torn-up recliners from home. And for the children, adults pull open miniature folding chairs, child-size, in leopard skin print, complete with cup holders. Young and old alike are wrapped in down comforters. Provisions are stockpiled, pitchers of punch and brown bags of popcorn.
Tonight, the sun will set late, at 9:33, and sponsors must be thanked, so there is no time to run the cartoons and film shorts that David Macasaet, a founder of MOC, plans to show throughout the season’s Saturdays.
As Macasaet starts the slides, two boys flash light sabers at each other, one red and one green, and a small child navigates the grass wearing a yellow Winnie-the-Pooh nightie.
On the screen, a picture of the old peace sign, still intact on the hill rising above the railroad tracks, flashes. The crowd cheers its approval.
The folks are friendly with Orange Street Food Farm—they cheer again when it comes up as a sponsor.
A towhead on a bike with training wheels pumps the pedals forcefully through the only open stretch of lawn, with a view obstructed by a basketball hoop.
After properly crediting the sponsors, Macasaet pushes snacks. “Of course, we have wonderful fresh popcorn available,” he says. And it is fresh. In the front entrance, just past the table with the cash box where you receive a dinosaur sticker in exchange for a $5 donation, there is an old-fashioned popcorn stand, with the red-striped boxes redundantly announcing the contents.
A few minutes into the movie, the introduction floats off into space, and the sound cuts out.
“We have the wrong tape,” says Macasaet. The right tape needs to be rewound.
No one seems too concerned. The peace sign graces the screen again, and this time conversations spring up between groups of blanket folks and chair folks.
Macasaet pushes popcorn again, just for fun. Then, the tape is ready:
“Without further ado, The Empire Strikes Back.”
When the soundtrack horns blow the long high notes, the crowd claps and issues a few catcalls. The popcorn man sits back in his chair. A few extracurricular conversations end. Slowly, those on blankets settle into the lawn.
The swing-set squeaking is barely audible over the speakers. During the snow scenes, the creases in the screen are evident. Children offer commentary throughout.
“I don’t think I would choose that place to live,” says one, when Luke Skywalker and R2-D2 land in the Dagobah marsh. The temperature drops, and adults wrap up kids in blankets. Some of both fall asleep. The more energetic kids establish ownership of the tire swing, and fierce but short-lived territorial battles ensue. The movie-watchers, forgetful fans, ask each other the names of the smaller spaceships. Women wonder how they ever thought Luke Skywalker was hot when Han Solo was right under their very noses.
When cars drive by, they do so slowly. Some park for a few freebie minutes of the show. Smoking and drinking aren’t allowed on the grounds during the movie, but the summer evening and the classic flick must melt away one cigar aficionado’s will to obey; a light wind wafts cigar smoke through the crowd.
Just as Skywalker releases his hold of the catwalk and falls into the abyss, fireworks crack nearby, a prelude to the next evening. When the movie ends, heads pop up like prairie dogs from their holes.
“Have a safe evening,” says Macasaet, “and may the force be with you.”