I discovered a goldmine while reorganizing my old VHS compilations. One tape — sent to me almost a decade ago by Bill from VeggieMacabre — included the full broadcast of The Empire Strikes Back’s 1987 network television premiere!
Stick with me, guys. Whether you’re into Star Wars or not, the nostalgia is gonna hit you from all angles.
The film premiered as part of NBC’s Sunday Night at the Movies, on November 22nd, 1987. I don’t have total recall of my television viewing history, but I’d say that there’s a 95% chance that I watched The Empire Strikes Back on that very night.
Now okay, I probably had the videocassette by 1987. If not an official release, then at least a copy made with the trusty double-VCR trick. Didn’t matter. Then just as now, watching movies was more fun when I knew that complete strangers were watching them at the same time.
The movie’s network premiere was a HUGE deal, despite the fact that The Empire Strikes Back was seven years old by the time it happened. In fact, NBC even crafted a custom introduction for it, where Darth Vader himself broke into the usual graphics to deliver a message from the Galactic Empire. (Watch the video, up above. The voice modulation isn’t exactly movie-accurate, but I’m still pretty sure that that was James Earl Jones!)
Watching the movie in 4×3 with audio distortion and severe grain may sound a bit stupid in the Blu-ray age, but nope, it was straight-up awesome. It shot me right back into the soul of Me-In-1987. I pictured myself on our old ratty couch, watching Han snark while a jade green desk lamp did its best to keep things bright.
The distortion in the video was less a distraction and more the return of an old friend, because that’s how I remember the original trilogy: Shining through smallish, squarish television sets with muffled audio in what could only generously be described as standard definition.
Of course, this was long before the Special Edition trilogy came out, so I was also watching The Empire Strikes Back in its original form. Seeing the chimp-faced Emperor again made my heart grow three sizes.
But the nostalgia hit hardest during the commercial breaks. That many commercials from 1987 was gonna be a trip no matter what, but since the movie’s TV premiere happened so close to Thanksgiving, many of them were firmly holiday-themed. Yes! Smart money says that I spent that Sunday in our old living room, TV remote in one hand and the 1987 Sears Wish Book in the other.
Below are ten commercials that aired during the network television premiere of The Empire Strikes Back. You’d be able to find crisper versions of most of them on YouTube, but I think the grain and hiss add to the effect. If this stuff doesn’t put you in a memoria K-hole, you’re probably a lot younger than me.
The audio and video dip out during this one, but you’ll still see the important thing: That swank old school bottle of Coors Winterfest. I love the not-so-subtle suggestion that THIS was the beer to be drinking while trimming the tree with your kids.
Far and away the BEST dog food commercial EVER, I still catch myself singing the King Kuts jingle to this day. I’ll never understand what led a group of experienced marketing types to unilaterally approve an Egyptian-themed dog food campaign, but thank God they did. Watch it once, and kill me for the earworm later.
USPS Express Mail Service!
I’m mainly including this for the shot of the old Express Mail envelopes, which I remember finding so amazing as a child. Each envelope starred a big, serious eagle who soared across the dusky sky. I didn’t have much mail to send that age — let alone mail to send via one day express — but I still used to swipe those envelopes whenever Mom took me to the post office.
McDonald’s Cinderella Dolls!
In this endearingly Christmassy ad, we were told about the FREE MICE DOLLS available to anyone who was willing to spend five bucks on McDonald’s gift certificates. (Specifically, they’re Jaq and Gus from Cinderella.) The small dolls doubled as tree ornaments, and while I wouldn’t call them the most famous of McDonald’s holiday giveaways, they’re pretty high on the list. Sooo many kids had those rats.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles Promo!
Planes, Trains & Automobiles was released just three days after this broadcast, so it’s no shock that it gobbled up multiple ad slots during The Empire Strikes Back. For the record, “you’re going the wrong way” remains one of my favorite things to say, whether the situation calls for it or not.
NBC Television Promo!
This one REALLY took me back. It’s the sort of thing nobody would ever think to look up on YouTube. Hooray, fresh nostalgia!
Sure, it’s just a simple promo for ALF and Valerie’s Family (the latter would be given a more famous second life as The Hogan Family), but if you’re my age, promos like that completely determined what you’d be doing on any particular week. “Looks like Willie Tanner gets blasted by a garden hose. Better clear my calendar.”
Pop Secret Popcorn!
The thumbnail doesn’t promise much, but don’t skip this one. Trust me, you’ll remember it. It’s the one where popcorn kernels oil themselves up under the hot sun, while La Bamba scores their eventual explosions. Microwaved popcorn still seemed magical in 1987, but the vision of each kernel being an anthropomorphic beach bum just took it over the top. So good.
I know that Domino’s really had no choice but to drop the campaign, but man, I miss the Noid. At the time, we had nothing even resembling a local Domino’s, but between the colorful pizza boxes and that long-eared anti-mascot, I grew up thinking that it was the pizza to end all pizzas. Turned out to be wrong about that one, but whatever. The Noid still ruled.
Disney World’s Celebrity Circus!
Celebrity Circus was a Disney television special that aired on Thanksgiving weekend in 1987. I’ve never seen it, but the promo promised appearances by some of TV’s then-biggest young stars, from Lisa Bonet to Kim Fields. I must’ve been crazy busy that week, because there’s no way I would’ve missed Tootie palling around with Goofy by choice.
Macy’s Snoopy Doll!
Last but not least, a commercial for that legendary Snoopy doll that was sold at a bargain price to Macy’s shoppers. Had it as a kid, bought it again as an adult. Macy’s still does the “holiday doll” promotions, but back then, it was an absolutely can’t-miss affair. The large Snoopy doll, dressed for playtime in the snow, was to many kids as integral a part of the 1987 holiday season as Christmas trees. Even now, Burl Ives blares through my brain speakers every time I look at that doll.
Watching this tape made me feel so young, so old and so great. Hopefully all of the media included above gave you some semblance of the same feelings. Times were simpler, everything felt bigger, and I didn’t have to watch the Wampa eat carrion.
PS: If all of the above put you in a Star Wars mood, go check out my latest piece for the official site, where I examine a Return of the Jedi activity book from 1983!