In early 1980, the prospect of dialing a number and hearing a celebrity's voice on the other end—even if it was pre-recorded—was pretty novel. The '80s would go on to see the height of expensive, premium telephone calls and the advent of the celebrity hotline; Sherilyn Connelly documents the decade's more amusing experiments over at Topless Robot. But when Lucasfilm was rolling out its Empire Strikes Back promotional campaign, the practice wasn't exactly common.
That might account for why the cast's effort to do exactly that sounds so odd and unpolished—and that the effort ended up overwhelming AT&T's pre-digital phone systems completely. The 1980 issue of Bantha Tracks, a Star Wars fanzine, included a story on the effort. Here's an excerpt:
Each of the film's stars apparently recorded brief ad roll, in character, and fans could call the hotline, for free, and hear a random one. Some of the stars clearly dialed it in (who can blame them), and others just sound hopelessly goofy. But apparently it was a massive success. Decades after the fact, StarWars.Com featured an interview with Craig Miller, Lucasfilm's first director of fan relations, who oversaw what was called the Empire hotline. He explains how it came about, and why it crashed. I'll just quote Miller here at length:
"In late 1979, as the opening of The Empire Strikes Back was quickly racing toward us, I came up with the idea of doing a telephone line people could call for information about the movie. For the first five months of 1980, people could call a special 800 number and hear a message from one of the characters of the movie: Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader, or C-3PO.
"I wrote the scripts for the five messages and, during each actor's looping session for the movie, we recorded their message (after all, they were already going to be in a recording studio). Harrison had already done his looping session by the time the scripts were ready so he and I met for lunch one day then went back to his house where a sound guy I hired for the occasion met us and recorded his message.
"This was before the telephone system was completely computerized. Back then, there was a lot of mechanical switching equipment and specific prefixes were limited to specific geographic areas. 521 was in Illinois so we had to set up our phone lines to answer the calls in that state. We only promoted the phone line at science fiction conventions, through clubs, and specialty publications like "Starlog" carried the story.
"But the first week the system went live, so many people called the number, AT&T couldn't handle it. They were so overloaded, the system couldn't even handle generating busy signals to all of the calls. The 800 system for Illinois crashed and shut down for several hours. AT&T insisted that we add additional phone lines and issue a press release taking the blame for it. Weep wail. Poor us. We contritely agreed to issue a press release to all media saying we were sorry that Star Wars fans were so eager to get information on the sequel that wouldn't be out for five months, their calls overwhelmed the phone company. And you could call yourself, now that we'd increased the number of phone lines, and listen to the messages [at the number]. The story, of course, got covered everywhere. Best publicity we could have had."
Seriously. Just out of curiosity, I called the number today, and apparently it's just some guy's regular old phone number now—I got the answering machine.
Star Wars is so engrained in our cultural mythology now, it's kind of jarring to listen to a promotional artifact that's so blatantly hokey, and to read the key details of a Star Wars marketing campaign. It's easy to forget that there were eye-roll-worthy ads and cheesy promotional tie-ins and perfunctory late night show appearances. It's easy to forget about the Star Wars Holiday Special. I mean, it's Star Wars: the beast that spawned modern cinematic sci-fi as we know it, the franchise that continues to ignite the space-faring imagination of millions of kids around the globe today—it's one of our most beloved mythological institutions, not a Cuisinart. Right?
Well, it's both. Star Wars has obviously been crassly commercial from the start: during the original films' run alone, toy manufacturer Kenner sold over 300 million action figures (and the entire population of the U.S. was just 220 million at the time). Do I need to mention the Holiday Special again?
Still, it's somehow a little disconcerting to hear James Earl Jones pimp out Darth Vader's evil-defining baritone just to exhort fans to "See it! As the Empire Strikes Back." Yet comforting to know that Star Wars already had the power to derail the nation's largest telecom company.