56 Weeks in Des Moines: Theater Ad Paste-ups and Proofs
Local theater ads from the 70s and 80s often embody a sense of creativity that was lost as business models and forms of movie advertising shifted into the modern age. Some cinemas made more substantial efforts to spruce up their ads, taking the opportunity to tailor standard advertising graphics to their specific needs and tastes. A case study of one such theater is the River Hills/Riviera Twin in Des Moines, Iowa.
An uncommon example of two theaters under separate names operating in the same building, the River Hills side was configured for single strip Cinerama presentations while the Riviera ran standard screenings. Originally opened in 1968, the venue advertised itself as "Iowa's most luxurious twin theatres" with "acres of free parking!"
Star Wars began its astonishing 56 week tenure in Des Moines on May 27th, 1977 with a 29 week engagement in the River Hills auditorium (complete with a newfangled Dolby sound system), eventually heading next door for another 27 weeks in the Riviera. The following series of ads – most of which are from The Des Moines Register – offers a glimpse at how the film was promoted over that time, and more specifically its run at the Riviera from February to June, 1978.
This first ad from the film's 37th week (February 10th, 1978) pushes the film's recent award that it earned for John Williams' score at the Golden Globes on January 28th. It's also the first of many depicted in this post that mentions posters and programs being for sale in the lobby.
Above is a stat proof for the full page spread that the ad was featured in, placing Star Wars amidst the rest of the cinematic landscape of the time. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was just getting rolling into its 8th "dazzling" week at this point, while it was Des Moines' last 7 days to witness George Burns play God in Carl Reiner's Oh, God! at the Sierra 3. Moviegoers were also forewarned that Saturday Night Fever's "disco scenes tend to overwhelm!"
A new arrangement was created for the film's 38th week, as demonstrated by the hand cut and assembled paste-up above. It's neat to see the original point of creation for ads like this. The stat proof for the ad can be seen below.
The full page stat proof presents the shuffle of bookings in town. Those that missed George Burns playing God at the Sierra 3 had a chance for redemption as "NOW GOD MOVES EAST!" to the Eastgate Cinema 1.
For Easter weekend in 1978, theaters were keen on enticing patrons to spend a part of the family-friendly holiday at the movies. With the 50th Academy Awards set to take place the next week, contending films – including Star Wars with its 10 nominations – flaunted their accolades as a bit of additional incentive to take in some bonafide cinematic art.
Who could refute Close Encounters being a "special Easter treat" with its eight Oscar nominations? Or what about a salacious drama centered around a young Tommy Lee Jones playing a race car driver secretly developing a safe, fuel-efficient car in The Betsy? There's always something for everyone.
As April turned to May, the film's one year anniversary was in sight and it had seven Oscars in tow. This paste-up which expressed as much to Des Moinians (is that the proper term?) was the basis for an ad which unfortunately did not survive within this collection.
Countdowns are a common thread in vintage theater ads, and particularly for Star Wars. 55 weeks in, it had far surpassed the level of cinematic event and transcended into a distance runner of epic stature. This ad from the June 9th, 1978 edition of the Des Moines Register attempts to instill a sense of desperation, informing readers that the definitive end to the film's run at the Riviera was "positively" two weeks away. Note that Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are the only two cast members billed.
The full page stat proof reveals the movie-going terrain continuing to shift around the iron mountain that was Star Wars. Holdouts like Saturday Night Fever and Smokey and the Bandit were entering their final seven days, while cinema waters were chummed for Jaws II to attack the subsequent week.
Lucas' long-running space opera smash had recently been joined in theaters by his previous directorial output, American Graffiti. Immensely successful in its own right when it was originally released in 1973, the film was re-released in May, 1978. It was in its "3RD FUN!! WEEK" by the time of the ad above and was cruisin' next door to Star Wars at the River Hills, which boasted a new Dolby sound system that "MANY PATRONS EVEN STOP TO COMMENT AND COMPLIMENT ABOUT IT." Talk about a timely 1-2 punch from Uncle George.
The ad for the 27th and final week of the film's Riviera engagement has a much more understated presence on the full page, utilizing graphics from the Style C one sheet as several of the previous ads had. By June 16th, 1978, the Des Moines summer movie scene was giving way to a swath of sequels and re-releases and their ads dominate the full page stat proof. I personally would have been thrilled for a chance to see The Jungle Book and Jason and the Argonauts on the big screen when Star Wars had gone. Also, who knew that a beleaguered and seriously pissed off Tony Curtis took the Bad News Bears to Japan?
At the end of 56 weeks, Star Wars had left Des Moines and the rolling hills of Iowa on June 22nd, 1978. But it would not be absent for long. July 21st marked the first official North American re-release for the film as well as a rebranded marketing campaign. As to when exactly the re-release began in Des Moines I'm not sure, but the ad stat proof below promoting showtimes at the Southeast 14th Street Drive-In and Valley 3 Theatre indicates that the film had been "held over again!"
Des Moines was also one of 89 markets where The Empire Strikes Back was initially released on May 21st, 1980 in the U.S. One of the 127 screens it debuted on was none other than the River Hills'. This paste-up from the film's 6 month mark pulls together graphics from both the Style A and Style B campaigns.
Finally, this paste-up for Return of the Jedi may be the least dynamic ad of the group, but nevertheless represents an extant piece of the Trilogy's cinematic history in Des Moines. Fittingly, the River Hills was once again host to the film's wide release first run beginning on May 25th, 1983. It was 1 of 43 theaters showing Star Wars over Memorial Day weekend in 1977 and 1 of 800 showing its concluding chapter six years later.