New ‘Star Wars’ a sign of the season

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Families will bond over many things at Christmas - Faith, carols, eggnog, probably not politics, and “Star Wars.”

In 2015, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ushered in a new holiday tradition. Disney, the studio behind the new set of films, has made late December the time for casual fans and hardcore fanatics alike to experience the latest adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

The box office numbers provide the evidence. “The Force Awakens” grossed $936 million in North America. Last year’s spinoff/standalone “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” grossed another $532 million. On December 15, “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi,” a direct follow-up to “The Force Awakens,” will make another giant pile of money.

Plenty of movie franchises generate huge box office numbers, but “Star Wars” is something special to people from all walks of life.

Tyler Arnold fell in love with “Star Wars” at age 5, when he went to see “Return of the Jedi” on the big screen in 1983. Like so many other kids at the time, it was more than a movie.

“You’re wearing the slippers, you’re wearing the pajamas - it became part of your life,” Arnold said. “Films come and go, but with ‘Star Wars,’ it was so rooted in our culture.”

Having such a compelling and affordably priced toy line certainly helped the phenomenon, Arnold said.

“Every movie that comes out now gets its own toy line. It wasn’t like that in the 80s,” Arnold said. “You could get a ‘Star Wars’ figure on sale for a buck.”

Arnold’s collection of “Star Wars” merchandise would eventually lead to Spokane’s Jedi Alliance, a non-denominational church open to people of all faiths. It’s central message is - “Be excellent to each other. Being a better person will make the world a better place.”

“We’ve been trying to find another ‘Star Wars’ church, and we’ve yet to find one,” Arnold said. “We’re the only physical ‘Star Wars’ church on the planet.”

More than anything, the Jedi Alliance is an event center. Alongside his brother, Tim, Arnold has assembled a collection of about 85 arcade machines. Their space, located at 2024 E. Boone Ave. in Spokane, is available as a rental space for private events, and is open to the public two evenings per week. There’s an impressive museum of “Star Wars” toys and merchandise, and an accompanying storefront with a wide assortment of vintage toys, comics and more from many fandoms.

For fans of the original trilogy, as well as anybody nostalgic for 80s pop culture, the Jedi Alliance is a magical place. But Arnold said the new films have sparked a level of excitement that resembles what he saw as a kid - and something that was noticeably missing during the release of the “Star Wars” prequel films between 1999 and 2005.

“With (‘The Force Awakens’) I just got the sense that (director) J.J. Abrams is a fan of ‘Star Wars,’” Arnold said. “You have Disney that owns the property, they have an unlimited budget, and the original characters are coming back. There was the sense that ‘Star Wars’ was going to be fun and cool again.”

The mix of old and new was just the right formula for success, he said.

“It was awesome because I got to take my then-12-year-old to ‘The Force Awakens;’ I got to see it through their eyes,” Arnold said. “It’s my generation of ‘Star Wars’ sharing it with this generation of ‘Star Wars.’”

Buzz for “The Last Jedi” is off-the-charts, thanks to a couple of compelling trailers and the guarantee of the (real) return of series hero Luke Skywalker (he appeared for about 30 seconds in “The Force Awakens”). Good or bad, everybody will be talking about it.

Cynical folks can bemoan the merchandising onslaught and the continued commercialization of a sacred holiday. Maybe they have a point, but “Star Wars” brings people together in ways most things can’t.

At the very least, the dinner conversation will be less contentious than talking about tax reform or health care.

Or, if you’re like Tyler Arnold, a lifelong “Star Wars” fanatic, you can also just wait a couple weeks for the fervor to cool down.

“I don’t really want to wait in line,” he said.

The Jedi Alliance, located at 2024 E. Boone Ave. in Spokane. Public hours are 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Sundays. Search “Jedi Alliance Spokane” on Facebook for more information.

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