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May the Force Be Withheld

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Rising anticipation of The Phantom Menace, nurtured by sixteen Star Wars-free years, has been quelled by a system of Lucasfilm security measures designed to protect everything from the film's plot to promotions; if Beanie Bobas are in the works, you won't know it till they hit the shelves. But the corporate code of silence has done little to deter legions of local Star Wars fans whose hunger for a new film is climaxing.

"After waiting so long for another installment, I think most fans will find a way to celebrate among themselves," says lifelong Star Wars fan Bobby Sharp, regional governor of the Ohio Star Wars Collectors Club and resident Jedi master for the offbeat Cleveland Heights toy store Big Fun. "We're totally keyed up. It's the culmination of everything."

Employees whose companies will market The Phantom Menace are more than a little jumpy though. Many in the know won't talk, and most of those who will vehemently demand anonymity. Those at the area's best-equipped theaters seem reluctant to play up their cinema's attributes.

"Don't tell my boss that I told you this, because I won't have a job, but . . . a lot of people have been calling, because we have a bigger screen," whispers one squirrelly employee at Canton's Cinemark Tinseltown movie complex.

Sharp, 23, says Tinseltown is one theater on a short list of area moviehouses targeted by Star Wars fanatics. The venue's stadium seating, wall-to-wall screen, and digital sound make it a prime choice for viewing what's being billed as the most technologically advanced film in history. The Cinemark theater in Macedonia, another of the few area cinemas with stadium seating, is also on Sharp's hot list of places to see The Phantom Menace.

The theaters' hush policy comes straight fromLucasfilm's strongarm tactics in regard to promotion of The Phantom Menace.

"They have unprecedented control over each theater," says Rob McNally, manager of the Tinseltown moviehouse. "Anything wrong, and you're done. Only show it in the biggest theater. Nothing in the lobby. No advanced ticket sales in town--and if you don't return all previews, banners, and posters, you don't get the movie."

(Lucasfilm recently rescinded its mandate outlawing prerelease ticket sales. Tickets for the May 19 opening will go on sale in Cleveland starting May 12.)

The film's release isn't the only hotly anticipated Star Wars happening being kept under wraps. The Phantom Menace book will be in stores May 3, but out-of-store advertising of the book is verboten until May 21--two days after the film's release--according to Annie Holden, general manager of Borders Books & Music in Westlake.

"It's a new challenge for us," admits Holden, who says the store is not even permitted to advertise its Star Wars-related activities in the Borders newsletter.

Elsewhere, challenges to curious devotees are equally stiff. If you want to know what trinket you'll get with your Taco Bell kids' meal, try calling their corporate offices in California. Or Pepsi-Cola's offices in New York. Or Tinseltown's offices in Texas--or Tattooine--it doesn't matter. No one will tell you a thing.

"We had to sign a waiver not to reveal anything," says Rick Nader (rhymes with "Vader"), manager of the Columbia Road Taco Bell in Westlake.

Not even parties come easy for Northeast Ohioans in search of a Star Wars fix. No one knows better than Sharp, who, along with his OSWCC buddies, had planned to throw a Star Wars bash at an area theater, with proceeds going to charity. A swift stroke of the Lucasfilm light saber put the plans to rest, with the reasoning that such an event "compromised the promotional investments" tied to the film's release.

Disappointment doesn't linger for Sharp, a specialist in German Star Wars collectibles ("Darth Vader sounds so much cooler in German") and all things Boba Fett (the bounty hunter's image is tattooed on Sharp's calf).

"We're dressing up anyway," says Sharp, one of many whose entire existence is centered around the Force. "It's just a bunch of people who aren't afraid to hold onto the kid inside them. I'm dressing like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I'm meeting the others."

And perhaps no one in Northeast Ohio is better equipped to celebrate than Sharp. By May 19, his Boba Fett cake pan will likely see action, as will his Wookiee Cookies cookbook. The menu?

Yoda Soda and Boba Fettuccini, of course.

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