It might sound blasphemous to George Lucas lovers, but the days when "Star Wars" fans had a stranglehold on being supreme geeks of the sci-fi/fantasy world sure seems like it happened a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, "Lord of the Rings' " doting diehards are the faithful fans who rule them all.

And consider Utah among the geekiest spots this side of director Peter Jackson's office.

The Beehive State was home of the world's largest "line party" — an organized group of moviegoers — for the debut of "The Return of the King," part three and the conclusion of the epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. More than 1,200 fans experienced an enhanced midnight moviemania experience at The Ritz in West Valley City. The party went from 9 p.m. Tuesday until this morning at 4 and was spruced up with decorations, hundreds of Oscar-worthy costumes, Elfin music, grab bags and prizes.

In Sandy, 5,100 night owls filled up all 17 auditoriums at Jordan Commons for midnight

showings. Dozens of other cinemas also sold out. Local companies even got into the act. Instead of Christmas parties, the Ogden AOL center and 1-800-CONTACTS in Draper bought out several theaters this week and are paying for their employees and guests to go see the much-anticipated grand finale.

After witnessing the Middle Earth mayhem, theater manager Cal Gundersen believes followers of Luke, Leia and Darth Vader have been, um, outgeeked by Gandalf, Gollum and Gimli gurus.

"I thought 'Star Wars' fans were the most crazy, fanatical moviegoers," Gundersen said. "But in all my career, these 'Lord of the Rings' fans are the craziest, most dedicated I've ever seen."

For instance, when a group of "Lord of the Rings" fans showed up to stake their claim at the front of the line for Wednesday's wee-hour premier of the film, the theater's management was forced to request that the teenagers come back later.

Much later. That was last Thursday — six days before the movie opened early this morning.

Sure enough, the dozen Sandy boys returned Monday morning, ready and raring to camp out and brave the frigid elements for 36 hours. Just so they could say they were first.

"There were rumors somebody was trying to beat us," said Ryan Barton, 18. And that wasn't going to happen. "We've been first in line for the SuperScreen for all the 'Lord of the Rings' movies."

They laugh when people who don't get it question their sanity or ask how you say "Get a life" in Elvish.

"We're not nutty," said Chris Nehren, 17. "We're just fanatics."

Freezing fanatics. Temperatures were in the teens overnight, but 50 fans still slept outside.

"That's crazy," said Vern Harward, a 72-year-old theater usher. "I wouldn't have done it when I was young. It's cold out there, really cold."

Gundersen said demand for "Star Wars," "The Matrix" and "Harry Potter" paled in comparison to "The Return of the King" fervor. It sold out for the midnight madness last week.

You want devotion? Hardcore fans snatched up all 600 "Trilogy Tuesday" tickets in minutes so they could watch 720 minutes of an all-day "LOTR" movie marathon. One fan joked that she considered buying Depends to avoid missing a magical moment.

One couple flew in from Minnesota for Utah's legendary line party, organized by TheOneRing.net fan site staffer (and Deseret Morning News employee) Larry D. Curtis, who's thrown bashes for each Rings release.

"The spirit of fans is really incredible in Salt Lake City," said Amanda Ebright, who also traveled here last year after hearing about the party online. "Mr. Cere (Curtis' handle) throws a good line party."

Ebright got hooked on J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpieces when she was 11. She even read the books to her husband, Brian Bartholmai, on their honeymoon. (How romantic.) They're going to Hollywood for the post-Academy Awards "One Party" in February, and she collects books, action figures and anything else LOTR.

"It's taken over my life," she said.

"And," her husband added, "she's not entirely crazy."

Nor entirely broke. But how much has she forked out on "Lord of the Rings" paraphernalia and events?

"I don't want to know," she said. "It would depress me."

Likewise, the line party's committee members didn't know how much money or sleep they'd sacrificed preparing and getting The Ritz spiffied up with replicas of the two towers, a Hobbit hole, a swan ship, Galadriel's glade, Shelob and banners.

"We wanted people to have an enjoyable experience. It's been a labor of love. A lot of sleepless nights, but it's been worth it," said fan/volunteer Gloria Jensen. "I hope people don't think we're fanatics. I'm a normal, grounded person. It doesn't seem weird. It's a shared passion."


E-MAIL: jody@desnews.com