16 June, 1978
It was pure old school Hollywood – or was that High School Hollywood? On that day, the crowds poured downtown as a leather-clad, D.A.’d John Travolta edged a somewhat bewildered Olivia Newton-John through the melee and into the welcoming foyer of Mann's Chinese Theatre to attend the movie premiere of fifties-nostalgic musical romance Grease.
Outside, Mayor Thomas Bradley proclaimed that it was 'Grease Day' and a steady flow of celebs battled their way in, while film crew shot footage for a TV production documenting the event and the launch party held on the Paramount studio’s set. The latter scenario featured a danceathon that involved cast members plus Alice Cooper, Debby Boone, Yvonne Elliman, Jodie Foster, Chevy Chase, The O'Jays, Frankie Valli, Robert Stigwood, Andy Gibb, Barry Manilow, Susan George, Lynda Carter and other cheer-leaders.
It was a long way from Grease’s low-key origins as a stage musical. Penned by adman Jim Jacobs and art teacher Warren Casey, it opened at the Kingston Mines Theatre in Chicago in February 1971. Following a stint off-Broadway and a fistful of Tony Award nominations, the show moved to the Broadhurst in midtown Manhattan in June, 1972.
Allan Carr, the show's producer, had sold music entrepreneur Robert Stigwood a half-interest in the film rights to Grease. Feeling a blockbuster coming on, the twosome toyed with Ann-Margret or Marie Osmond as female lead Sandy Olsson, while Henry Winkler (AKA The Fonz from TV’s Happy Days) was in the frame to play Danny Zuko.
Instead Travolta, who portrayed the cocksure Vinnie in the T.V sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, and who had been an understudy in the stage version of Grease, was hauled in to become Danny, while Australian pop star Olivia Newton-John, whose only previous film had been the laughable Toomorrow, a sci-fi angled attempt to launch a new supergroup from 1970, was signed as Sandy.
The two months of production began in summer 1977, with LA’s Venice High School and Huntingdon Park High School standing in for Grease’s Rydell High. “I was playing a naive girl,” mused Newton-John to People magazine. “I kept trying to give her a little strength. John gave me a lot of confidence. We became good friends and spent a lot of time together.”
Travolta had recently played dance-king Tony Manero in Stigwood’s disco-drama Saturday Night Fever. That film’s December ’77 release won him a degree of fame that made the release of Grease a lip-smacking proposition for America's baby boomers. Accordingly, when the Grease soundtrack album was released prior to the film's opening, its first single You're The One That I Want entered the U.S. charts on June 10 and eventually sold three million copies. Another of its big hits was the title song, written by Barry Gibb without having seen the show or read the script. A disco groover sung by Frankie Valli, it existed outside of Grease’s purported world of fifties rock’n’roll – the OST also featured Sha Na Na’s versions of burnished oldies such as Hound Dog, Tears On My Pillow and Blue Moon - but at least it fitted with Gibb’s work on Saturday Night Fever six months earlier.
The film's six-million-dollar production costs seemed well spent – so far. But another three million was required for promotional purposes. “We have to be more than packagers. You wouldn't find people in Detroit making a car and not selling it,” averred Alan Carr. Then there was an additional two and a half million-dollar tie-in with Pepsi that resulted in a promotional 15-minute short featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd which went out as a support item when Grease went on general release at over 900 cinemas across the States.
“The best of James Dean, the best of Brando, the best of Elvis…”
The film itself was a high school hop of a movie that oozed nostalgia and energy, allied with great charm and humour. With its references to Rebel Without A Cause and From Here To Eternity allied to the wacky appeal of an AIP beach bonanza, it was Busby Berkley with a popsicle. It couldn't miss - and didn't. “The two writers of Grease were obsessed with their teenage-hood in the fifties,” mused Travolta at a 40th anniversary screening of the film in Los Angeles. “They did a microcosm of every great aspect of the fifties – the best of James Dean, the best of Brando, the best of Elvis…”
At the box office, it notched $395 million, checking out as the twentieth century’s most successful film musical. Though 1982’s Michelle Pfeiffer-starring sequel flopped, and two further films to take the story into the sixties were never made, on April 10 it was announced that a prequel entitled Summer Loving was in production. What’s the word? Grease is the word.