“You’re going to be really surprised by the one I pick,” John Travolta said when I asked him which of his films he’d store in a time capsule. It was 1996, and I was writing about the star of Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. He would have good cause to choose any of those. But no. “I’m going for the one that would give the most therapeutic value to the future, and that would be Grease,” Travolta said. “It’s amazing the joy level that it gives new kids, old kids, for generations, you know?”
One generation’s joy may be another generation’s torment, but the kitschy 1950s high school musical that stars Travolta as lovable Danny Greaser alongside Olivia Newton-John as good girl Sandy and stockard channing like the spicy rizzo, is still contagiously popular 40 years after its release. debut. More than 12 million viewers caught Fox Grease: Live in 2016, and a ticket to the annual Hollywood Grease Bowl concert can set the desperate devotee $600.
At age 17, I saw the movie five times during the week it was released, so when I stop by venice high school in west los angeles, it’s hard not to get goosebumps. Venice High’s palm-fringed Art Deco façade from circa 1935 is familiar to decades of moviegoers. Nightmare on Elm Street and American History X were filmed here, among others, as well as “… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears. but fat was the word that made the school famous.
The film began shooting on the Venice campus in the summer of 1977. The first shot of the school captures the anxious excitement of the children on their first day, getting out of their cars and crossing the lawn. They pass a white plaster statue: actress Myrna Loy, who, when she was modeling for her art teacher in 1921, was 16-year-old Myrna Williams. “We planted these rosebushes around her to prevent rival kids from coming to paint her in the school colors,” says Grant Francis, president of the alumni association, as he shows me the slender figure, now cast in bronze. “That was a tradition.”
francis was teaching carpentry and technical theater in high school at the time of filming. in fact, he and his students installed the rydell high school sign that covered the venice high school sign above the front doors. he hung it in his classroom until he retired in 2001, when he auctioned it off to start a scholarship program. “It sold for a lot of money,” says Francis, now a 76-year-old with a shaved head, a white goatee, and smiling blue eyes.
The lunch bell rings. doors open and chattering students fill the expanse of front lawn, carrying skateboards, backpacks, band instruments, all with smartphones in their free hands. The cheerleaders with pink bows wear blue tinsel pom-poms and their miniskirts are much shorter than the “cheer squad” uniform Newton-John’s Sand wore at the Rydell rally.
francis leads the way between the columns of the corridor that channing circled while singing rizzo’s ballad “there are worse things i could do”. On the other side is the soccer track and field where Travolta and the T-Birds sang and strutted in the stands for the movie’s great duet, “Midsummer Nights.” “Travolta ends the song at the top in a pose like this,” Francis says, cocking his hip and pointing his arm in the air. “So many kids walk into that place and take a photo like that. we receive people from all over the world.”
newton-john sang his part of “summer nights” with the pink ladies amidst a cluster of lunch tables, which were replaced shortly after filming. the entire seating area will soon be the victim of a modernization project. Construction trucks fill the area, along with the sound of hammers and drills throwing dust into the air. “it’s good that you’re here now,” says deputy director frank nunez. “Within a year there will be nothing left of the film’s locations.”
in the canon of high school musical movies (west side story, bye bye birdie, fame, hairspray), the cheese that is fat stands alone. The highest-grossing film of 1978, it surpassed Superman and the House of Animals for national satire, despite moderate to scathing reviews — a “klutzburger,” critic Pauline Kael said.
The public bought it in large part because of the wonder at the center of it all. “Honestly, I think he was John and the dance, because it’s still amazing to watch,” says Dinah Manoff, who played Marty Maraschino. Travolta, 23 in the film, was already major romance material thanks to the “Welcome Back Kotter” TV series, the film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and, of course, Saturday Night Fever. which premiered the previous December. That first time she turns around in school, with that cigarette hanging out of her mouth? all the girls all over the world and some little boys went too”—she gasps. “It was awesome.”
didi conn, who played beauty school dropout frenchy, says “fat is about firsts: first love, first car, first heartache. it has a very special energy .and don’t forget this was also a time before music videos. Grease was a long music video.”
What is the reason for the popularity of the film today? call it nostalgia nostalgia, a very American longing for a simpler time, as remembered during a complicated time that seems, to our modern vantage point, pretty straightforward after all. “It’s the best look at a peaceful moment when the most important thing was who you were going to ask to prom and what kind of car you were going to drive,” says randal kleiser, the film’s director. “That’s how we’d like the ’50s to be. Now the movie appeals to a lot of people because it’s from a time before mass shootings, stabbings; before social networks.”
Unfortunately, one of the great symbols of better days gone by is long gone: Burbank’s Pickwick Drive-In, where Danny and Sandy are sitting in his convertible when he makes a play for second base. now it is a shopping center. as for the only-in-l.a. “thunder road” drag race location: the sixth street viaduct? Demolished had been featured in more than 80 movies, TV shows, music videos, and commercials each year, but when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti threw a wrap party for the landmark in 2015, the film he chose to screen at the viaduct wall was fat.
Rydell High’s televised dance competition was filmed during a five-day heat wave in Huntington Park High School’s non-air-conditioned gym. “It was very, very hot and there was a slaughterhouse nearby, a slaughterhouse, and the sweat and the smell mixed together,” recalls Newton-John with a smile. Forty years later, the Farmer John Pork Processing Plant, adorned with a mural of happy pigs, is still there.
The backdrop to the outdoor carnival scene also remains: John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, where Rebel Without a Cause was filmed. (Newton-John still has the form-fitting black ensemble that made Sandy a good girl gone bad in a big way. She’s auctioning it off to benefit the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Center.) but venice high always will be. be the real fake rydell, and the school celebrates the distinction every september with a grease party on the football field.
“last year more than 800 people came”, says francis. a movie screen sits on the 30-yard line, a ’50s band plays at center field, and students in poodle skirts and leather jackets jitterbug, swing, and hand jive. at dusk, the band stops, the movie begins, and hundreds of grease lovers sing and dance their hearts out. the fat blitz car even makes an appearance. Owned by the Petersen Automobile Museum, it arrives in a large truck. “It doesn’t work,” Francis says, “but it still looks good.”