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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/7/2018 (267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
We go together, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.
On May 16, 24 hours after the première of his new movie Gotti at the Cannes Film Festival, John Travolta joined 1,000 people on the beach in southern France for a special, 40th anniversary screening of Grease, the 1978 blockbuster he starred in as Danny Zuko alongside Olivia Newton-John (Sandy Olsson), Stockard Channing (Betty Rizzo) and a 1948 Ford Deluxe (Greased Lightnin’).
That night, Travolta helped introduce the flick, recently re-released on 4K Ultra HD video, Blu-Ray and DVD, while rocking a form-fitting, black T-shirt, reminiscent of what his character wore as a member of Rydell High greaser gang the T-Birds. (Not to be outdone, in April Newton-John auctioned off the famous, skin-tight leather ensemble she donned during the movie’s rollicking end-sequence, with all proceeds going to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Centre.)
Travolta’s appearance in Cannes wasn’t the only occasion the Golden Globe Award-winner has taken a trip down Grease memory lane of late. On July 15, he joined the Foo Fighters onstage in New York to lend his pipes — and hips — to their live cover version of You’re the One That I Want, one of several No. 1 hits from the bazillion-selling Grease soundtrack.
Closer to home, jazz singer and self-described "Grease super-fan" Jennifer Hanson laughs when asked if she wishes she had been in the audience for the Foo Fighters show, watching Travolta bust out a few of his decades-old, "electrifying" dance moves.
"I guess it depends who sang Olivia Newton-John’s part," she deadpans.
When it comes to Grease, which has grossed close to $400 million worldwide since its release 40 years ago, the Flin Flon-born chanteuse, who also fronts ’80s-rock outfit Jenerator, knows of what she speaks: the married mother of two viewed the movie precisely 62 times the summer after it hit theatres.
"In 1979, Flin Flon got a free movie channel for what was supposed to be a couple of days. Except somebody forgot to pull the plug and we had it the entire month of July," says Hanson, who was 10 at the time. "Grease came on twice a day, at nine in the morning and again at nine at night, and I watched it every single time. So yeah, there aren’t too many lines from it I didn’t memorize."
She’s not alone: Randy Apostle is the general manager of Celebrations Dinner Theatre and the brains behind Greased and Greased 2, a pair of Grease mock-ups that drew sold-out crowds to the Pembina Highway spot. He has fond memories of cruising down Main Street in his hometown of Moose Jaw in the summer of ’78, singing along to the Grease soundtrack — on eight-track, no less — in his Plymouth sedan.
"I recall being mildly irritated by the fact Travolta was able to hit all these high notes in songs like Sandy," Apostle, who has penned or directed close to 100 productions for the Celebrations dinner theatre-chain, says with a chuckle. "As an aspiring singer, I was like, ‘how is that even possible?’"
Earlier this month, we invited Hanson, Apostle and Red River College journalism instructor Joanne Kelly, another fan for whom Grease was the word, to toast the film’s 40th anniversary over snacks and sangria. Here’s a bit of what they had to say.
Free Press: I was 16 when Grease was released, and even though that seems like a lifetime ago, I can state for a fact I saw it at the Capitol Theatre on Donald Street. How about you; can you pinpoint where you saw Grease the first time?
Jennifer Hanson: I was nine-and-a-half, and my dad took me to see it at the Big Island Drive-In in Flin Flon, which I’m proud to say is still there to this day. Except we were 20 minutes late and I missed the part where Danny and Sandy meet, so it was kind of confusing why he was ignoring her and why she was mad at him. I made my dad take me and my best girlfriend again the next night and after watching it from the start, it all made sense.
Randy Apostle: I saw it at the Capitol Theatre in Moose Jaw – I guess every city had a Capitol Theatre back then – and I’m pretty sure I went with my girlfriend at the time. But because of the cars and stuff, it wasn’t the kind of movie you couldn’t go to with your guy buddies as well, which I’m pretty sure I did once or twice.
Joanne Kelly: We were living in Stittsville, just outside Ottawa, but my parents wouldn’t let me go see it with my sister because I was too young. But she had the record and told me everything that happened in the movie, scene by scene, so by the time I finally watched it on VHS I felt like I’d seen it 50 times already. Plus I collected all the trading cards. There was a tiny convenience store down the street from where I lived and my brother and I would go there to buy cards, hoping to get a Danny or Sandy.
Free Press: I’m sure you’ll agree; even if you weren’t a fan of the movie, it was almost impossible to avoid songs such as Summer Nights, You’re the One That I Want and the title track by Frankie Valli, which were all over the radio. Is there one tune from Grease you enjoy most?
JH: Probably Hopelessly Devoted to You. Even though I was only nine, I already knew I wanted to be a singer. Hearing Olivia Newton-John belt that out, it only solidified that idea in my head.
JK: It would probably be a tie between Rizzo’s lament (There Are Worse Things I Could Do) and Beauty School Drop-out. But it changes almost every time I watch the movie.
RA: I’d say Greased Lightnin’ even though, like I say, none of us could hit Travolta’s parts, and had to sing it an octave down.
Free Press: What about the cast; do you have a favourite character? I always find it amusing how, back in the day, none of us wondered why a bunch of actors in their 20s — heck, Olivia Newton-John turned 30 in 1978 — were portraying high school students.
JK: I know. It’s funny how you watch it now and think how old everybody looks. As for characters, you’re probably going to get a lot of women saying this, but Rizzo is my favourite. Where Danny and Sandy spend most of the movie morphing into who they think the other person wants them to be, Rizzo isn’t swayed by other people’s opinions of her. Yes, she’s hurt when they perceive her as loose or whatever, but she doesn’t change who she is in order to please anybody.
JH: I was raised a pretty strict Catholic, and even though I was enamoured by Sandy’s sexy leather outfit at the end of the movie, I remember thinking, ‘Why is she pretending to be the so-called bad girl just to get the boy?’ So yeah, as I got older, Rizzo was the character I liked best, too.
RA: For sure it’s Danny. I was already a big Travolta fan because of Saturday Night Fever and (TV sitcom) Welcome Back, Kotter so yeah, I was all set up and ready for Grease to come out.
Free Press: Finally, in the #metoo era, are there any scenes in Grease that make you cringe when you watch it these days? Let’s face it; I don’t think anybody sitting in a theatre in 2018 would laugh when pervy TV-host Vince Fontaine tries to pick up underage Marty, or when he is accused by another girl at the dance of trying to slip an "aspirin" into her Coke.
JK: I think just the rapeyness of the whole movie is what is so striking when I watch it now. I probably saw it 10 times before I picked up on that girl’s offhand comment about Vince Fontaine putting a roofie in her drink; just her naivete about not kn owing what that was, and how she says it so casually while she’s re-applying lipstick in the mirror.
JH: The lyric that gets me is the one from Summer Nights, when the other T-Birds ask Danny, "Did she put up a fight?" We didn’t know that was bad in Grade 4 but every time I hear it now, I’m like eww... But I do think a lot of it was false bravado, because here were these clearly suburban kids pretending to be gang members, trying to look tough.
RA: The thing is, as movie-goers, we knew a lot of it was just yammering. We knew when Danny was alone with Sandy he was just this shy, scared teenager who could barely get a word out. And that’s probably why the movie worked so well with guys and girls my age, because so much of it was that classic, teenage love story.
Tell me more, tell me more:
Hanson, Kelly and Apostle aren’t the only Winnipeggers with a soft spot for Grease which, 40 years after its release, still garners an 87 per cent audience approval rating on rottentomatoes.com. Here’s what others told us when we asked if they, too, are hopelessly devoted to the romantic musical comedy.
Rick Loewen (former co-host of Two Sports Guys, full-time foster dad and "glorified gardener and pool boy")
I was farming with my two older brothers near Steinbach in the summer of ‘78, which meant long hours on the tractor listening to KY 58, specifically Lorraine Mansbridge. The station was giving away free passes to the première of Grease to phone-callers but since we were on the tractor, we didn’t have a chance to get those tickets. One day my brother phoned Lorraine and complained because we were busy in the field, we couldn’t call. She bought his story — or felt sorry for us — so we got six tickets. A bunch of us loaded up a rusty, four-door Fairlane 500 and went to the première at the Polo Park Theatre. When Olivia Newton-John came out in her leather jacket at the end of the movie I just about died. After all, on one of her albums, she was singing "I honestly love you" to me, right? I have the Grease soundtrack on my phone and still play it often.
John Scoles (owner, Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club)
I was 12 and shamelessly loved it. I probably asked for the record for my birthday. However, I will say that although John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were the stars, my friends and I were all about Jeff Conaway and Stockard Channing. We kind of knew what cool was supposed to be even if we didn’t quite have the guts yet to really be cool ourselves. I probably saw it at the Lido Theatre in The Pas, on summer holidays. We were living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the time and came back to spend the summer at our cottage at Clearwater Lake.
Kaylee Maslowsky (marketing and communications professional)
I have to say Grease is still one of my favourite movies of all times, despite how politically incorrect and inappropriate the film actually is. I grew up listening to my dad (Jerry Maslowsky) and aunt (Debbie Maslowsky) sing show tunes at the Hollow Mug (in the International Inn, now the Victoria Inn), so needless to say, I was familiar with the music from Grease at a young age.
In 2002, when I was in Grade 10, I played Frenchy in Garden City Collegiate’s production of Grease. Now that I look back, I can’t believe some of the song lyrics and sexual innuendos weren’t edited. At the time, I remember thinking that Danny and Sandy’s relationship was one of the greatest love stories. Though, when you listen to the song lyrics in Summer Nights, lines like, "Did you get very far?" and "Did she put up a fight?" make it seem as though Sandy might not have been a willing participant in the summer romance. Or at the drive-in scene... how Danny forces himself on Sandy multiple times. Sounds a bit like sexual assault.
We were all young and naive teenagers, thrilled to be involved in one the most popular musicals of all time. Being in Grease was one of the best times I had in high school. My aunt Debbie choreographed the production and two of my best friends — still to this day — played Sandy and Rizzo. Being a member of the esteemed Pink Ladies and singing the songs I grew up listening to was a dream come true. Hopelessly Devoted to You is still one of my go-to karaoke numbers.
Adam Glynn (station manager, CJNU 93.7 FM)
I know for sure the first time I saw Grease was watching it on TV as a small child. My mom was a fan and she thought I would enjoy it. It took a few watches but I eventually capitulated. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for John and Olivia that first time around.
The music of Grease is iconic, and if I were picking just one song to play, I would go for Hopelessly Devoted to You, as it’s a gorgeous piece of music that shows off the fact Olivia Newton-John could really sing. If I had to pick a second, I’d go for the film’s title track because Frankie Valli was fabulous.
I grew up in the west of London, where it was definitely being shown on one of the four (four!) over-the-air terrestrial TV channels available during my childhood. It was definitely a big thing in the U.K.; I have no doubt Olivia Newton-John’s (leather) outfit was implanted firmly in the minds of many young men and women.
Alison Gillmor (Winnipeg Free Press columnist)
I wasn’t a super-fan, but I could probably sing a few of the hits on karaoke night. I remember going to an MTC production when I was in high school. Looking back, the sexual politics are, um, pretty weird.
"Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?"
I mean, what the hell do you do with that?
Jeff Bishop (owner, Sound Exchange, 557 Portage Ave.)
To maintain my elaborately contrived, hoity-toity elitist public image I would like to stipulate I’m not a fan of the film and its resoundingly successful soundtrack. But let’s face it: that movie was pretty fun to watch. Its dialogue and music have seeped deeply into the lexicon of modern culture everywhere. Basically, it’s still relevant today when other artifacts from 40 years ago are completely forgotten.
We still regularly and consistently get requests from people ages 10 to 75 asking for copies on vinyl, CD... even eight-track cassettes. I can sell copies on all formats. Only Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise exist at the same level of interest, at least here in Winnipeg.
Grease’s impact on our vernacular is obvious to me. How many times have I spotted a young woman with several layers of too many cosmetics and immediately broken out with multiple verses of Beauty School Drop-Out? Similarly, no sweet hot-rod has ever escaped an impromptu serenade of "This car is automatic, systematic, hydromatic... why this car is greased lightnin’!"
The only downside of this film is that anyone cursed with the name Sandy has had to endure people impersonating John Travolta’s broken-heart ballad (Sandy) stuttering "why-yi-yi-yi" seemingly in vain. Play this song for yourself and share their pain.
Erick Casselman (owner, Park Theatre, 698 Osborne St.)
Grease is a movie I really enjoyed growing up. I saw it when I was eight at the Snow Lake community centre and later, my friends and I would ride our bikes around pretending to be Danny and the gang.
At the Park, we’re always looking for cult-type films so when we came across the Grease Singalong last summer, we were all over it. We sold out three nights. Crowds were primarily 40-year-old women and their kids. Everybody belted the tunes out at the top of their lungs and it was tons of fun.
That said, Grease is definitely a film that hasn’t weathered well, particularly with everything that’s going on with the #metoo movement. Afterwards, talking to a few friends who brought their young daughters, they were like, "Oh, that’s a conversation I have to have now," in reference to some of the scenes and song lyrics. But as young movie-goers, we were naive to a lot of the issues.
Walle Larsson (Winnipeg jazz musician who was a member of the pit band during a 2007 production of Grease at Pantages Playhouse Theatre)
I enjoyed playing the show at Pantages back in 2007. It was a memorable time for me as I invited a date to the show, Jo-Ann Kellow, whom I married six months later. It was fun to play on the rock-flavoured tunes from the ‘50s, especially ones like Greased Lightnin’.
My wife wasn’t a huge fan of Grease but was won over at the live performance by the likes of Rob James and others in the show. I had seen the movie on DVD and felt it a privilege to be a part of the pit band.
Matthew Fletcher (Winnipeg-born actor-singer who recently starred in a Toronto production of the stage musical)
I think people hold a tremendous amount of sentimentality towards the film; my parents talk about their date at the drive-in 40 years ago with love. The cast of the (Toronto) show got a lot of positive comments from audience members of all ages: some who lived during the era the show takes place and others who had crushes on characters from the movie. We even had little kids in the audience dressed as Pink Ladies or T-Birds, creating a bond with their parents.
The Toronto production, which just closed at the Winter Garden Theatre on Yonge Street, was successful enough that producers have told us they are planning a cross-country tour sometime this year. In the show I played Doody, one of the T-Birds. My homework was completed before going in; I did the show at least twice with JMTC (Junior Musical Theatre Company) and once at Balmoral Hall with all my buds from Grant Park (High School). Many of the songs were ingrained in my head... I just had to review the scenes.
Paula Potosky (actor-singer)
Grease is full of toe-tappers, no doubt, but the actual story makes me cringe a bit, to tell you the truth. I loved it when I was younger. My sister was in the play at Golden Gate Junior High back in ‘92 or so, and I fell in love with the songs and the fact that all of the main characters were teenagers. But as a mom of two daughters, yeesh... girls, stay out of anything a guy calls a "pussy wagon" and don’t take advice from a bunch of mean girls on how to get your man... by changing your entire look/personality to get his attention.
But try to not sing along to We Go Together. Just try. It’s impossible.
Carson Nattrass (artistic director, Rainbow Stage)
I played Roger in the (2007) Rainbow Stage production and sang Mooning, a role and song written out of the movie. I wasn’t the oldest of the actors playing teens in that production, but I was the only one losing my hair. I recall feeling very self-conscious about that and that I should not have been in that production. We did enjoy full houses for the whole run at Rainbow. My wife (playwright, director and actor) Sharon Bajer, was the super-fan (and) still knows every word to every song. If you want to talk to a fan, talk to her.
CC Trubiak (independent artist whose original composition Raven recently made the Top 5 in CBC’s Searchlight contest; also self-described as Canada’s No. 1 Olivia Newton-John fan)
Although my Olivia Newton-John fan club membership card has expired, I’m still a fervent fan and have all of my O N-J memorabilia safely intact.
I was born in 1979, right in the height of the Grease phenomenon. My father had numerous Olivia records, including Grease. According to various family members, I was singing Hopelessly Devoted to You, still my favourite song from the film, before I was even out of diapers.
My entire life I have collected anything-Olivia: vinyl records, magazines, books, Grease dolls…. My prized possession is a signed vinyl record cover of If You Love Me, Let Me Know, which I received when I met Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas two years ago during her Summer Nights residency at the Flamingo Hotel. I sat in the front row and watched her entire performance in awe. Of course, all the hits from Grease and her career were showcased and it was a love-fest for the sold-out house. I was able to meet her afterwards and take a photograph with her.
What inspires me most about this incredible person is her grace and gratitude, her environmental work, her efforts around cancer research and treatment, plus her unshakable strength and talent.
Dane Bjornson (first-year music student at Edmonton’s MacEwan University)
I played the role of Danny Zuko in Glenlawn Collegiate’s 2016 production of Grease. Originally, our producer and supervising teacher Greg Crowe intended to gender-flip the roles to expose how ridiculous some of the old-fashioned ideas were. I was really looking forward to taking this more traditional plot and making it progressive. However, due to contract complications and the company we bought the rights from, we weren’t able to do so. Once we came to that realization, we had to find something else about the musical to drive us to tell the story.
Having lived in the role of Danny Zuko, I experienced delivering the sexism that comes on the surface of the plot in this musical. Sandy changes everything about herself to get Danny to accept her, which didn’t make it my favourite role to play. We came to the conclusion that the story we wanted to tell was the story of rock and roll, of breaking barriers and embracing individuality; the idea that we don’t have to be exactly like our parents and that we can adopt our own traditions and characteristics. This was extremely relevant in the 1950s and truly shaped a generation for the better. It made for a more positive message to highlight and deliver in our production of Grease.
Tony Bracchio, Jr. (co-owner and DJ, Crystal Sound, 1112 Notre Dame Ave.)
The Grease Megamix is a song that has conquered the times. From hard copy to digital streams, the (4-minute, 46-second) tune has stuck with a generation of people who bring it along to party after party. Even in 2018, few socials escape the clutches of a Grease Megamix request. It is a song that always seems to get people up and moving, and allows the younger and older generations to join up on the floor for a great sing-along and cheeseball dance moves. It’s a great song to transition into the dancing and party portions of the night. We’ve often had people steal the mike and belt out a solo or two.
Ray Giguere (owner, Argy’s Records and Entertainment Shop, 1604 St. Mary’s Rd.)
I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan, but I did see it at the Pembina Drive-In with my sister and her boyfriend when it came out back in the day, so I do have a nostalgic attachment to it. I also have three daughters and wife who love it, so I can tolerate it. I mean, Olivia Newton-John in leather and spiked heels didn’t hurt, either.
I could sell the soundtrack all day long just like (Fleetwood Mac’s) Rumours and (Pink Floyd’s) Dark Side of the Moon, though it is definitely skewed to a female demographic in the buying category. I have seen the movie, the DVD and various live productions, so not bad for somebody’s who’s not a fan. It’s hard not to see, don’t you think?
Debbie Maslowsky (actor-singer)
Grease was like nothing I had ever seen. To that point, to me, movie musicals seemed more like Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof.
I saw it at the end of Grade 10, and am pretty sure I saw it at the drive-in. My favourite songs were Hopelessly Devoted to You and Greased Lightnin’ and one of my career highlights was when I actually played Sandy in a condensed version of Grease at the Hollow Mug. A second highlight was getting to sing Hopelessly Devoted... on a TV show I did with my brother Jerry. Not to him, I should point out. I also choreographed Grease at two high schools and got to work with Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie in the movie, in Guys and Dolls at Rainbow Stage about 25 years ago (eek!).
Like others, I am quite horrified by the song lyrics and am pretty sure I was uncomfortable with them 40 years ago, as well. My parents did something right, as I knew some of those lyrics were just plain wrong. Having said that, I still loved the movie.
Ken Taylor (owner, Video 1001)
Grease is still popular; people come in and ask for it all the time. For a long time, I had it on DVD and VHS but the DVD copy doesn’t seem to be around anymore. Usually the more popular movies, they disappear or whatever. I saw Grease downtown when I was a kid; I remember being excited because I was a big Travolta fan, except I couldn’t get into Saturday Night Fever the year before, because it was R-rated or something.
I’ve been renting movies here since ‘82 or ‘83 and have always had a copy on the shelf even though I’m sure everybody’s seen it. It’s a movie like Star Wars or Slapshot — a classic, really, one you can watch over and over again. I saw Grease 2, too, but I can’t say I remember anything about it.
(Editor’s note: Grease 2, which was released in 1982 and starred Michelle Pfeiffer, was written by ex-Winnipegger Ken Finkleman, a Gemini Award winner for his work on CBC’s The Newsroom. Finkleman, 71, also wrote and directed Airplane II: The Sequel, which starred Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty and William Shatner.)
Carolyn Minor (Special Services head librarian, Millennium Library)
Winnipeg Public Library stocks a popular collection of CDs, movies and musical scores related to Grease, including the original soundtrack and movie in DVD and Blu-ray formats, Grease Live!, the 2016 one-night musical television adaptation, and the 2007 Broadway cast recording on CD.
We have a brand-new copy of Grease is Still the Word: Vocal Selections (a 103-page score for voice and piano) and the sound recording of Glee: The Music presents Glease. Various versions of Grease, including Karaoke Grease and Lullaby Grease, are also available through the library’s Hoopla streaming service.
I have fond memories of singing a medley of Grease songs in high school, and am convinced Grease is best enjoyed by singing along.
Robb Paterson (actor, former Royal MTC associate artistic director)
I first saw Grease in a theatre on the west island of Montreal in 1978, about a year after I saw John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It’s funny; even though I was slightly caught up in ‘50s nostalgia, having seen Sha Na Na in the Woodstock documentary, (TV sitcom) Happy Days and the movie American Graffiti, Grease smashed me in the face in Technicolor. I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John and wanted to be John Travolta.
There was a small bar in the village (where) I lived in Quebec called the Bar Disco where Heather, my now wife, and I would go and dance to Summer Nights and Greased Lightnin’. I had the (soundtrack) album. I think I even saw Grease 2, but I’m not sure.
Flash-forward 22 years and I found myself directing the lawyers at Royal MTC in a production (of Grease). The fun of that show for the audience was seeing the legal community, many of whom were in their 50s and 60s, wearing greasy hairpieces, leather jackets, poodle-skirts and smoking herbal cigarettes. We had a gas revisiting the world of the final year of high school. And, of course, dancing the hand jive is always fun.
Over the past 45 years I’ve seen a couple of high school productions, revisited the movie several times and saw the winter Rainbow (Stage) production about 15 years ago. I enjoyed them all but nothing matches that moment when Danny (Travolta), first day back at high school, flicks his cigarette and grins sensually at his old friends. He looks like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Bowzer (from Sha Na Na) all rolled into one: greasy and cool.
My favourite number? That’s easy: Summer Nights. Bouncy choreography, doo-wop rhythm, black-comb-through-greasy-hair, the "Wella wella wella, huh" bits and that naughty, nasal high note at the end, before the big slowed-down, company finish: " tell me more, tell me more, tell me morrrrrrre."
Basically it was simple fun... a little naughty and a little sexy. Grease may not have been Hamlet but it made me want to dance and sing along. Full disclosure: I also fell slightly in love with Rizzo.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.