February 14, 2016

Teenage Scribbles: Grease is the Word

Grease is the Word, drawn Fall 1978.
Colored pencil and felt tip pens on 3-hole punch paper.
It required 4 separate chunks, with several days between, for me to get through ABC's Grease Live! 

Technically, the production was awe-inspiring and progressive - the strings, pulleys, smoke and mirrors to pull that off was monumentally impressive.

Artistically, it was akin to watching a high school karaoke production of Grease, the movie. And some of the performances were equal to the amateur role playing we did in our basements and living rooms throughout the Summer and Fall of 1978 - and we were far more passionate about it.

John Travolta as Danny Zuko, drawn Fall 1978.
Felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.
Emotionally, Grease Live! was overwhelming because of the personal nostalgia it conjured. This is why I had to take long breaks between viewings. Living in the past is time consuming, especially when hitting pause to go digging in the crates to bring sacred Grease relics out into the moonshine of today. 

The relics are these drawings, done in frantic, zealous bursts from the Fall of 1978 to the Fall of 1979. They were originally pages in a Grease and Olivia Newton-John scrapbook, with Grease trading cards glued to the backside of each page. 

Olivia Newton-John as Sandy (goody-two shoes and tramp), drawn Fall 1978.
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

Before Grease

In 1976 I became a card-carrying member of the Olivia Newton-John Fan Club, previously shared here. As an ardent follower, I knew she was filming a movie version of the stage musical Grease.  (If you're a hardcore fan, this oral history of making the movie from Vanity Fair is a must-read.)

John Travolta-wise, my love of Welcome Back, Kotter took me to the movie theater 4 times in very early 1978 to see Saturday Night Fever. Back then, it was not a big deal for a 12-year old to attend an R-rated film. A round of applause goes to my mother, Barb, for also sitting through this movie 4 times, and buying me the soundtrack, and enduring the endless replays of such on my little Sears record player. 

As the Spring 1978 ramp-up publicity to Grease gained fever pitch, it was a given I was seeing this movie, and I passed this enthusiasm to my 6th grade best friend, Beth Barclay. Beth and I shared a love of all things Hollywood and Casey Kasem Top 40, so getting her to see Grease during our summer vacation was an easy sell.

Montage of John Travolta as Danny Zuko, drawn Fall 1978.
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

Grease, June 1978

My mother, Beth and I saw Grease in a nearly-full theater on opening weekend. At the conclusion of the production number for "Summer Nights" we were deeply enchanted. As the end credits rolled, Beth and I gushed about seeing this movie again - can we stay for the next screening?!

That summer, we saw it a total of 7 times. My mother - a life-long hardcore movie musical obsessive - saw it 3 times. The other 4 times, she chauffeured us to and from the theater.

Repetition is a valuable tool, and by July we had the movie memorized. In that summer between grade school and junior high - where puberty happened but had yet to corrupt us - we spent our days creating decadent scenarios within our Barbie village and recreating Grease.

We'd slap on the vinyl Grease soundtrack, and practice our favorite numbers, or get really ambitious and stage it from beginning to end, complete with dialogue and choreography. Furniture was moved to recreate stage sets, and Beth's little sister, Amy, was recruited so the ensemble numbers had more spirit. Little sis also cut down on how much work I had to do.

Still have the Grease books bought from Summer 1978 to Fall 1979.
Without fail, Beth (a brunette) was always Sandy. I (a blonde) was always Danny Zuko. And Kenickie. And Rizzo (though sometimes Beth would give that a spin, and she did an impressive Frankie Avalon). And Marty. And Frenchy and and and... If I were to have gone onto a career in musical theater, this multi-tasking schizophrenia would have been the first 1,000 hours toward the magical 10,000 hours of mastery.

Yes, I often lobbied to know what it was like to "do" Sandy, and I got winded from all the running around and singing required of being so many characters. But there was scant complaining from me, because the joy of our passionate recreations was equaled only by our pursuit of perfection. 

The Pink Ladies, drawn February 28, 1979.
Felt tip markers and colored pencil on 3-hole punch paper.
We spent our spare time apart tweaking and deepening the performances so that our next production was flawless until it was time to dissect the technical aspects of the next big number. Another trip to the movie theater was required to review details. 

As was my only-child M.O., I took it to laser-beam precision depths of full immersion. I bought the Grease Fotonovel to serve as a script for nailing dialogue (and dorkishly noted some of the inaccuracies). I bought the novelization of Grease to get a deeper understanding of the characters. I scrapbooked with the devotion of a Tibetan monk.

This was serious business. Our deadline for a full-scale, full-length living room production was right before starting junior high in September 1978. 

Stockard Channing as Rizzo, drawn Fall 1978
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

1978 was a blissful Summer. I reveled in the energy of combining forces with another devotee, spending every moment in pursuit of a candy-colored Hollywood dream. When not discussing every minor detail of the movie, Beth and I talked in Grease dialogue. It was amazing how there was a quote to go with most any situation. And it was a dream come true for me to have a comrade in arms, a friend who thought and felt just like I did.  We created our own little world, and thought it was the best place ever.

For most of the summer, I was preoccupied doing things with a friend, meaning I didn’t spend as much time alone, didn’t spend the summer trying to cadge smokes or getting into trouble or eating like a starved pig. I did normal family things with Beth’s family (her Mom teaching us the steps to the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” was a highlight), and, for once, felt like I belonged, felt like I was a normal kid. It was all because of Grease, and it was all magical.

Grease was a shared mission, a place, a motion... and finally, that previously off-putting contemporary opening song made sense! Truly and absolutely, Grease was the way were feeling.

Except for this one moment...

Didi Conn as Frenchy, drawn Fall 1978.
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

Beth, Amy and I were riding in a car with their Mom when Exile's "Kiss You All Over" came over the radio. Mrs. Barclay told us she loved it because it’s what she wanted to do to the man she was in love with. That man was not their father.

Beth and Amy were aware something was wrong, since their dad had not been living at home for some time. They were also abstractly aware that their mom had a beau, but it wasn’t that concrete of a concept until their mom made this comment. Us 3 kids were numbed by the mother's exclamation, until Beth jumped into the dead silence to try and make light of the situation by asking her mom questions about this new man. The soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Barclay was more than happy to talk about him, chatting away like a schoolgirl, failing to notice the odd looks on our faces as we struggled to make sense of it all.

"There are worse things I could do than go with a boy or two..."

Jamie Donnelly as Jan, drawn Fall 1978.
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

After Grease

I couldn’t have been more jazzed about starting junior high. My school picture bears this out, depicting a bright-faced girl giving her best Farrah smile, braces glowing from the flash bulb. It’s the look of a kid fortified by the perfection of a world created by the best of friends ready for new adventures.

The first day of school was a grand adventure. I now took a bus to Kirby Junior High, sharing a seat with Beth, pouring over our schedules. We no longer sat in one classroom all day, but flitted about from room to room, and the possibilities of all the new kids we’d meet was delicious. For the first half of the day, I delighted in the rush, the discovery, and felt so adult, so like the Pink Ladies.

Come the lunch bell, I race to the cafeteria, swarming with hundreds of kids, and I don’t even bother with food, for I’m looking for Beth. I spot her at a table, and I push my way through the crowd, and triumphantly plop down across from her and say: “This feels just like Grease! I feel like Rizzo on the first day of their last year of school!”

The T-Birds, drawn February 28, 1979.
Felt tip pens and colored pencils on 3-hole punch paper.

Beth smiles and looks up over my shoulder. I turn to see a short, puffy-faced blonde-haired boy with a lunch tray, giving me a dirty look. Beth says, “This is Johnny.”
Johnny says to me, “You took my seat.”

I stand up and Johnny slides into the vacated seat. I’m left standing there confused, staring at Beth with a thousand questions running across my face. She gives me a sheepish smile and says, “I’m having lunch with Johnny. He asked me during 3rd period.” Johnny smiles at Beth like a weasel on the make, she gives him moon eyes back, then looks back up at me and shrugs.

All the commotion around me fell silent, as my mind literally reeled. I could feel my heart beating fast, and the bottom dropping out of my soul as my pink (lady) bubble burst. I couldn’t speak, and what was there to say?

I spun around and high-tailed it out of the cafeteria, blindly pushing through the masses of kids, and out into the relative quiet of the hallway. I stood against a bank of lockers, breathing heavily as I realized I had just been tossed aside for Johnny and made a fool of, and was now all alone in this junior high adventure.

At the end of this first day, I got on the bus, expecting to at least be able to sit with Beth for the ride home, but guess who is sitting with Beth? I take a seat as far away from Beth and Johnny as possible, and stare blankly off into the distance for the entire ride.

"But to cry in front of you, that's the worst thing I could do."

My beloved Jeff Conaway as Kenickie, drawn Fall 1978
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

Within a couple of weeks of starting junior high, Beth's mom married her boyfriend immediately after the divorce was final, and she and the girls moved to the stepfather's messy ranch house in St. Charles, MO. Beth and I saw each other about once a month, still collecting Grease cards and posters, singing the songs and reciting lines, but the long commute from Black Jack to St. Charles was annoying our mothers, so we switched to long phone calls.

Keenly aware that my magical friendship and summer was now "forever autumn," I doubled-down on my creative solitude, retreating to the safe haven of Hollywood fantasy land. This was the time period I did the bulk of these Grease drawings. The TV series Taxi debuted, ramping up my Kenickie/Jeff Conaway obsession (which lasted until he died). I even wrote my own screenplay of the movie, which was more about testing my memory than any screenwriting aspirations. On yellow-orange paper Mom nabbed from work, I started with describing the ocean-side opening scenes of the movie, and typed clean through to the red car flaying off into a blue sky.

In November, Olivia Newton-John released the album Totally Hot, doubling-down on her Bad Sandy image, creating the best album of her career, and kick-starting my obsession with raccoon eye liner and leather.

Kelly Ward as Putzie, drawn Fall 1978. My apologies to Sonny and Doody for excluding them.
Crayola crayon and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.

Come 1979, I discovered Blondie and New Wave. Beth discovered burnouts and drugs. We were both in the quicksand of teenage girl torture, but found different ways of dealing with it. I got on board with REO Speedwagon because she developed a liking for them, but other than that, Grease was the only common bond that remained strong. Then, even that wasn't enough, and our friendship dissipated like mist in a strong morning sun.

In August 1979, I drew this final Grease image, ending where I'd begun, but this time it was black and white rather than full color. 

Coming full circle and the end of the run, drawn August 20, 1979.
Pencil and felt tip pen on 3-hole punch paper.
PRINCIPAL McGEE: Before the merriment of commencement commences, I hope that your years with us here at Rydell have prepared you for the challenges you face... you will always have the glowing memories of Rydell High. Rydell forever! Bon voyage!

May 05, 2013

Everyone's Alive: Suspended in Cultural Time

This is too bizarre to take for granted: there are regular, daily news items about Rihanna (25) and Betty White (91). One is a quarter of a century old; the other is zooming towards a century.  Both work full time on popular projects, with the elderly Betty having an upper hand because she does so (presumably) sober.  

The news of Valerie Harper’s (73) terminal brain cancer is an emotional gut punch. That she’s accepting of her early demise is inspiring. What’s shocking is she’s poised to be only the second member of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast to leave us.
Freaky Fact: as of May 5, 2013, IMDB shows that of the Top10 billed on the 1970 cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, only Ted Knight has left us, in 1986. He was a year younger than Betty White.

Even Freakier Fact: go back to 1961 for the top 10 billed of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and only 3 of them have died. This means that Carl Reiner (91) and Rose Marie (89) are still with us, along with, of course, Dick Van Dyke (87) and Mary Tyler Moore herself (76), who may well be the Good Luck Degrees of Separation that keeps so many essential people alive and creative for so long. 

I Want To Live Forever

The obvious answers as to why we have such a wide span of generations alive at one time would be modern medicine and better education about how to live a healthier life. For instance, so many of the people name checked so far were once smokers. Health education got them off cigarettes, while modern medicine practices (both scientific and natural) may have repaired any damage from the habit.

That we now have the chance to live longer has certainly created new problems. The medical and insurance industries are feeling the strain of longevity. Government programs like Social Security and Medicare are not financially equipped to handle mass longevity. And even though our internal organs can now make it to 90 and beyond, can our knees? But does that even matter anymore?

The internet has created a toy box of instant cultural knowledge with no age limits or era boundaries. We also live in a magical moment of little historical constraint. It is a cultural gift to be alive right now because so many of the people that have contributed to the arts are still here to share their stories and their talents. 

A 13-year old can discover the musical magic of Tony Bennett (86) and not only benefit from 50+ years of his ongoing catalog, but also study his philosophies on music, art and love via book and documentary (The Zen of Bennett). He has dedicated his life to contributing quality to our culture and has no plans to stop until he’s dead. At this moment, he is both staging a 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and protesting against assault weapons (both items covered here).

Living to an old age is now possible, but to do so with a quality of health that lets our elders keep fighting (like To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s copyright battle) for the contributions they’ve made to our culture is unprecedented.  We live in a time when historical figures can still share their gifts and influence our progress. They are, inadvertently, an inspiration for younger generations to be motivated to actually do something with every decade of our lives.

You May Be Too Young To Rock

A common piece of advice musicians share about improving one’s craft is to find out who inspired your favorite artists and listen to them. Then listen to who inspired those people. We’ve no excuse for ignorance because all of these educational touchstones are just a Google search and a stream away. If you’re lucky or motivated, you can also still see or chat with some of the musical titans who have inspired musicians for over 60 years.

It’s absurd to have it be no big deal that most of The Rolling Stones are alive or half of The Beatles are when so many of the people who motivated their long careers are still not only alive, but active.  The list includes:
Chuck Berry, 86 (above)
Fats Domino, 85
Little Richard, 80
Jerry Lee Lewis, 77
Don Everly, 76, and his brother Phil, 74
Wanda Jackson, 75
Dion DiMucci, 73

Even though Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley left far too soon, you can still talk with the guys who helped make their seminal recordings, like Elvis’ Sun Sessions guitarist Scotty Moore, 82 and drummer D.J. Fontana, 83; or Holly’s Crickets’ bassist Joe Mauldin, Jr., 72, and drummer Jerry Allison, 73.

We have the privilege of living in a time where we can see all of these people, either performing or at conventions where they gladly sit and answer intricate audience questions about what kind of microphones were used to get that drum sound.

It seems the biggest misconception about rock & roll is that it’s for the young. Turns out that just like the other original American art forms of jazz and country & western, rock is about endurance rather than speed. Not only do we get to learn from their contributions as we navigate new music technology, they help us master it. It’s an analog-to-digital baton pass that benefits us all.

Living Forever in the Reel World

My bathroom is a shrine to Old Hollywood, first erected in 1999. Today, only one wall (above) has Golden Era stars that are still alive. Two days after I first noted this fact, Elizabeth Taylor passed away. I hope I’m not jinxing it for Zsa Zsa Gabor (96), Doris Day (89) – who are retired by illness or choice, respectively - and Sophia Loren (78) who still works when motivated.

The 4th survivor on my wall is Debbie Reynolds who is only 81 years old. It seems she should be far older, but she got a young start. She is our still-vibrant link to Old Hollywood and is willing to share with her latest book, Unsinkable (nicely reviewed here by our 90 year-old gossip maven Liz Smith who still churns out a vital daily column). 

Shirley MacLaine is a year younger than Miss Reynolds. She (along with 81 year-old Angie Dickinson) is our surviving link to the Ring-A-Ding-Ding Rat Pack who still works in at least one movie a year, every year. 

My fascination with artists still alive started with an April 7, 2008 piece from Roger Friedman, AfterHeston: Who’s Left, wherein he lists roughly 85 names of those from Old Hollywood still alive, with Doris Day being his youngest entrant when she was 84.  I immediately turned it into a document to keep track of when those listed finally passed on and at what age.  A scootch over 5 years since it was published, 39 of them remain. The more recognizable names (not already mentioned) include Eli Wallach (97), Olivia deHavilland (96), her sister Joan Fontaine (95) and Kirk Douglas (96).

Those that remain from this list includes the aforementioned Carl Reiner, who has been busy doing publicity rounds with Mel Brooks (86). Hear for yourself with the 2013 interviews on separate WTF podcasts and a Judd Apatow sit-down that their comedic minds remain sharp and fast. We learn from them that age deteriorates the body, but not necessarily the mind. Maybe mental fitness is as controllable as physical fitness – do we get to make some choices that influence the outcome?

Meaningful Longevity

We live in a time when dying at 70 feels like being taken too soon and living to 100 can be a realistic expectation.  But pumping up the stats on actuarial lifetables is just cold math without quality of life. We can take good care of our hearts and bodies, but what about our souls?

That answer may be on a recent Live With Norm MacDonald, where Larry King (79) talks about never losing his curiosity. This need to know more has taken him from radio to being a cable news pioneer to staking his current claim in internet broadcasting. While other major entertainment and news industries are still fumbling with how to survive and thrive in a technological world, Larry embraces whatever is needed to keep sharing meaningful information.

Elders are keenly aware of the technological divide, and they have a choice in which side to be on. The majority of those listed above have chose to keep contributing (when physically able) because it has become so much easier to make their past and present part of the on-going conversation. It now takes less physical effort to remain connected to the global mind source hungering for information, inspiration and motivation.

The gift of meaningful longevity is now available to anyone.  Age is no longer a handicap, even for those with physical handicaps.  It’s not even The Eternally Young (aka Baby Boomers) who have made this so – they, too, are benefitting from the same elders they once railed against.

Modern health knowledge gives us some choice in our rate of physical decay. The cyber world has freed us from many physical limitations. We are in the early stages of the revolution of living forever, even after we’re gone. It is a welcoming frontier because so many elders remain to show us the options for aging and thriving with grace. It is an honor and a gift to be suspended in cultural time with you all.