The cast of the Grease touring production, now running at the Auditorium Theatre, held their opening-night party at the Kingston Mines. But it wasn’t the same Kingston Mines where Grease debuted in February 1971. That Kingston Mines–an old Lincoln Avenue trolley barn, renovated into a theater with an adjacent bar–was torn down long ago, and replaced with the Children’s Memorial Hospital parking structure. Named after the tiny central Illinois town where actor Jack Wallace’s father grew up, it was one of the seminal theaters in the off-Loop movement.
Under June Pyskacek’s direction, Kingston Mines was known primarily for its avant-garde fare, reflecting the counterculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s. In addition to its own productions–including Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent–it hosted the gender-bending Godzilla Rainbow Troupe in shows like Whores of Babylon and the Free Theater in the rock opera Aesop’s Fables. But Grease, which affectionately spoofed the teen culture of the late 1950s, was determinedly retro. Some even found it reactionary, believing the characters’ black leather jackets and worker boots smacked of a fascist aesthetic. But most responded positively to the show’s cunning blend of irony and nostalgia. It was both a welcome escape from the turbulence of Nixon’s America and a wry critique of conformism. The point of the show, after all, is that the cool rebels who populate the story are every bit as obsessed with peer pressure and living up to the status quo as the squares they despise.
Directed by Guy Barile, choreographed by Ronna Kaye, and designed by Rick Paul, the original Grease featured Doug Stevenson as teen cocksman Danny Zuko (the role eventually played onscreen by John Travolta). Today Stevenson lives in Colorado Springs, where he runs Story Theater International, instructing corporate executives, ministers, and motivational speakers in the storytelling techniques developed here by Paul Sills. Also in the original Chicago cast were Marilu Henner as Marty, Gary Houston as Roger (“the mooning king of Rydell High”), Hedda Lubin as Frenchy, and Polly Pen (now a well known New York theater composer) as cheerleader Patty Simcox.
That production was marked by a scruffy honesty, gritty edginess, and streetwise Chicago quality sadly absent from the current touring edition, whose strident vocals, cluttered staging, and a blaring band obscure the clever lyrics of the original songs–witty tongue-in-cheek tributes to early rock ‘n’ roll–by Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey. (Contrary to reports published elsewhere, the original Grease was genuinely a musical, not merely a play with incidental music.)
Jacobs and Casey met in 1963 while working in community theater. At the time, the Chicago-bred Jacobs was an advertising copywriter. Casey, a New York transplant, worked as a lingerie buyer for a department store. Off-Loop theater gradually transitioned from amateur to professional status, thanks in large part to the Hull House Theater and its ambitious artistic director Bob Sickinger. Jacobs, now 66, appeared in Hull House productions at the now-defunct Jane Addams Center on Broadway near Belmont, and at the Uptown Center Hull House on Beacon. He also snagged a role in Haskell Wexler’s movie Medium Cool, shot amidst the 1968 Democratic convention riots, and later starred in Sickinger’s 1980 indie film Love in a Taxi. Casey’s notable acting credits included the role of foul-mouthed, homophobic womanizer Bernie Litko in the Organic Theater’s 1974 premiere of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, presented at the Uptown Center Hull House. Kindly, cultivated, and gay, he could not have been more different than the character he brilliantly played to hilarious and painful effect.
Jacobs and Casey teamed up for another show, Island of the Lost Coeds, and Casey collaborated with former Reader theater critic Bury St. Edmund on a musical thriller, Mudgett. Casey also cofounded Victory Gardens Theater. He died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 53.
Jacobs, who based Grease on his experiences as a student at Taft High School, lives in California now, but travels the country to help promote Grease-related projects. He was a judge on the 2007 reality-TV competition series Grease: You’re the One That I Want!
Grease drew a whole new audience–including suburbanites–to the Lincoln Avenue storefront theater scene, and made New York tastemakers pay attention to the off-Loop theater movement. After its premiere at Kingston Mines, it was picked up for a much-revised 1972 off-Broadway staging, which transferred to Broadway later the same year and became a huge hit. The Broadway cast included Barry Bostwick as Danny, Adrienne Barbeau as bad-girl Rizzo, Walter Bobbie as Roger, Alan Paul (later of the vocal group Manhattan Transfer) as Teen Angel, and Evanston High School alum Katie Hanley (later seen in the movies Godspell and Xanadu) as Marty. Since then there have been two subsequent Broadway revivals, a touring Grease on Ice extravaganza, and of course innumerable professional, community, and school productions around the world. (The popular musical Nunsense, about a group of stage-struck nuns, takes place on the set of a canceled Catholic-school staging of Grease.)
The 1978 film version of Grease also has Chicago roots. The movie was written and produced by Highland Park’s Allan Carr, who co-created the ’60s TV show Playboy Penthouse here before heading to Hollywood to make his name as an artists’ manager, promotions expert, and party planner. It became the most popular movie musical of all time, capitalizing on the disco craze by adding a new title tune written by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb and sung by Frankie Valli. (That song, along with several others penned for the movie, are included in the current touring production.)
Carr’s follow-up to Grease was the disco musical Can’t Stop the Music, starring the Village People. The film was a flop, as was Carr’s Grease 2, but Carr’s career rebounded when he produced the Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles. Carr, who died in 1999, also endowed a theater bearing his name at north suburban Lake Forest College.
With its references to cooties, Asiatic flu, malt shops, and slang phrases like “ciggie-butts” and “that’s my name, don’t wear it out,” Grease is rooted in the teen culture of half a century ago. But it remains a crowd-pleaser, appealing to young audiences as well as nostalgic baby boomers. (The opening-night audience for the current tour included at least two Christian school groups. I wonder what they thought about the implication that one major character, an unwed pregnant teen, gets an abortion.) “Jim Jacobs likes to say that Grease is like the Energizer Bunny,” says Gary Houston. “It keeps going and going.”