Chicago's Pink Ladies at a sleepover.
Chicago's Pink Ladies at a sleepover.

In 1971, friends dragged me to see Grease, a musical that was getting its premiere run at Kingston Mines Theatre, on what was then the new Off-Loop theater strip along Lincoln Avenue near Fullerton. The story of a bunch of hoody teens from a school the authors called “Rydell High,” the show featured Chicago-specific references to Foster Beach and Melrose Park. Also a girl gang, the Pink Ladies.

“There were Pink Ladies at Taft High when my sister went there,” I whispered to my friend Sue.

“This is fiction, silly,” she replied. “There are no Pink Ladies.”

She was so wrong.

I was a preschooler in 1957 when my sister Sharon came home from Taft, in Norwood Park, bearing tales about the scary group of girls known as the Pink Ladies. She said they hung out in front of the school and stood tough as they puffed cigarettes, wearing stern-faced wha’-chu-lookin’-at expressions. Their black flats, nylons, and pencil-slim skirts were topped with varsity jackets emblazoned with a champagne glass bubbling over in pink embroidery. Their eyes were smoky with makeup and their billowy hair was haloed in scarves tied taut at the chin, like the strap on a combat helmet.

Jim Jacobs, who wrote Grease with Warren Casey, graduated from Taft the same year my sister did. He based the show on his experiences there, which included bleacher observations of the Pink Ladies. Casey, who died in 1988, drew on memories of teaching high school in New York state.

“The Pink Ladies were the toughest broads I’ve ever seen, before or since,” says Jacobs, now 68. He remembers them stowing razor blades in their teased hair, in case girls from another gang attacked them, and carrying church key can openers, not just to pop a Hamm’s but to use for protection.

The original Grease was appropriately raw. In his rave review for the Chicago Tribune, William Leonard called the characters “a bunch of foul-mouthed, lazy, brawling, useless, cheating, disrespectful no-goods” and warned the show was “for those who don’t mind dirty four-letter words and lots of them.”

But when it left Chicago for Broadway, Jacobs says, he and Casey were pressured to clean up the racy lyrics and write new ones for general audiences. In the car-sex anthem “Greased Lightning,” for example, a lyric that originally read “the chicks will cream” became “the chicks will scream,” and the line “You really are a clown if you think that I’ll go down in greased lightning” got cut altogether. Jacobs and Casey dumped the Chicago references, too. By the time the sun-soaked California film version came along in 1978, Grease was squeaky clean enough for Olivia Newton-John to star.

In a 2009 blog post addressed to “Mr. and Ms. Chicago Producers,” current Tribune critic Chris Jones pleaded for a revival of the nasty old Grease. American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli liked the idea and called Jacobs. They decided to restore some old material from the Kingston Mines days and add new DJ patter. The results can be seen now in an ATC production that began previews April 21 and opens a planned eight-week run on May 2. “It isn’t a museum piece or a gloss production,” says Paparelli. “It’s not the Grease we know. We’re taking what we’ve learned from the iconic Grease of the past 40 years and crafting it to an edgy level to really allow Chicago to see itself in the characters.” Even the good-girl lead character, Sandy, is slated to sing a suggestive number that didn’t make it into the Broadway version. Called “Kiss It,” the song’s got her crooning, “Kiss it right where I’m tender.”

The Pink Ladies got started somewhere between 1953 and 1955, depending on whom you ask, and lasted into the early 60s , with anywhere from a handful to nearly 50 members at any given time. Many of them were the children of inner-city Roman Catholics who’d come to Norwood Park looking for a first home after World War II.

The club’s name resulted from a stunt some friends pulled on Sunday afternoons after church when they were 16 years old. Dressing up in sophisticated hats, heels, and gloves, they hit the downtown clubs, anxious to dance. “Before long,” recalls Zipper, a member who didn’t want her real name used, “we were sitting pretty and sipping pink ladies”—a frothy gin-and-grenadine cocktail that, according to another club member, Rose Marie Doladee Marinelli, was served to them without the alcohol.

“There was no Rizzo or Frenchy,” says Pink Lady Sandra Pavlik Brigante, referring to a pair of Grease creations—the former a hard-shelled bad girl, the latter an airhead who dreams of being a beautician. Brigante paints a picture at odds with Jacobs’s vision of razor-toting JDs. “We liked to play volleyball, plan which parties and dances we wanted to attend, then hung out at Canale’s Pizza on Higgins,” she says. “We kept it official. Paid club dues and raised money for children’s charities.” And they were chartered as a social athletic club. Otherwise, the Pink Ladies might’ve been considered a gang and harassed by the cops. The main thing, says Zipper, was the dancing.

But Marinelli remembers things differently. Grease‘s depiction is “true to us,” she says. “You had to act tough in a public high school dominated by people who never went to a Catholic elementary school, as we had. You needed friends. It was survival.”

To qualify for membership in a parallel all-male club known as the Goombas— one of several with a claim to being the model for Grease‘s Burger Palace Boys—a kid had to win a fistfight with someone from a different neighborhood. The Goombas would drag race and occasionally scuffle with a rival gang from Park Ridge called the Vanguards. Zipper says they also rumbled down by the rocks at Montrose Beach.

“We didn’t use guns, but some guys from Steinmetz High School came around one night, stuck a shotgun out a car window, and fired,” recalls Goomba Leo Golda. “They put a hole in one guy’s car radiator, but that was the extent of it.”

Marinelli and Brigante each claim to have originated the Pink Lady varsity jacket, which came with a detachable hood. Marinelli says she did it as a way to assert herself at a school where she had no boyfriend and felt like an outsider. “We said, ‘We don’t need boys to give us jackets. We’ve got our own.'” Brigante asserts that it was she who had the inspiration and got the jackets made, adding that when she picked them up she was surprised to find that the champagne-glass insignas had been embellished with bright red cherries. “I told the shop owner that Pink Ladies don’t have cherries,” she says— although they generally do—then laughs. “Well, we were all virgins anyhow.”

That’s another point on which people differ.

“There was a good portion of sex going on,” says Golda. “In automobiles, in garages, at the drive-in movies.”

“Our motto was ‘be tough, act tough, be a lover boy,'” notes Goomba Rich Bollman, who dropped out of high school to marry his 15-year-old Pink Lady girlfriend.

“Among the girls,” says Pink Lady Phyllis Stratton, “I think I was the only virgin.”