Something happened the summer I turned 10 that would change my life forever: I finally persuaded my parents to get cable. Cable television opened up new worlds for me through its many movie channels. One of those worlds was Rydell High School circa 1958—the era of souped-up cars, boys in black leather jackets, girls in poodle skirts, and rebels of both genders combing copious amounts of grease through their hair. It seemed like the 1978 movie Grease was on cable every day, and I watched it almost that often. The movie was packed with catchy songs like “Summer Nights,” “We Go Together,” “Greased Lightning,” and my favorite at the time, “Beauty School Dropout.” I loved the character that last song was about, Frenchy. I thought she had the best style in the movie—from her accidentally-dyed-pink hair to the lemon chiffon prom dress she wore paired with a blonde wig that caused Doody say that she looked “like a beautiful, blonde…pineapple.”
But I think what really drew me to Frenchy was the way she took Sandy, the new girl, under her wing. I’d moved from a working-class St. Louis neighborhood to a middle-class suburb of Chicago in third grade, and I still felt like the new girl two years later, because the suburban kids were so cliquey and focused on having the right clothes—things that had not been a priority in St. Louis, since many of my classmates had to get their clothes from a donation box at school. I desperately wanted a friend like Frenchy, and even more than that, an entire group of friends like the group Frenchy ran with, my favorite girl gang of all time: the Pink Ladies.
The other Pink Ladies included Jan, who had a killer sweet tooth; boy-crazy Marty; and their leader, Betty Rizzo, who went by her last name and was just as tough if not tougher than any of the T-Birds, their greaser boy-gang counterparts. The Pink Ladies defied the clean-cut good-girl conventions of the ’50s. Instead of long poodle skirts, they wore capri pants with heels, tight sweaters, and their shiny pink jackets, emblazoned with the name of their gang. They dared to pierce their own ears and experimented with drinking and smoking. And when poodle-skirted types like Patty Simcox looked down their noses at them and told Sandy she should join the cheerleading squad, Rizzo glared back, proud to be living life her own way.
The summer between seventh and eighth grade, my junior high and the one on the other side of town joined forces to have a summer performing-arts camp that would put on a production of Grease. I was a shy kid, and though I loved plays, especially musicals, I’d always felt more comfortable being involved behind the scenes. I’d spent seventh grade on stage crew. But here was an opportunity to play—essentially, for an hour or so, to be—my favorite character, Frenchy. How could I pass that up? In my real life, I’d played the Sandy role—the good girl—by default, but aside from still feeling like the new girl and my goody-two-shoes study habits (learning is cool, and though I’ve rebelled against a lot of things, I’ve never seen the point of rebelling against that), I didn’t really relate to her. Frenchy, on the other hand, was a trailblazer, exactly the kind of girl I dreamed of being. She wore what she wanted and was completely comfortable in her own skin—enough so to be friendly to new people, which seemed hard for a lot of girls. Sure, dropping out of high school to go to beauty school wasn’t the best decision in the world, but she took the risk. So I decided I would take a risk, too, and try out to play her.
I landed a bit part with one line, which the directors ultimately ended up staging so I delivered it in the dark. It did give me a little bit of Frenchy-style confidence, though, and I went on to land bigger roles in eighth grade. I also got to be a Pink Lady. I was an extra in the chorus, so I sang all the songs (though a lot of them were censored with lines like “we kissed once under the dock” replacing “we made out under the dock”), and I wore a cheap knockoff of a Pink Ladies jacket.
Unfortunately, most of the other Pink Ladies were evil. They were from the other junior high, but one of them knew a girl from my school that I’d had a falling out with, so she and all of her friends chased me home from camp every day. It was surreal being tormented by girls who were playing characters I’d always imagined as my friends, especially since the girl who played Frenchy was one of the biggest bullies. By the end of that summer, if I’d been asked which character I really wanted to be, I would have changed my answer to Rizzo.
The leader of the movie version of the Pink Ladies, played with a brutal honesty by Stockard Channing, kept her vulnerabilities protected with a hardened, sarcastic exterior, which was something I felt I needed to do. Her solo song, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” was edited out of my junior high production of Grease, since she sings it while worrying that she might be pregnant, but the older I got, the more it struck me as the most genuine part of the movie. After being bullied in grade school and junior high, and spending my sophomore year dealing with rumors that I was a slut and a drug addict, I especially related to the part where Rizzo sings that one of the worst things she could do would be to “hurt someone like me, out of spite or jealousy.” I used to sing it with my best friend, Acacia,* who was also the victim of tawdry rumors. Acacia was a part of the girl gang I finally got the summer after sophomore year. Army coats with slogans like “Revolution Girl Style Now” written on them in black Sharpie were our version of the Pink Ladies’ satin-lined pink jackets, and we were a gang of Rizzos.
It seems like my story about Grease should end here, with my finding my own group of Pink Ladies, but the thing is, I didn’t really understand the core of who Rizzo or Frenchy or any of the characters was until this past summer, more than 20 years after my initial obsession with the movie, when my mom found an article in the Chicago Tribune about the ORIGINAL Grease.
I knew that Grease had been a play before it was a movie, but I had no idea the play had debuted in Chicago in 1971. Even more interesting, it was originally set in a blue-collar neighborhood on the north side of the city, not far from the suburb where I grew up, and was based on the experiences that one of the playwrights, Jim Jacobs, had at Taft High School. According the Tribune article, when the play went to Broadway in 1972, it began to be sanitizied, and by the time it became a movie, songs had been cut, the language had been cleaned up, and the sense of the community that had shaped the play had been completely lost. Though Warren Casey, the play’s co-creator, passed away in 1988, Jim Jacobs decided to restore their work for a short run at the American Theater Company earlier this year in Chicago, billed as The Original Grease. After reading that article, I looked at my mom and said, “You know what I want for my birthday, right?”
The two of us saw The Original Grease in July. I went in expecting some local references, a couple of extra songs, and more swearing. The stage lights came up on a set that was the dirty gray and brown of a real urban street. There were two cars onstage, and both were banged up. Goody-two-shoes Patty Simcox sang about her unrequited love for Danny Zuko while sitting on a toilet, hiking up her poodle skirt to pee. You saw the Burger Palace Boys—that was the T-Birds’ original name—getting harassed by a cop on a street corner. Act One concluded with the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies drinking and smoking in a forest preserve. It was like a ’50s version of real teenage life.
Broadway and Hollywood had done a lot worse than simply tone down the play the way my junior high school did; they’d changed the entire tone of it. Case in point, the playbill read: “For the record, Sandy is not from Australia but the daughter of a factory worker from Joliet.” Joliet is a mostly working-class suburb 45 miles southwest of Chicago best known for its prison. That made Sandy, whose original last name was Dumbroski and who had Polish-American roots like me, a lot less exotic and a lot more real.
In my mind, Grease has always been symbolized by bubblegum pink, shiny red malt-shop stools, and the sun reflecting off the polished hoods of black cars. It was like a Beverly Hills, 90210 set in the ’50s. The characters were more badass, but their lives seemed pretty idyllic, and now that I think about it, I wasn’t really sure what they were rebelling against. Once the characters were placed in a realistic setting, I developed a whole new understanding of them. The Pink Ladies and the T-Birds were working-class kids. No one had high expectations for them. If they were lucky, they’d find factory work like their parents or, like Teen Angel crooned to Frenchy during the “Beauty School Dropout” song, “If you go for your diploma, you could join a steno pool.” With that as the best-case scenario, it’s no wonder that Marty pursued those Marine boyfriends who might be able to actually take her someplace, or that Rizzo did whatever she wanted, because what did she have to look forward to? And it made her pregnancy scare a thousand times more scary and emotional.
I didn’t leave the theater humming my favorite Grease songs that night like I thought I would. Instead my mom and I talked about something that had happened when I was 17. Some friends that I’d met online put together a feminist convention in Philly and I took a road trip out there with some friends from Chicago. The first day there was amazing, but the next afternoon one of my Philly friends made a remark about being a starving artist, and one of my Chicago friends asked, “What do you actually know about that? Have you ever gone to bed hungry because there is literally no food in your house? I have.” My Philly friends were from the suburbs; they had computers and internet access, which was definitely a privilege in 1996 (and for some, still is). My Chicago friends were living the ’90s version of The Original Grease. They worked because they had to, not so they’d have money for new clothes and concert tickets. I felt caught in between. I’d spent part of my childhood in a working-class community until my parents, who were both nurses and had lots of job opportunities, moved us to the suburbs, where I’d gotten so resentful of my new classmates who had more than me that I forget about the privileges I had. I sat there quietly, feeling ashamed, while the argument got so ugly that the convention broke up.
Class issues are hard to talk about, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend they don’t exist. After seeing The Original Grease, I’ve developed some animosity toward my favorite childhood movie, because I realize how it silenced the voice that infused the original play, a voice that rarely gets a chance to speak in popular culture—that of the working-class teenager. ♦
* This name has been changed.