As the years went by, Barbara’s became well known in Chicago and beyond. That led us down many interesting and, often, peculiar roads. One day in February 1971 I got a call from someone at Kingston Mines. Kingston was one of the small playhouses that had sprung up on the near north side of Chicago sometime in 1968. The 300 seat theater was housed in a converted trolley barn at 2356 North Lincoln.
The front of the theater had a small cafe and I was asked if we could set up a display of books that the cafe could sell. I went to the theater late the same afternoon, sat down with a couple of Kingston people, and hashed out the details. When we were done, I was asked if I would like to stay and watch a preview that they were staging that night for the families and friends of cast members. I walked into the theater and sat four or five rows up on the bench seating along with the families.
It was maybe the first ever full dress performance of Grease. Amongst the then unknown cast was Marilu Henner who played the role of Marty. It was not your John Travolta and Olivia Newton-Johnmusical. It was a bawdy raucous gathering of high school greasers in a Chicago forest preserve. Arguing and pursuing each other in Chicago Polish or Italian argot, the characters were based on the writer’s acquaintances from Taft High School in the 1950s. The original was barely a musical – it was the distant rumbling of the sexual revolution.
At the end of the first act, Danny fights with his girlfriend Sandy (yes- John and Olivia), jumps off stage right and into an old 1951 Chrysler named “Greased Lightning.” The motor turns over, the theater goes black, the car jumps into gear, and smashes loudly into the back brick wall.
Lights go up, the entire audience, panicked family members, rushed toward the car, where Danny emerged shaken but otherwise unhurt.
So began one of the most successful theater runs of all time. Grease moved on to New York and, until A Chorus Line, it was the longest-running play in Broadway’s history. It morphed from its raw portrayal of high school angst in late 1950s Chicago to a candy-coated Broadway and Hollywood musical.
I have often googled for confirmation of the car crash, with no success. For a long time, the only confirmation I had was my own memory.
In 1996, twenty-five years after the Grease premier, I got a call from Michael Cullen. He was the creator of the Mercury Theater on Southport and proprietor of Cullen’s Bar & Grill. In a replay of the Kingston call, he asked that we create a mini bookstore in the Mercury Theater. Jan and I went and met with him at his bar. Probably because it was the only theater story I had, I told him about my visit to Grease. I also told him that I had repeated the story so many times that I was no longer sure it was true.
Michael Cullen paused for a moment, looked at Jan and me across the booth, and said: “I was there and that’s exactly what happened.” My credibility with Jan, and myself, was resurrected. I had always thought it was an act of kindness for her and others to believe me.
I could use further reassurance from any of you who were there or heard about the unscripted car crash. Write and let me know.