Tuesday August 09, 2022

Olivia Newton-John (1948-2022)

In the summer of 1978, I went to see “Grease” while on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in a movie theater near the boardwalk. Then I went back to watch it again. And again. And again.

I think I might’ve watched it a half dozen times that week. Because of Olivia Newton-John.

I’d known who she was, of course. When I first began listening to the radio, “Please Mr. Please” was all over it, and probably “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and “Let Me Be There.” I liked those songs. I think my older brother and his friends refered to her as Olivia Neutron-Bomb, which I kind of got. I thought she was pretty but I was also told—I think?—that she was a lesbian. Wasn’t that a rumor-mill thing back then or am I misremembering? That she was on “The Tonight Show” and after she left Johnny Carson said “What a waste” or something? And she sued? 

Either way, watching “Grease,” I developed a mad crush on her. And with each viewing, my crush deepened. 

Here’s something that doesn’t happen every time you develop on a crush on a celebrity, particular if you live in the Midwest, as I did: that same summer I got to see her in person.

Olivia, Minn., about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, was celebrating its centennial, and on a lark they sent a cheeky invite to Olivia Newton-John, thanking her for helping make their town famous, and hey, would she like to be grand marshal of the parade that year? Shockingly, she said yes. The female lead of the biggest movie of the year, with No. 1 hits up the wazoo, said, sure, I’ll come to your town, pop. 3,200, and no, you don’t have to pay me. In fact, I’ll pay my own way there. I’d just like some fresh corn, that’s all.

And who did the state’s biggest newspaper send to cover this story? My father, of course.

“Do you want to go?” he asked me.

Do I … want to ... go??????

I was wholly ill-suited for the whole thing, of course, a mumbling-into-his-sleeve 15-year-old, resentful of everything close to me, desiring everything far away, and with that deep, burdensome crush.

While Dad worked on his story, I wandered around the town, seeing what I could see, and hoping to see her. I even had a plan. At one point in “Grease,” her character, Sandy, is dating a jock, Tom, played by Lorenzo Lamas, mostly to make John Travolta’s Danny Zuko jealous. At the diner, talking to Danny, she waves to Tom, a kind of waggling of fingers. It’s almost like peek-a-boo—I see you—and I thought it was very cute. Once she winds up back with Danny, Danny mockingly gives Tom that same finger-waggling wave.

Anyway, my plan was to do that, to wave at her the way she'd waved in the movie.

I didn’t see her in town, only in parade, where she sat astride a horse. Which is when I put my plan into action. As she was smiling and waving to the crowd, and when her eyes were passing over me, I gave her that wave—that Sandy wave from “Grease.” And she smiled and gave me that same wave back. 

Now what? I felt like I should do something but couldn’t imagine what it would be. I mean, I was 15 and wholly ill-suited for the whole thing. Do I just walk up to her? In the middle of the parade? And say what exactly? Who does that? Nobody does that.

Well, my father did that. He was doing his job, of course, which made it easier—I’ve since discovered that for myself—and he needed a quote for the story. So in the middle of the parade he walked up to her, astride her horse, and asked what brought her here. She told him, “The letter was such a kick, how could I pass it up? This is the only place I've ever heard of with the same name as me.” The Star-Tribune also had a photograher there, Darlene Pfister, and she captured the moment and later gave Dad the photo. That glossy, 8x11 or whatever it was, sat on Dad’s dresser for years, semi-mocking me. Be bold. Fortune favors the bold.

It is a great story. With “Grease” sweeping the country (it was the No. 1 movie of 1978, 28th all time, adjusted), how cool that she would do this, and for nothing, just for the fresh corn and bread. But it sounds like she needed it, like it was almost a breather for her amid the chaos.

The big final moment in “Grease” is almost a “Gift of the Maji” moment—Danny turns letterman-jock to appeal to Sandy, Sandy turns leather-clad wearing hottie to appeal to Danny—but the former, along with the letterman’s sweater, quickly gets shed, and it’s all about what a hottie Sandy is. And that’s kind of the direction ONJ’s own career wound up going. She shed the virginal, country-esque image, singing lovelorn ballads by the jukebox, and went sleek, short-haired and disco-y, with songs that increasingly got to the sexual point: “Totally Hot,” “(Let’s Get) Physical,” “Make a Move on Me.” And she just got bigger. “Physical” was No. 1 for 10 weeks and Billboard magazine considers it the biggest-selling single of the 1980s.

At the end of “Grease,” there’s a magic realism moment where Danny’s car, with he and Sandy in it, suddenly takes to the air, and Olivia’s subsequent movies kind of continued that magic-realism ride, to ill effect. In “Xanadu” she plays a literal muse, the daughter of Zeus, who hooks up with a struggling LA artist; in “Two of a Kind,” reunited with Travolta, she’s part of a couple who must find love and morality to stop God from flooding the earth again. On IMDb, the ratings go from 7.2, to 5.2, to 4.6, and just like that, she was back to earth. She starred in just the three movies and I only saw the one. But the one was huge.

Celebrity crushes are odd things but this one went deep. I’m nearly 60 now and it never really went away.

Posted at 10:41 AM on Tuesday August 09, 2022 in category Music  
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