50s Revival

Sha Na Na in 1972
Sha Na Na (seen in 1972) played 1950s music at the Woodstock Festival in 1969
William Morris Agency-management, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1969 was the year of the Woodstock Festival and the year America put a man on the moon. It was also the year a revival of the music and fashions of the 1950s began.

Second time around

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the stars of the 1950s were selling records again, the same records they made in the 1950s. Bill Haley's record sales topped $60 million in 1970 [1]. People were also into Elvis, particularly the song 'It's Now Or Never' released in 1960.

At the Woodstock Festival a new act grabbed the festival goers' attention. It was something they hadn't seen before. In the spot before Jimmy Hendrix's famous finale a little-known band, called Sha Na Na, performed a medley of hits from the previous decade. The highlight was 'At the Hop' first performed in 1957 by Danny & the Juniors.

Grease - the musical

A modern performance of the Grease musical
Grease, the musical performed in Uitmarkt in Amsterdam, 2015
Branko Collin from The Netherlands, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1971 Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote a new play about an American working class subculture known as greasers. The greasers wore leather jackets after Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One' and sported duck-tail haircuts. The play had some accompanying songs. It was called 'Grease'.

'Grease' covered themes seen in many 1950s' films such as 'Rebel Without a Cause'. There was gang rivalry, minor delinquency, a hot rod race and a nice girl meets bad boy love story.

There was also the culture clash between the greasers and the 'straight' kids who preferred the school gym to hot rods, and preppy clothes to denims and leather.

'Grease' was first performed in April 1971 by the Kingston Mines Theatre Company at 2356 North Lincoln Av, Chicago. [3] It was originally written as a Chicago musical with references to places in Chicago. The school was Taft High School, Chicago, attended by Jim Jacobs in the 1950s. The track when Danny and Sandy explain what the did in the summer was originally called "Foster Beach". Foster Beach is in Chicago on Lake Michigan.

The writers adapted the script to a more generic audience when it moved to New York in 1972. Taft became Rydell High and 'Summer Nights' replaced 'Foster Beach'. [4] They added more songs and made it more like a conventional musical, rather than a play with music. It was the first of many changes that transformed a play aimed at adult audiences into a family musical. It opened in New York on February 9, 1972, at the Eden Theater. [2]

'Grease' was set in 1959. In 1971, 1959 was twelve years ago. A lot had changed between those two dates: the Beatles, the Vietnam War, civil rights legislation and the Watts riots. But for the critics it was too early to look back. Clive Barnes of the New York Times was not impressed by the simplistic plot and the 'thin' humor. He did, however, like the energy, the authentic look and the attitude. [2]

'Grease' was a minority taste in 1971; nostalgia for the recent past is. Those who remember it think it was only yesterday. The fans that drive any revival are those for whom it was brand new. For 'Grease' it was 1970s' teenagers and pre-teens.

In spite of the critics' reservations 'Grease' was popular. It moved from the Eden Theater to Broadway in 1972.

By 1976 the show had been performed 2,000 times. This was an impressive run. The then record for a Broadway run was for 'Fiddler on the Roof' which was performed 3,242 times before it closed on 3 July 1972. [5] 'Grease' closed on Broadway in 1980 after 3,388 performances, setting a new record.

The audience were now teenagers and pre-teens who did not remember 1950s and mums and dads that did.

Screens big and small

Henry Winkler, Donny Most and Ron Howard from Happy Days, 1974
Fonzie (Henry Winkler), Ralph Malph (Donny Most) and Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) from Happy Days, 1974
ABC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1972 the 1950s' revival was getting ready to invade the small screen as well as the stage. On 25 February 1972, ABC showed a one-episode show as part of the series 'Love American Style'. The episode was called 'Love and the Television Set'. It was about the Cunningham family who were the first on their block to get a television set. The show starred Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham and Anson Williams as Warren 'Potsie' Weber.

'Love and the Television Set' was set in the early 1950s. (Most American families got a television in the middle years of the 1950s, so buying a TV would have been no big deal.)

Ron Howard's performance led director, George Lucas, to pick him for a starring role in his new movie 'American Graffiti' set in 1962. This film, although not set in the 1950s, did pick a time when most of the fashions and attitudes of the 1950s were still current. There was very little difference between 1959, when 'Grease' was set, and 1962. It was the era before jeans were universal for all teenagers. It was also the pre-student protest and pre-Vietnam War era.

'American Graffiti' was a huge hit. It was the third highest grossing film of 1973. Rock'n'roll 1950s' style was back.

Another minor hit for the 50s' revival on the big screen came in 1975 with 'W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings' set in 1957. The film starred Burt Reynolds as a small-time crook with a flashy car. It earned $8 million, but did not feature in the top-twenty films of that year.

The Cunninghams were back on the TV in 1974 in 'Happy Days'. Both Richie Cunningham and his friend 'Potsie' were in the show. Another character joined the cast in a supporting role. Henry Winkler played Arthur 'Fonzie' Fonzarelli. Fonzie conformed to the leather jacket and jeans look of the T-Birds in 'Grease'. He was a contrast to Richie Cunningham who was more clean-cut.

Queue to see Grease the movie in  Amsterdam, Holland, December 1978
Queue to see Grease the movie in Amsterdam, Holland, December 1978
Hans van Dijk / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of 'Happy Days' took off in the mid-seventies. It was a minority taste in 1974, but was the most-watched TV show of the 1976-77 season. The spin-off, 'Laverne and Shirley', was number one the following year.

Sha Na Na continued to have success. They fronted a popular TV variety show from 1977 to 1981.

1950s' nostalgia reached its peak in 1978 when 'Grease' moved from the stage to the big screen. 'Grease' the movie took the original musical and added new songs, including the title track 'Grease is the Word' by Barry Gibb. Its stars were John Travolta and Olivier Newton-John. The group that started the 50s' revival, Sha Na Na, provided the music for the high school dance competition in the 'Grease' movie.

The world presented by 'Grease' was a packaged fantasy version of the 1950s. Things had come a long way since 1971 when the original 'Grease' musical presented a grimy real-life version of a Chicago youth sub-culture.

By 1980 when the 'Grease' musical closed, the nostalgia boom for the 1950s was waning. 1980s' America had different tastes and priorities.

Why the 1970s and why the 1950s?

Aside from a fascination with the Wild West, popular American TV centered on the here and now in the 1950s and 1960s. It was in the 1970s that nostalgic forays into the recent past started.

'The Waltons', set in the 1930s, started in 1972 and was number two in the Nielsen TV rankings in 1973-4.

'Happy Days' set twenty years later was hot on its heels in 1974.

What was it about the 1970s that made the past look so inviting?

Things were not so great in 1970s' America. There was that humiliating pull-out from Saigon in 1975. There was the Watergate scandal which broke in 1973. Living standards and real wages were stagnating. In the 1950s, the possibilities were limitless. In the 1970s there were limits.

Young 'Grease' fans, too young to remember the 1950s, told New York Times reporter, Joyce Maynard, that 'Everyone was so happy back then' and 'People really knew how to have fun in the good old days'. [6]

The good old days of the 1950s looked better than the 1970s, if re-packaged and re-presented with the Korean War and McCarthyism taken out.

There is also something about the timing. Many who helped Bill Haley stay solvent in the 1970s were fans the first time round. Now they had more money to spend. The 1980s was less prone to nostalgia, but at the end of the decade a new TV series started called 'The Wonder Years'. It was about growing up. Not, in the 1950s, but ten years later, in the 1960s.


[1] 'Year by Year in the Rock Era' by Herb Hendler, published by Greenwood Press in 1983, page 131

[2] 'Theater: Grease 1959 as Nostalgia' by Clive Barnes published in The New York Times, February 15, 1972, page 27

[3] 'Kuumba workshop premiers The Leaders', published in The Chicago Defender, April 8, 1971, page 15

[4] 'Bring back our own, original R-rated 'Grease' by Chris Jones published in The Chicago Tribune, January 8, 2009

[5] 'The Guinness Book of Records 1980' published 1979 by Guinness Superlatives, page 104

[5] 'How to enjoy the golden age of Grease' by Joyce Maynard, published in The New York Times, September 3, 1976, pages C1 and C3

By Steven Braggs, September 2021

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