It was 1962 and his sister Ellen, 14 years his senior, was already a working actress.
For Christmas that year, she bought her already plane-crazed youngest sibling a round-trip airline ticket from Newark to Philadelphia. It was his first flight – they flew to Philly for lunch, then returned that evening in time for Ellen Travolta to go on stage in a production of “Gypsy.”
In a recent telephone interview from Vancouver, B.C., where he was on location filming a movie, the Oscar-nominated star said it was the best gift he’d ever received.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he told The Spokesman-Review. “It was that gift that triggered my passion for flying at a stellar level, and now it’s my second career, all because of Ellen’s generous gift.”
He still remembers the details. The flight to Philadelphia was on a propeller plane and took 25 minutes. The trip home, on a jet, took all of 15 minutes. His sister drank tea, because she was performing that night. He had a Coca-Cola.
“What a day. I never forgot it. I’ll never stop thinking that was the best possible gift she could have given me,” Travolta said. “It gave me wanderlust, it gave an interest in global travel, and mostly a passion to become a pilot.”
Travolta is almost as well known as a pilot as he is as an actor. He’s been a licensed pilot since he was 19, paying for his lessons with money earned doing summer stock and as a Broadway actor. He owns several planes, including a Boeing 707, and he’s the “goodwill ambassador” for the Australian airline Qantas.
And if all goes to plan, he’ll be flying one of those planes to Coeur d’Alene in the coming weeks to see two of his sisters tell this and other family Christmas stories in “I Remember Christmas,” the annual holiday show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Coeur d’Alene resident Ellen Travolta is producing the show and performing, along with sister Margaret Travolta, who also calls Coeur d’Alene home. The cast also features Jack Bannon (Ellen Travolta’s husband), popular Spokane actor Patrick Treadway, and Seattle actress Katherine Strohmaier. Troy Nickerson is directing. The show is billed as an evening of songs and stories.
“I promised the girls that I would see it,” Travolta said. “I wouldn’t miss it. I don’t think I’ve missed any of the shows there. And this one is so personal, and it will be fun. I don’t know what night I’ll be there, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.”
Growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, as the youngest of six siblings – in addition to Ellen and Margaret, there’s another sister, Ann, and brothers Joe and Sam – John Travolta remembers Christmases filled with music, good food, decorations and family fun.
“It was very standard fare, but it was filled with life and filled with Christmas spirit,” he said.
And they’re traditions he and his wife, Kelly Preston, are recreating for their children, Ella Bleu, 14, and Benjamin, who will turn 4 on Sunday. (Their son Jett died at age 16 in 2009.)
“The Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day dinner are almost identical to the ones I grew up with,” he said. “The only difference is we open some presents on Christmas Eve, and the rest on Christmas Day because the magnitude and the volume of them has grown” – he laughs – “so we need to do that.”
It’s a far cry from when he was a kid, when his Christmas budget was $1.
“I had to buy for seven people, and I had a dollar,” he said with a chuckle. “I was limited to discount stores and school fairs to buy my gifts.
“I remember when I bought my brother a salt shaker for Christmas because it was all I could afford. It was a clown salt shaker and I thought maybe he would miss the idea there was a little hole in the top and he would think it was some sort of fun thing to put on the shelf,” he added. “Of course I was completely wrong. He said, ‘What is this?’ ”
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