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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For Coeur d’Alene’s Ellen Travolta, ‘Grease’ still is the word 40 years later

Thanks to her brother, John, Coeur d’Alene’s Ellen Travolta (left) had a small part in “Grease,” sharing a scene with 1930s-40s film star Joan Blondell. The film turns 40 in 2018. (Paramount Pictures)

It’s been four decades since Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta lit up the big screen as Sandy and Danny in the iconic movie musical “Grease.” To mark its 40th anniversary, Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies are bringing the film back to theaters for two nights next week.

No discussion of “Grease” in our region is complete without mentioning Coeur d’Alene actress Ellen Travolta. Not only is she John Travolta’s big sister, but she has a small part, with a couple lines, playing a diner waitress in “Grease.”

The film, based on the 1971 stage musical, centers on good-girl Sandy and bad-boy Danny who meet at the beach during the summer. When Sandy transfers to Danny’s high school at the start of their senior year, there’s friction as Danny worries that Sandy might be bad for his tough-guy reputation. The movie also starred Jeff Conaway, Stockard Channing and Didi Conn, and a host of Hollywood veterans, including Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and 1930s movie icon Joan Blondell.

New Jersey-born Travolta got her start in theater before moving to Los Angeles and landing roles in television. She’d already appeared on episodes of “All in the Family,” “What’s Happening,” and “Police Story” before she appeared in “Grease.” She would go on to star in the short-lived series “Makin’ It,” inspired by “Saturday Night Fever,” and appear in John Carptenter’s iconic TV movie “Elvis,” starring Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley. She also had recurring or regular roles in shows such as “Happy Days,” “Joanie Loves Chachi,” and “Charles in Charge.”

Travolta moved to Coeur d’Alene with her husband, the late “Lou Grant” star Jack Bannon, in 1995. In a phone interview last month, Travolta talked about her time on the set of “Grease” and why it still resonates with audiences.

Q: Does it seem like it’s been 40 years?

A: Oh my god, no! Part of it seems like yesterday. The other part, to realize this show would be the hit it was, is so phenomenal. … 40 years. I can’t believe that much time has passed.

Q: I know John had a history with the show from the national tour before he made the movie …

A: He also did Broadway. … Johnny was on Broadway with “Grease.” He played Doody, and Doody is a character who was never in the movie. On the road, he played Doody and then he played Kenickie, I believe.

Q: Had you ever acted in the play before filming?

A: No. I have a great side story about it though. When I went to see “Grease” on the road, this young girl came toward me. I said, “What are you doing here?” She had been my dresser when I did “Carnival.” She produced “Grease.” She (Maxine Fox) was one of the producers. … And Johnny said he remembered when he was auditioning, a voice came out of audience and said, “Are you related to Ellen?” And it was her.

Q: How did you end up in the movie?

A: I was on the lot at Paramount, I was guesting on a sitcom or something, and I came by the set. And (John) said, “Do you want to be in the movie? Can my sister be in the movie?” Literally. … So the next day they wrote me in a part. That’s how loose it was, and never knowing the success it would become. I get residuals every 13 weeks for 40 years. And I only worked two days, maybe one day, with Joan Blondell and that group, and I had a lot of fun.

Q: I wanted to ask about Joan Blondell. It seems with her and Sid Cesar and that cast, “Grease” really seemed to bridge classic Hollywood with what was then contemporary Hollywood. Was it cool to be a younger actress and get to work with a legend like Joan Blondell?

A: And Eve Arden! I just worked with Joan, because of the scene in the diner. I was on set and I met other people. I thought it was great that they brought in Sid Caesar. And you know who else was in it who was a big Broadway star, she played the secretary, a big comedienne? Alice Ghostley. … It was a lot of fun.

Q: What is your favorite memory?

A: Aside from “Can my sister be in the movie?” I think just seeing it. And my kids were crazy for it. It was before DVD’s or anything. Every Saturday I’d drop them off at the movies and I remember them all going to get popcorn during “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” That was the popcorn break.

Q: What is it about “Grease” that endures?

A: That movie made such an incredible impact and still does. What’s funny is that … a mother will come up to me with a little girl, maybe 4 years old, and say, “Do you who this is?” The girl just looks at me. “This is the waitress in ‘Grease.’ ” I was 37. That was 41 years ago that we did that. I said, “Maybe she doesn’t recognize me.” Oh my gosh. It’s very funny. … I think was such a simple reflection of that time. It’s really a love story with great music, and everyone is funny. I don’t care for the play. I think the movie is way better than the play.