The first bell rings at John Marshall High School on the day before graduation. As expected on the last day of school, students pay no mind to the electronic ‘ding’ that sounds from the loudspeakers. Instead, many continue to play basketball and others converse around lunch tables as they excitedly anticipate the approaching summer break.
About fifty yards away from the central campus is the Marshall football field, today completely devoid of staff or students. On this overcast June morning in Los Feliz, the field seems somewhat forgotten. It’s hard to imagine that 40 years ago this field was the filming location for one of the most colorful and spectacular endings in motion picture history, which, coincidentally, took place on the last day of school.
Grease was released on June 16, 1978 and audiences immediately fell in love with the film’s 1950’s vibe, T-Bird bad boy Danny Zuko, played by John Travolta who was hot off of Saturday Night Fever (1977), and wholesome Aussie transplant Sandy Olsson, played by pop-country singer Olivia Newton-John. A slew of catchy musical numbers that are still performed at karaoke bars and played at weddings all over the world made up one of 1978’s best selling albums, which came in number two behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album.
The rock ‘n’ roll musical made back its $6 million budget and more on its opening weekend and went on to become the highest grossing film of 1978, beating out Superman and Animal House. It eventually became the highest grossing live-action movie musical of all time, knocking 1965’s The Sound of Music off the mantle. It held that title for 20 years until it was eclipsed by the ABBA pop musical, Mamma Mia (2008). (Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast claimed the title in 2017.)
Grease follows a tradition of movie musicals that, beginning in the mid-to-late ‘50s, tended to move away from the artifice of sound stages and studio backlots and onto real locations. Newly developed widescreen technologies of the ‘50s like CinemaScope and Todd-AO, which were created to draw people away from their boxy television sets and back into movie theaters, were ripe for photographing expansive locations. The film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955) took its main characters, Curly and Laurey, to the sweeping plains of southern Arizona for filming. A year later, the composers’ Carousel was filmed partly on location in coastal Maine. In 1958, the filmmakers of Best Picture winner Gigi were so grateful for the use of its Parisian locations that they dedicated a title card in the opening credits that thanked each of the places.
In 1961, West Side Story used practical locations in a way that turned the movie musical on its head—again. In the film’s prologue that sees the Jets and the Sharks face off for the first time, director Robert Wise photographed his performers singing and dancing against textured and visually striking New York City locations that filled the entire frame. These juxtapositions within the widescreen format resulted in dynamic pieces of graphic design and a verisimilitude the likes of which had not been seen in a musical before.
“West Side Story was one of the films we looked at. Robert Wise gave us his print to look at,” Grease director Randal Kleiser said in a recent phone interview. “If you look at Guys and Dolls, that was all done on stages and it had a different feeling from West Side Story, which, a lot of it, was done on location. The grittiness and the reality, I think, helped West Side Story and in Guys and Dolls, [the stage] made it more of a fantasy.”
It’s clear from a number of sequences in Grease that the mise-en-scène of West Side Story was highly influential on the film. Perhaps most notably, Kleiser uses the concrete architecture and electrical transmission towers along the L.A. River to help inform his shots during the movie’s famous drag race, Thunder Road.
The impact of Wise’s film can be seen in a number of other location-based movie musicals that came after. During the final years of the Vietnam War, unorthodox directors deviated from the genre’s escapist tendencies. Films like Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Cabaret (1972), Godspell (1973), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and Tommy (1975) injected new life into the movie musical.
Though Kleiser shot a few Grease scenes on Paramount’s backlot and sound stages—some out of necessity and some as a nod to the fantasy of the classic musicals a la Guys and Dolls—it was filmed primarily on location around Los Angeles. The original play, however, was set in Chicago where its co-writer, Jim Jacobs, grew up.
“The urban feel of the original play was very gritty,” says Kleiser. “There was a lot more raunchy stuff in it and we toned that down to make a movie musical that was very colorful and had a wider appeal. The Southern California locations just opened it up and made it a little more mainstream.”
“It gives it a little different flavor from the stage play,” says Alan B. Curtiss, whose first feature film job was as location manager on Grease; he’s worked as a first assistant director since the ‘80s. “We didn’t ever specifically say where it [took place], but we didn’t have to shy away from seeing a palm tree occasionally. It wasn’t like we were trying to mask L.A. and make it look like another place,” adds Curtiss. “It gave Randal, it gave the production designer [Philip M. Jeffries] more freedom.”
“I’m always shocked that everywhere I go in the world, people have seen it from different ages—from little kids to grandmas to teenagers—and they seem to respond to it after all these years so I think it’s [a film] that has sold L.A. to the world,” says Kleiser.
Just in time for those summer nights, we re-visited the old L.A. stomping grounds of Sandy, Danny, the T-Birds, and the Pink Ladies for the 40th anniversary of one of the most popular movie musicals ever made.
Leo Carrillo Beach
As waves break against a rocky shoreline, the sun sets, and as the chorus of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” swells we see the final summer moments of Sandy and Danny’s summer fling. She’s returning to Australia and he’s staying behind.
The film’s opening was shot at Leo Carrillo Beach in Malibu, arguably the most filmed beach in movies and television. It’s been seen in everything from the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach party films to The Karate Kid (1984), The Craft (1996), and another Newton-John musical, Xanadu (1980).
“The rock formation there kind of gives it some character that maybe some of the other L.A. County beaches don’t have—that are beautiful, but flat,” says Curtiss of the beach location. “It’s nice to have some architecture there with it.”
The original script for Grease, however, didn’t start with Sandy and Danny on an empty sun-drenched beach. The filmmakers instead had Danny working at a summer resort and they looked at the Marion Davies house, built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst on Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Kleiser says, “That was going to be where he was working, but we abandoned that idea when we saw Leo Carrillo Beach and just thought it would be better to have it more open and generic.”
Kleiser was also familiar with the location because, while in college, he had appeared as an extra in the Peter Sellers hippie comedy, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), which did some filming at Leo Carrillo.
35000 W. Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
Rydell High School
Venice High School, Huntington Park High School, and John Marshall High School
Grease was filmed between June and September of 1977, a perfect time of year, you might think, to transform an L.A. school in the film’s most central location of Rydell High, named after Philly rock legend, Bobby Rydell.
Venice High School is widely known as the face of Rydell. In fact, an entire page of the school’s website highlights the use of the campus as a location for Grease.
Curtiss tells us that Venice High School was perfect because of it’s classic, art deco façade. He adds, “Unlike some of the other schools, there was a lot of depth from the street to get to the front of the building. It’s actually sort of a nice park feeling there. It really played well [for] the first day of school when the girls and everybody are arriving in the parking lot, and being able to do some nice walk-and-talks getting them towards the front of the building. … Photographically, it worked.”
Not only did the beginning of the film take place on the first day of school, but also the establishing shot of Rydell High, which cross dissolves from the film’s animated title sequence, was filmed on the first day of production for Grease.
The production was given two weeks to film at Venice High School: one window between graduation and the start of summer school, and a second window after summer school ended and the regular school year started.
During the two weeks at Venice High School, the filmmakers shot two of the movie’s most beloved musical numbers on the campus. Rizzo’s (Stockard Channing) introspective “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was filmed along an exterior corridor, which remains mostly unchanged today. The song that kicked the film into high gear, “Summer Nights”, famously used the school’s bleachers and outdoor cafeteria, which today look completely different as the school goes through a multi-year renovation. Eventually, the original bleachers used in the film, which still line the school’s football field today, will also be replaced.
Curtiss informed us that “Summer Nights” was actually filmed between the two non-consecutive weeks that Grease shot at Venice High School. The guys’ portion was filmed early in the summer and the girls’ side was shot when the production returned to the school late in the summer.
(Kleiser also said that the cross-cutting editing style of “Summer Nights” was inspired by Wise’s use of parallel action during the “Tonight” ensemble sequence in West Side Story.)
Other exteriors around the Venice High School campus were used including the front of the school, the parking lot, the football field, outdoor basketball courts, and the baseball field. The only interior shot done at Venice High School was inside the gymnasium, now a weight room, where Coach Calhoun (Sid Caesar) matches Danny with a hulking wrestling opponent.
“I think we would have done a lot more at Venice High School, but the principal was not that cooperative. I’m trying to be politically correct,” says Curtiss, laughing.
Though the filmmakers had a lot more work to do than what they could accomplish at Venice in the time that they were given, Kleiser says, “We just planned to use what worked. Scouting around, we couldn’t find everything that we wanted, that’s why we pieced it together.”
The production used a total of three L.A. schools to create the iconic Grease high school. “They each had their own specialty,” says Kleiser.
Rydell hallways, offices, and classrooms, were filmed about 15 miles east of Venice High School at Huntington Park High School, where the film shot for about three weeks.
“They had a very limited summer school,” recalls Curtiss. “They sort of had to work around us and we were trying to work around them. I had a very good liaison with the assistant principal, who was very, very helpful.”
Today, the rooms at Huntington Park that are likely to make the biggest impressions on Grease fans are the old auto shop where the ‘reality’ half of the energizing “Greased Lighting” sequence was filmed, and the school gym, which was the location of the National Bandstand dance-off.
Even though the gym had been confirmed as the location for the dance and the dates had been scheduled, Curtiss recalled that there was a problem lighting the gym and, for a short window, looked like it wasn’t going to be ready in time. Potentially, it would have thrown a huge wrench into the production, especially since rock group Sha Na Na, who appeared as the Johnny Casino and the Gamblers at the dance, were confirmed to be at the high school on the scheduled dates.
“They brought in a night rigging crew and I was there for two straight days. We worked all night,” says Curtiss. Lights were hung from the ceiling of the gym up until the morning that Kleiser started shooting the scene.
The school dance was filmed over a period of five days in July in the swelteringly hot gym, which was filled with actors and dancers performing under hot lights. The wafting smell from a nearby meat plant didn’t help the situation.
“It smelled so bad that we had to close the windows; then it would get too hot. So we’d open [the windows] and then it would smell again. It was a horrible thing,” recalls Kleiser. “People would lie down on the gymnasium floor just to deal with the exhaustion. I think Michael Tucci, who played Sonny, had to go to the hospital for dehydration. … That was probably the toughest part of the shoot because of the conditions.”
The only exterior shot at Huntington Park was the Rydell pep rally and bonfire.
Finally, for Grease’s jubilant carnival finale, the filmmakers purposely looked for a football field with a more dynamic aesthetic than those at Venice or Huntington Park.
“We were thinking, in terms of the carnival, of having something a little bit more photogenic,” says Curtiss.
The location was still up in the air even after shooting commenced. The first week of filming was the last week of June, which led up to a long July 4th holiday weekend. “I remember on 4th of July I was out scouting,” says Curtiss, who looked at a about five or six schools including North Hollywood High School and Canoga Park High School.
Eventually, the filmmakers decided upon John Marshall High School. The school, opened in 1931, is popular among filmmakers for its gothic architecture, which lends itself to double as a school that can be located in any number of places around the country. It’s been seen in films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), among dozens of others. It wasn’t the school’s gothic aesthetic, however, that attracted the filmmakers.
“When I saw John Marshall, there was something that was very different about it,” says Curtiss.
The football field is situated downhill from the main school buildings and has a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills and the surrounding neighborhood.
Even though the location wasn’t determined until about half way through production, rehearsals were being done on a Paramount soundstage, using the entirety of the space from one end of the soundstage to the other, Kleiser told us. It was therefore a simple adaptation to take the film’s finale, “We Go Together,” and put it on any football field.
In terms of using three different school locations, Kleiser says, “We just hoped no one would notice and I don’t think many people did.”
It should also be noted that by the time the film wrapped, the football fields of all three schools were used.
Venice High School, 13000 Venice Blvd., Venice
Huntington Park High School, 6020 Miles Ave., Huntington Park
John Marshall High School, 3939 Tracy St., Los Feliz
After Danny breaks Sandy’s heart at the Rydell pep rally, amateur beautician, Frenchie (Didi Conn), invites Sandy over to her house for a slumber party with the rest of the Pink Ladies.
The craftsman house chosen for Frenchie’s place was built in the early 1900s and is still standing today just a few minutes from Marshall High School.
“I know that we weren’t shying away from feeling like Los Angeles, but I think that house had sort of a Midwestern flavor to it,” says Curtiss. “It was interesting, but it was a house that could have been in a lot of different areas of the country.”
“It just looked like a small-town house,” says Kleiser. “We needed a place for Rizzo to crawl down out of the window. I think we looked at a bunch of [houses] and said, ‘That one looks cool.’”
Frenchie’s bedroom where Rizzo sings “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and the backyard where Sandy performs “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which was written specifically for the film, were shot on sound stages at Paramount.
4524 Kingswell Ave., Los Feliz
Whether on home video or at sing-along screenings, Grease is generally introduced to kids at young ages. Its songs and colorful visuals tend to distract from any of the adult-oriented themes of the film, of which there are a few. Though the makers of Grease toned down much of the show’s explicit content, there’s one scene in particular, adapted from the play, which flies way over children’s heads.
Rizzo and Kenickie (the late Jeff Conaway) are making out at overlook point inside his newly purchased jalopy. He pulls a condom out of his pocket only for it to immediately break. He then explains to Rizzo that he bought it when he was in the seventh grade. We later learn that Rizzo thinks she’s pregnant.
The location of the nighttime overlook scene is particularly difficult to identify due to the fact that the only identifying markers are the twinkling city lights below and a driveway that leads out of the parking lot.
Thanks to Curtiss, who has kept binders from the many films he’s worked on over the years, he was able to quickly pinpoint the spot as the Bel Air Church on Mulholland Drive. It’s located about a mile west of the 405 freeway and overlooks the San Fernando Valley.
“We wanted to have all the lights of the city below and do a dolly across the cars, so the typical place where kids go to make out,” says Kleiser.
“I know it wasn’t completely an innocent scene,” says Curtiss. Luckily, the church didn’t seem to have reservations about the scene to be shot. “I can’t remember if we had to get script approval for that one. (I know at Venice High School, the principal wanted to see the script pages.) We were honest with them. We told them it was a lovers’ lane scene and I think were just there one night,” says Curtiss. “My recollection is they were happy to be a part of it.”
16221 Mulholland Dr., Encino
By the time Grease was filmed, the popularity of the drive-in had almost all but fizzled away. When it came to choosing a location for a sequence in which the entire main cast goes to the movies, choosing a drive-in location was fairly simple.
The filmmakers decided on the Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank, which was also used as a backdrop to films such as Christine (1983) and Blue Thunder (1983). “That was the only one that we thought of because it was close, it was open, and it was working. I don’t remember looking at anything else,” says Kleiser.
“Everyone liked the Pickwick,” says Curtiss “The snack bar was kind of nice. Randal kind of used that—featured that a little bit.”
The single-screen drive-in opened in 1949, and was closed and subsequently demolished in 1989. Today, the Rancho Marketplace shopping center stands in its place
Curtiss also recalled looking at the Studio Drive-In in Culver City, which was later used in the finale of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985).
1100 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank
As a further nod to the time period reflected in Grease, Kleiser specifically cast a number of the adult roles with stars of the 1950s. Eve Arden was cast as Rydell’s Principal McGee, Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun, Frankie Avalon as Teen Angel, and Joan Blondell who played Vi, a server at the Frosty Palace.
Kleiser also intended to pay homage another iconic piece of 1950s showbiz.
“The race at the end, I wanted to do on the football field and have big floats in the middle of the field to make it like Ben-Hur,” says Kleiser. “That was my original concept but [the producers] said it was going to be too expensive to build those floats. Instead, they suggested moving to the L.A. River, which I resisted…because I thought the concept of the Ben-Hur thing would be cool.” Kleiser also tells us that that’s why the other school’s moniker was the Gladiators.
Certainly at this late point in the film the sight of the Los Angeles River answers any questions as to where where the film takes place, or at least where it was shot. Built between 1938 and 1960 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the 51-mile L.A. River, especially its stretch through downtown, has been featured in scores of films including Point Blank (1967), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), The Italian Job (2003), Transformers (2007), and Drive (2011).
“It’s pretty obvious that you’re in Los Angeles. We weren’t trying to hide anything,” says Curtiss. “You’re high and wide, you’re showing the whole place and the bridges in the background, so there was no mistaking that.”
From the starting point of Thunder Road at the 6th Street Bridge to the turnaround mark of the 1st Street Bridge, the film’s first unit shot in the L.A. River for about three days. On the last day of production, Curtiss went back to the location with the second unit to get close-ups and certain action pieces, particularly those of the cars racing on the walls of the river.
In the end, Kleiser thought the location made the sequence better than he had originally conceived it. “That gave the picture a really big look, which cost, frankly, nothing,” says Kleiser of the location. “When I saw the dailies on the big Panavision screen, it really opened the movie up and made it look like a big movie rather than a tiny little cheap movie that we were making,” says Kleiser, laughing.
The director still got a bit of his Ben-Hur homage into the film by showing Greased Lightning’s fender being chewed up by razor-sharp scythed hubcaps on the 1949 Mercury driven by Leo, aka Craterface (Dennis Stewart).
Los Angeles River, Downtown
Please keep in mind that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.