Sunday Night Fever
Kelly Preston and John Travolta meeting and greeting last night at The Waldorf for the Museum of the Moving Image gala. 7:50 PM. Photo: JH.

I saw John Travolta for the first time in “Saturday Night Fever” at a theatre in Stamford, Connecticut on a Saturday night in 1977. I had houseguests up from the city that weekend, and the picture got us all so heated up that we went right home and put on a BeeGees record and danced and partied a la Travolta’s Tony Manero for hours afterwards.

In the program of the Museum of the Moving Image which honored Mr. Travolta last night at the Waldorf, David Schwartz, the museum’s Chief Curator of film writes:

John Travolta

It took exactly two minutes and fifty seconds of screen time for John Travolta to become a movie star. The first glimpse of him in "Saturday Night Fever" is a closeup of his legs, bending to the disco beat of "Stayin’ Alive" on the soundtrack. His character, Tony Manero, struts down a Bensonhurts Street, and we follow him, fascinated.

As anyone around today remembers, the picture made Travolta an enormous star, a phenomenon. A few months later Barbara Walters interviewed him (sitting in a plane he’d bought), and asked him how it felt “to be the biggest star in the world.” The hyperbole of her question was also the consensus. The star looked at her and smiled, as if slightly embarrassed or at least incredulous, and asked, “I don’t know; do you really think that’s true?” It was that natural display of humility that won us.

That was forty-four or forty-five pictures ago. After Fever he made a highly anticipated film with Lily Tomlin (whose star was way up there at the moment also) called Moment By Moment which was an interesting idea but turned out to be a good looking dud, and his career was already being talked about as maybe, just maybe, a flash in the pan. The mega-grossing Grease followed, and then the not-so-sure-of-a-hit Urban Cowboy where we saw the dancing Travolta once again, and then Brian DePalma’s Blowout. He made seven pictures in the 1980s including a not as stellar sequel to Fever, Stayin’ Alive directed by Sylvester Stallone.

Screenshots of Travolta

In the 1990s, however, John Travolta made 20 films (an astounding number for a contemporary star), including Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Michael, and Primary Colors, and before half of this first decade of the 21st century is out, he’ll have made 9 more.

We’ve watched Vinnie Barbarino/Tony Manero, grow up, mature, get married, settle in, take chances, fail, succeed and become what few in his business ever really achieve: an established star with almost three decades of stardom under his belt and still working.

In his message in last night’s program he wrote that when he was a kid growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, one of his first movie memories was seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy and “marveling at the way that Jimmy Cagney could dance and sing and act.” He never dreamed at that time that he’d be able to do the same in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. Later in life one of his greatest thrills was that he got to meet and become friends with Cagney.

Herb Schlosser, Chairman of the Museum of the Moving Image, addressing the guests in the Grand Ballroom of The Waldorf-Astoria
A close-up of a table
The kid turned fifty this year. Looking at him last night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf, with his close-cropped (still-full-head-of) hair, and more bulk on his frame, he looks a lot less like the kid now, except when you watch him talking to people and the face breaks out in that smile that’s warmed and charmed the audience for more than three decades.

In the cocktail hour, before the dinner, he spent a lot of time letting the photographers get as many frames as they wished of him – a generous gesture not always available with a lot of the “stars” that come around these parts. Oprah was there (and seated on the star’s right). She looked as excited and animated as any fan to be in the same orbit. And James Gandolfini and Kathy Bates and Kyra Sedgwick and Mrs. Travolta (Kelly Preston), all of whom were presenters on a program that featured clips from ten of the man’s films, including Fever, Grease, Urban Cowboy, Get Shorty, Michael, Phenomenon, Face/Off, Primary Colors, and A Love Song for Bobby Long.
John Travolta poses with a fan while Kelly Preston browses the night's reading material
With the exception of the cadre of beefy, suited “Soprano” types who were ridiculously protective and verbally intimidating about keeping us civilians in black tie (including this one) from getting closer than eight feet to the star’s table – even Presidents let you get closer, guys – it was a lovely evening, a lovely tribute to a lovely and well-loved guy. And the whole show will air next Sunday night at 10 pm on USA Network, so you can see for yourself.

I ran into Will Schwalbe, the publisher of Hyperion Books, as I was leaving. I asked him what he’d been doing out at something like this on a Sunday night. “John’s writing a book for us,” he told me.

“Who’s writing it?” I asked, knowing from personal experience that a star’s autobiography/memoir is usually not “written” by the star but by a hired writer (now called collaborators).

“John’s writing it,” he answered.

“John’s writing it without a writer?” I asked, not sure of the answer.

“Yup.” To be published in the fall of 2006.
L. to r.: Kelly Preston; Kyra Sedgwick; James Gandolfini.

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Jesse Kornbluth, who wrote evening's program
Rochelle Slovin, Director of the Museum of the Moving Image
Herb Schlosser

December 6, 2004, Volume IV, Number 188
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/


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© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/