There are some movies that are timeless. They are the kinds of movies that audiences of all ages, from all walks of life, can enjoy watching over and over again, no matter when it was filmed. They are memorable, quotable, and never get old. One such movie is the hit 1978 musical-play turned film, Grease. As anyone who’s seen Grease will tell you, some of the more memorable characters in the movie are the Pink Ladies, the female counterparts to the T-Birds gang. One of the Pink Ladies, the quirky and lovable Jan, was played by non other than Mountain Lakes High School alumnus, Jamie Donnelly (MLHS ’64).
We had the chance to speak to Jamie about her life in Mountain Lakes, her experiences as a student actor, and the ups and downs along the way to stardom, both on Broadway and the big screen.
Ms. Donnelly is visiting Mountain Lakes to watch the MLHS production of Grease and speak with the cast and crew. The following is what she shared with us, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
MLAA: When did you come to Mountain Lakes?
JD: I was at Mountain Lakes through all my high school years. I came right before I was a freshman and I was there through my high school graduation and that was in ’64.
MLAA: Were you always in New Jersey or did you move here with your family?
JD: I was always in Jersey, but I was born at Holy Name hospital in Teaneck and that was, surprisingly, where John Travolta was also born.
MLAA: Oh, wow!
JD: Yeah, isn’t that kind of interesting? He’s a New Jersey person too.
MLAA: What brought you and your family to Mountain Lakes?
JD: I think my parents were really looking for the best school system they could find. My grandfather had been superintendent of schools in North Bergen for 38 years when I went into kindergarten. So they were very interested in education and I think that’s what really drew them to Mountain Lakes. They wanted, by the time I got into high school, for me to be in a great school…and we know it is a great school, and it was great for me. So that’s when I was there.
MLAA: Do you have any fond memories about your time in Mountain Lakes that you could share?
JD: I had great times in Mountain Lakes. I had wonderful girlfriends in Mountain Lakes, like Jan had in the movie. And my favorite memories are of pajama parties with those girls, which really gave me the foundation for that pajama party scene. I remember we would go, and particularly a friend who lived right across the street from where the Mountain Lakes Club is, we would have great girls pajama parties there. We would think that we were really wild because we’d run out and go swimming late at night. I had a great time hanging with my girlfriends. And, you know, I loved the fact that I lived on North Crane Road, so I would walk up between Sunset and Crystal up to Birchwood and then go for walks up in The Tourne. I loved that. And I wasn’t really involved in sports, of course, but I was in the orange and blue GAA shows. I was pretty much theater-driven at that time, but I did love my friends there. I knew how lucky I was to be in that school. I also loved the fact that I could walk five minutes and get onto the Lakeland bus and get into New York City, which I did a lot.
MLAA: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
JD: I knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to be in a Broadway musical, that that was where I belonged. I saw my first Broadway show when I was 10 years old, and that was “The Music Man” on Broadway, and by the time we got to intermission, I walked out and I was, like, “Why am I not up on that stage? Why am I not one of those kids? This is where I’m supposed to be.” And I knew it as soon as I saw it. I identified with it. And so, for me, it was kind of, like, my parents would not let me work during the school year because they wanted me to keep going to school. They had said when I graduated from Mountain Lakes, “You have six months. If you’re earning a living doing this, you can continue but, otherwise, you’re going to college.” And I was determined that I would make it work, and I did, which was really kind of extraordinary.
MLAA: How soon after graduating from Mountain Lakes did you make it to Broadway?
JD: When I graduated from Mountain Lakes, it was less than a year before I was on Broadway, and I graduated young. I had been accelerated in grade school so that I was on Broadway, I think I was 17, and I was less than a year out of Mountain Lakes High School. I never went to college. I just went directly to the Broadway stage which was wonderful.
MLAA: Your yearbook page did say “Broadway-bound” so that should not really be a surprise to anyone that knew you.
JD: No, I knew who I was at least in terms of my career. I knew who I was all through high school. I was not the best student, which was kind of surprising because I’d been really good all through grade school, but my focus just went to what it was that I loved to do. It isn’t like I thought it was going to be an easy career, and I knew that I was going to have to give it my all, and so that’s what I was prepared to do, and that’s what I did for an awful lot of my life. It’s still something I love. But there was nobody I think who was involved in the drama program at Mountain Lakes who didn’t know that my determination was fierce, and it required fierce determination to do what I did.
MLAA: What was your first job on Broadway like?
JD: The first job that I had on Broadway was covering Liza Minnelli, who won the Tony that year for starring in Flora the Red Menace, which was the first Broadway musical of Kander and Ebb, who later became very famous with Cabaret. They were great musical writers, but this was the beginning of their career as well, and I was understudy standby for Liza and had a part in the show too, so it was a lot of responsibility for a 17-year-old. But the thing that I would say is that I felt very supported all through my time at Mountain Lakes High. Our director then was Reginald Harrison. They called him Reggie. I called him Mr. Harrison, of course, and he was wonderful and just enormously supportive, and the community also was just really supportive of what I was doing. And I did every show that I could possibly do when I was in high school which meant every play, every musical.
MLAA: Did you receive any specific words of advice or widsom from your teachers or guidance counselor with regard to a future career in showbusiness?
JD: You know, it wasn’t so much how to approach the business, but I got very good training on how to approach the work itself. You know, Mr. Harrison was a wonderful director and he was a really good acting teacher, and I would say more than giving me specific business advice, he really shored up my confidence and had a belief in my ability to do this. What happens when you’re 16 years old and want to act is that a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s what girls like to do.” These days, they wouldn’t say girls. They would just say, “A lot of kids wanna do that, but you’ll get over it.” They didn’t act like I should get over it. I mean, the guidance counselor was shocked that I didn’t want to go to college. They said you’ve got to at least take PSATs and SATs in case you change your mind, and I said, “No. I’m not because I’m painting myself into this corner.” I knew what I was doing and I had to make it work. They understood that then. And I didn’t even take the SATs at that time. And they were wonderfully helpful. I was even offered some scholarships without applying to schools because they wanted me to be in their theater programs. Now, I don’t know whether that would happen today but I remember one school said, “If you come here, we’ll do Annie Get Your Gun the first year you’re here, and you can go and travel to Japan with it.” And I thought that’s attractive, but I have a date on Broadway. I’ve got to get it.
MLAA: Tell us how you got involved with Grease.
JD: I did the Broadway show soon after it opened, show seven years before I did the movie. I was the first replacement for my character, Jan, and at that time, I didn’t really want to do it because I’d been playing larger roles in Broadway shows than the role of Jan. I saw it almost as a backwards step, but my manager, who by the way was also John Travolta’s manager, said, “I just have a feeling this could be an annuity for you and you can always go back in and out of Grease because it’s going to run forever anyway.” They wanted me to sign a one-year contract and I said, “No, six months is all I wanna do this.” And the way that a Broadway contract works, or did then, was that you go on the show on what they call a conversion contract, and after five performances it converts to the contract that you negotiated. But they have, like, five days on their side to decide whether they want to keep you or not. Usually, by that time, everything is going well. Anyway, the fifth day came and I was in my dressing room, when the company manager came and said, “Sign this contract. It’s the conversion.” I said, “I don’t sign anything my manager hasn’t seen.” He said, “You’re not going on.” I said, “Okay, send the understudy on. I don’t sign anything my manager hasn’t seen.” Anyway, they let me go on. The next day my manager looked at it. It was a one-year contract, and I was glad that I hadn’t signed it. Six months later, I was thinking I should stay on for another six months, and I went to the people who ran the show and said, “I just wanna let you know before you go to put together the lending company, I’m willing to stay on unless you wanna let me go.” They said, “No, no, no, of course, you’re gonna stay.” Anyway, upshot was the girl who had originated the role was fired from another show and they replaced me with her and, all of a sudden, there was a pink slip in my mailbox telling me I was fired. And even though I knew it was because they wanted to bring somebody back, I hit the floor. I had never been fired.
MLAA: That must have been devastating for you. How did you feel at that point, and how did you bounce back?
JD: I had to continue playing the show for another two weeks. They even brought the other girl back in to be in the show until she took over the role, so I was on stage with her. I was humiliated. Everybody who was in the cast would look at me, like, “Oh, Jamie, we’re so sorry.” And I felt very rejected. It wasn’t until seven years later when my manager said they want to see you on this for a movie and I said, “I don’t wanna go near that thing again.” And he said, “You ought to give it a shot.” He was representing John, too. I went in and got it. Anyway, I didn’t know then that the movie would be the hit that it is but, of course, now when people think of the character Jan, I’m the person that they think of. And if I had known when I was fired, if I had been able to see the whole tapestry, the big picture, I wouldn’t have felt, like, maybe I wasn’t good enough, which is what I sort of shamefully felt then. And as it turns out, I’m the Jan that everybody knows and loves. So I think that’s an interesting story for the kids to hear because it’s really a story of living long enough to recognize that the things you think should stop you in your tracks should not stop you in your tracks.
MLAA: It is a great story and message for the students today to hear.
JD: Yeah. I think those are the kind of things that I have to offer the kids in terms of advice. You’ve got to find your own way and, at the same time, make the most of any kind of connection that you have and not be embarrassed.
MLAA: What was it like shooting the movie Grease?
JD: Well, I was the only Pink Lady who had done the show before. One of the dancers was what they call a dance captain, helping the choreographer. She had done the play, but I was the girl who had done the show, which was helpful to everybody, I think. We used a lot of what had worked in the play, but we were very lucky because the director of the movie was open to our improvisations and used our previous knowledge of what worked in the play. And there was even a point where we sat around before we started to shoot, with the script for the play on our laps under the table, and the script for the movie on the table, figuring out where things that had worked for us in the play could be worked into the movie where maybe that same scene wasn’t there but maybe a joke could be worked in.
MLAA: Is there something particular about the character that resonates with audiences still today? What’s the most common thing that people remember about the character Jan when they see you?
JD: Well, people remember Jan going, “Brusha, brusha, brusha, get the new Ipana,” this little piece that is at the beginning of the pajama party scene. They go, “Oh, the brusha, brusha girl.” And there is a very interesting story to that, too. When we were doing the movie, that scene wasn’t in it at all. And the opening line for the pajama party as written was, I’m supposed to be watching TV and I say to the girls, “Look at what Loretta Young is wearing.” And I thought that line does nothing for me because it’s not funny. A lot of people wouldn’t know even then who Loretta Young was. And I thought, “What can I do other than, ‘Look at what Loretta Young is wearing.'” And I talked to the director, Randal Kleiser, who was very open, and said there’s a laugh in there about Bucky Beaver, I think. I said, “Can we get it, that commercial?” And because it was Paramount, they went to the property department and got copies of the Bucky Beaver commercial. I looked at them on a monitor on the screen at the sound stage we were shooting on, and then I did the imitation of the Beaver for the director. And he said, “See if the girls like it.” And so I did it for the girls and the girls had the same reaction they do in the movie. They all laughed, and Marty threw a pillow at me, and they thought it was funny. They liked it, and so it stayed in the movie. And that’s the thing that I’m most remembered from. It was something that was really kind of a combination of my having had the experience of working, doing eight shows a week for six months, playing that character and knowing where the humor for me was, together with the openness of the director and the company of actors I was working with who really were just having fun, too.
MLAA: And the rest, as they say, is history.
JD: And it all came together in a moment. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “I would never get my child, my daughter, to brush her teeth if she wasn’t doing it with Jan going, ‘Brusha, brusha’ every night.” And so you don’t know the impact that you’re going to have when you do these things, but if it’s the right thing, it has a tremendous impact. One more thing while I’m thinking of it is I remember after 9/11 people were wondering how New Yorkers were getting through this. The New York Times had an article, and they were essentially asking, “What do you do to comfort yourself?” It said people are watching comfort movies and they listed three movies and Grease was one of them that was getting people through the anxiety that they were feeling at that time. And I thought here we were, you know, just really trying to entertain, not trying to send a message or anything else, just entertaining. You know, people need to laugh, and they’re still laughing at Jan. And that’s the biggest payoff of the whole thing for me.
MLAA: Thank you for sharing that, Jamie.
JD: You’re welcome.
MLAA: We have a tradition of closing our Laker in the Spotlight interviews with one particular question, and we’d love to hear your answer to it. If you could invite three people to dinner, alive or dead, fictional or real, who would they be, and why?
JD: After a good day rehearsing with William Shakespeare, I’d enjoy dinner with Julia Childs, after which Cole Porter and I could sing one of his songs at the piano for the fun of it!
Jamie Donnelly will be attending the Mountain Lakes High School production of Grease, which will be performed Thursday, June 10th through Saturday, June 12th. As of this writing, seats are available for the Saturday matinee at 12:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased here: http://mlhs.booktix.com.