March 29, 2020

‘Dirty Dancing’ boogies over to Pantages Theatre

Back when Eleanor Bergstein was trying to sell the screenplay for her iconic 1987 film, “Dirty Dancing” — the story of a sheltered Jewish teenager’s sexual and political awakening as she learns sensual dance moves at a Catskills resort in 1963 — she would jump up on a table when uninterested producers began filing out of a meeting.

“I’d wait until they were almost all out of the room, and then I’d start dancing for these men in my short skirt,” the breezy, ebullient Bergstein, now in her late 70s, said in a telephone interview from her New York office.

She would gyrate her hips and swing her long legs as she displayed the essence of “dirty dancing” — moves from the late 1950s and early ’60s, mostly to rhythm and blues, in which “you’re slammed up right against the body of your partner,” she said.

“None of those men ever made the film anyway, so it was all for nothing,” Bergstein added.

It was only after a female producer finally managed to raise the $5.2 million required to shoot the movie that the film went on to become a runaway hit, grossing more than $200 million at the box office while earning an Oscar for its song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and rocketing its leads Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze to stardom.

In the 2000s, Bergstein went on to write a theatrical version of the movie, “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story On Stage,” a play with music and dance that has sold out performances from Australia to London and will run at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as part of a national tour through Feb. 21. An ABC remake of the movie also is reportedly in the works.

Like the film, the show revolves around Frances “Baby” Houseman, the 17-year-old daughter of a Jewish doctor, who travels with her family for summer vacation at a hotel in the Catskills. From a liberal Jewish background, Baby is determined to join the Peace Corps and to study Third World economics at Mount Holyoke College.  

“Her father wants her to change the world, but also to marry a doctor or lawyer from Harvard,” Bergstein said. Instead, Baby learns about the socioeconomic divide as she embarks upon her first love affair with the resort’s hunky, working-class dance instructor, Johnny, who teaches her dirty dancing, and helps Johnny’s former dance partner obtain an illegal abortion.

Bergstein, who was named after Eleanor Roosevelt and who also grew up the daughter of “left-wing Democrats,” based the story on some of her memories of family vacations at Grossinger’s, the large resort, now closed, that once catered to Jewish clients from New York City. “I wanted to bring back partner dancing, but also to celebrate what I call the ‘last summer of liberalism,’ ” she said. “It was a time where everyone still believed that if you put out your hand, you could make the world better. President John Kennedy was still alive, Martin Luther King was making his beautiful speeches and you really felt that if you tried hard enough, everything would be all right.”

After the summer of 1963, Kennedy and King would be assassinated, Vietnam War activists would become more virulent and liberalism would increasingly turn to radicalism in American politics.

Besides the steamy dancing, the story celebrates — albeit more subtly — the Jewish liberal preoccupation with civil rights at the time.  “This was what Jews thought they owed America because America had saved them from annihilation,” Bergstein said. “For the generation that had managed to get out of Europe, from persecution in the shtetls to surviving the Holocaust, the thing to do was to turn around and [aid] the next group that needed help, and that was the American Black population.

“So at Grossinger’s, there were candlelight vigils for the civil rights workers who were found dead in a swamp in Mississippi. Always lots of the busboys were going to become Freedom Riders before they went back to college, and there were canisters where you could drop your change for SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] or CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality].”

While these Jewish mores are present in the film, Bergstein enhanced the politics in the play — for example, by adding a campfire scene in which the guests raise money for the busboys who will soon be en route to the Deep South.

“I’m always startled when people think I invented this or was making a polemic, because this was just the way things were at the time,” Bergstein said.

The playwright — the daughter of a Jewish physician — grew up in a tough neighborhood of Brooklyn where her father, an internist and obstetrician, charged just $1 for house calls and often left cash for his patients who could not afford the medication he had prescribed.

Young Eleanor, who was called “Baby” until she was 22, began tutoring inner-city children when she was 11, and not long thereafter joined her classmates for dirty dancing sessions in local basements. “For my parents, it wasn’t the favorite thing that I did,” Bergstein recalled. “But I made a deal with them: I could stay out as late as I wanted so long as I kept my grades up.”

At Grossinger’s, which her family visited only infrequently because of the expense, Bergstein began participating in dance competitions from age 11 and went on to become, in her words, “a teenaged mambo queen.” Her signature move was hooking her leg around her partner’s neck. Bergstein later worked as a dance teacher and an anti-war activist before taking up screenwriting in the 1980s.

Her “Dirty Dancing” script included 60 pages of dance instructions and songs that she selected by interviewing music experts as well as by perusing her collection of old 45s — recordings ranging from “Duke of Earl” to Otis Redding classics.

When the film unexpectedly became a box-office smash, producers came calling to adapt the movie into a stage show — requests Bergstein declined for almost 20 years.  

“For one thing, I thought the film stood on its own,” she said. “For another, I didn’t want to take advantage of my audience and make them spend more money for a story they already had on at home.”

Bergstein changed her mind only upon attending an inspiring Bruce Springsteen concert soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.  

“It was a very ecstatic experience,” she recalled. “And I realized I wanted to make theater audiences feel the same way — the ‘you are there’ experience where the story is happening in the moment. It was the presentness of the story I was working toward. And you can only do that at a live event.”

During intermission at a performance of the play in London some years ago, Bergstein asked the theater’s bartenders what audience members were saying about the show. They were initially reluctant to tell her.  

“You’re going to be very upset,” they said. When Bergstein pressed for the information, they told her that audiences insisted the play was better than the film. “Joy surged through me,” Bergstein said. “Why would I do a show if it wasn’t better than the movie?”

For tickets and information about “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story On Stage” at the Pantages Theatre, click here.

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