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John Travolta


Staying Alive—Barbara Remembers Her Mother’s Love of John Travolta

Staying Alive — Barbara Remembers Her Mother’s Love of John Travolta

It was love at first sight when my mother saw John Travolta as Sweat Hog Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. After he catapulted to global fame in Saturday Night Fever, he earned near Frank Sinatra status in my mother’s eyes. And that’s saying something. My teenage mother spent most Saturdays at the Paramount Theater in New York screaming herself silly at Sinatra concerts.

Oh, I love his swagger,” my mother would say when Travolta strutted into a room, tilted his head and his blue eyes twinkled. That smile. The cleft chin. That‘s because he’s Italian.” They,” (my mother used the collective pronoun to cite culture vultures to add authority to facts she shared), say his dancing’s as good as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.” 

Dancing was important in my household. My mother and her brother Michael used to take to the floor nearly every Saturday night at a club in Brooklyn. They were good; Peabody and Jitterbug champions before Michael shipped out to fight in World War II. Of even greater importance to my mother was being Italian. John Travolta could dance, and he was Italian. He was touched by genius as far as my mother was concerned, and I think she would have adopted him if she could. 

Christmas 1977, my brother, sister, father and I found little boxes with fourteen-carat-gold Italian Horns, corno portafortuna, pendants under the tree. We were safe from the evil eye. My father and brother also got disco shirts — those shiny tight-fitting polyester shirts John Travolta wore dancing his way into my mother’s heart. But the best was yet to come for the men in our family. 

Leisure suits were hot by Easter 1978. They’re what they’re all wearing, including John Travolta, my mother professed.” An accomplished seamstress, she ran up, on her Singer Sewing Machine, leisure suits for my brother and father, one in lilac, the other in powder blue. Somewhere in our attic there is a photo of the two of them — my father who wore anything my mother told him to wear and my hippie, professional musician brother with shoulder length hair — standing side-by-side in their suits and matching disco shirts like models on a Simplicity Sewing Pattern. 

Being Italian wasn’t always easy when my mother was growing up. But being Italian was being in love with the best of life — food and art and music and coffee and wine and home-delivered orange and grape soda and thirty people squeezed around a dinner table made to seat eight — and with discovering Italian-American actors, singers, dancers, artists and writers who made you proud. 

My mother did her last jitterbugging at Christmas 2004. I miss her every day, think about moments we shared together and laugh when I imagine what she would say if she saw recent photos of John without his luxurious black Italian hair.