The Columbia College Chicago Theatre Department wishes a happy birthday to actor-playwright-songwriter Jim Jacobs HDR ’14, coauthor of the hit musical Grease and benefactor of the Jim Jacobs Musical Theatre Scholarship at Columbia College, who turns 80 on October 7, 2022. Jacobs, who launched his theatrical career in Chicago in the 1960s, established the Jim Jacobs Musical Theatre Scholarship in 2013. Over the past decade the scholarship fund has distributed more than $100,000 in financial aid to students in the Theatre Department’s Musical Theatre BA/BFA Program.
In 2011, Jacobs was a guest speaker at “Chicago, Theatre Capital of America: Past. Present. Future,” an international symposium on Chicago theatre history and practice organized by the Columbia College Theatre Department. In 2014, Jacobs received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Columbia College’s president, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim, and addressed graduating Theatre students at the 2014 Columbia College Commencement at the historic Chicago Theatre in Chicago’s Loop.
In 2018, Jacobs was a special guest at the first-ever Columbia College Chicago Theatre Reunion, where the renovated Getz Theatre Center of Columbia College was unveiled. Jacobs’ participation in the reunion event was especially significant because he was the coauthor of the musical Island of Lost Co-eds, the first mainstage production in the Getz Theatre Center after Columbia College acquired the historic building, located at 72 E. 11th St. in Chicago’s South Loop.
The 1981 world premiere of Island of Lost Co-eds was directed by the Theatre Department’s then-chairperson Sheldon Patinkin and Theatre Department faculty member June Pyskacek — who, as founder of Kingston Mines Theatre, had produced Grease’s world premiere in 1971.
Jacobs and his writing partner, the late Warren Casey, wrote Grease in 1970. A native of Chicago, Jacobs based Grease on his experiences as a teenage “greaser” in the late 1950s at Taft High School on the city’s Northwest Side, where he played guitar and sang with such groups as DDT & The Dynamiters and Lefty & The El-Rays. The show premiered in February 1971 at Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theatre, one of the seminal companies in Chicago’s avant-garde Off-Loop Theatre movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Grease‘s runaway success in Chicago attracted the attention of New York producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox, who optioned the work for Broadway. In a new production with a revised script, Grease opened at the off-Broadway Eden Theatre on February 14, 1972, then transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, where it opened on June 7, 1972. By the time the original production closed in 1980, it had became the longest-running show in Broadway history to that time, surpassing the original run of Fiddler on the Roof. Grease has been revived on Broadway twice — in 1994 and 2007 — and is also popular in regional, community, and academic theatre. Its 1978 movie version was a hit, as was the 2016 Fox TV special Grease LIVE!
The song “Summer Nights,” written by Jacobs and Casey, was a hit single for the 1978 movie’s stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
In June 2022, Grease’s golden anniversary was marked by “Tell Me More, Tell Me More: The Grease 50th Reunion,” a program of storytelling and song recounting the show’s history. The event in New York City was headlined by actors Marilu Henner and James Canning, who both appeared in show’s original Chicago, Broadway, and national tour incarnations.
The anniversary event coincided with the June 7, 2022 publication of Grease, Tell Me More, Tell Me More: Stories from the Broadway Phenomenon That Started It All (Chicago Review Press), a collection of anecdotes and photos chronicling the landmark musical’s journey from Chicago to Broadway.
Though Jim Jacobs now resides in Southern California, his ties to his hometown of Chicago and to Columbia College remain deep and strong. “Every child, growing up, has a dream of what they’re going to be someday,” said Jacobs when he established the Jim Jacobs Musical Theatre Scholarship at Columbia College. “I dreamed of being an actor, a singer, a dancer — a performer. I kept thinking and saying to myself, ‘Give me a chance, I know I can do it. I really can.’ And so, here I am, many years later and extremely happy to be able to give some young person the chance he or she needs. This is for those students who once thought that what they were thinking about, most of the time, was an impossible dream. It is with great pleasure that I can establish a musical theatre scholarship at Columbia College Chicago.”
Happy birthday, Jim Jacobs!