It's getting crowded in The 50's....
Despite a cold, driving rain, the throng that has jammed into The 50's Cafe in New York City's Times Square on this Sunday afternoon is boisterously upbeat. The party's mood is matched by the cafe's decor: As the official souvenir outlet for the hugely popular Broadway revival Grease!, The 50's is an unrestrained paean to nostalgia, replete with zebra-skin bar stools and a vintage Wurlitzer rocking in the corner. It's the tail end of the recent Thanksgiving weekend, yet these hopelessly devoted fans cheerily bide their time, waiting for the curtain to go up next door on the main event.
Meanwhile, six blocks north, more nouveau cats and chicks are getting their kicks at a second production of the well-worn musical fantasy. To accommodate overflow demand, the national touring company of the show has set up shop within shouting distance of their Broadway kin for the holiday weekend. Midtown Manhattan, at least for a short while, is a virtual Grease-plex. ''It's a little overkill,'' shrugs a veteran usher working at the cafe. ''But people seem to love it.''
Yes, it's getting very crowded in The 50's, thanks to Grease. The unconventional double bill is just one sign of a sprawling renaissance for the vintage rock musical. ''The Grease Megamix,'' a freshly spun medley of songs from the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, is the surprise pop hit of the season. Last week, the ''Megamix'' was No. 15 in radio airplay in the nation. Meanwhile, the film's soundtrack, already a multiplatinum best-seller, has once again reared its ducktailed head, climbing to No. 5 on Billboard's pop catalog album chart by selling roughly 35,000 copies a week. That's better than what the new R.E.M. and Pearl Jam albums are doing.
The movie itself has become a one-show programming force. In the last five years, TBS and sister station TNT have aired the film an astounding 25 times, and each broadcast pulled in stellar numbers. On the day after Thanksgiving, the movie drew 1.7 million viewers for TNT, twice the network's normal audience for the 11 a.m. slot, and as recently as Nov. 3, Grease was the nation's highest-rated basic-cable movie of the week, drawing 2.2 million viewers. Says Bill Cox, senior vice president of programming for TBS: ''We don't have another film in our library that matches what Grease does.''
Grease has even attained cult status on the bleeding-edge alternative-rock scene. Hopeless Records, a California indie label, has just released a sampler album titled Hopelessly Devoted to You. And One Ton Records, an independent Texas-based record company, recently released Sandy Does Dallas a compilation of covers from the Grease soundtrack by various alternative bands. (Among the CD's highlights: Ugly Mus-tard's snarling version of ''Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee.'')
Clearly, Grease is the word. Not so clear is why it's again such a part of the pop vernacular. ''You're not going to like this, but I haven't the vaguest idea,'' says Jeff Jacobs, who, with the late Warren Casey, wrote the original musical a quarter century ago. Jacobs has watched pleasantly slack-jawed as his quirky creation has turned into a leather-jacketed cottage industry that, in various incarnations, has sold an estimated 20 million albums, grossed $153 million at the box office, and taken in $60 million in its current Broadway run. And Grease's lightning shows no signs of dying out soon.