CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED ELEVEN
SUBCHAPTER 523 -
GET THERE FIRST
I mark the
February 1979 opening of Cowboy as the dawn of the Urban Cowboy Era
here in Houston. However, on a personal note, January
1980 was the date when Disco became a memory and my world
turned completely Country-Western.
At the time, I
got the feeling I stood alone as the city's only
Country-Western teacher. Without any knowledge that I
was preparing for something big, my risky
Meyerland and Fright Night gambles
were responsible for my surprising head start. Perhaps
there were other teachers, but if so, they operated in
distant circles unknown to me.
In the annals of
military strategy, ancient Chinese military general Sun Tzu
stands premier. Sun Tzu wrote a masterpiece titled
The Art of War. He listed 13 major principles
such as the use of
deception and the importance of speed
during the attack.
something of a military genius himself, listed 115 maxims on
how to win a campaign. Take, for example, his first
"Frontiers of state are either
a large river, a chains
of mountains, or a desert. Of these obstacles
to the march of an army, the most difficult to overcome
is the desert. Mountains come next and broad rivers
occupy third place."
General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a brilliant Civil War
tactician, agreed with Sun Tzu and
Napoleon on many things. However, General Forrest claimed there was only one military
principle that truly mattered...
Get there first.
In my case, the
events of 1980 would demonstrate the value of General
statement time and again. 'Getting there
first' would prove to be quite an advantage.
Forrest knew what
he was doing. He picked his targets and moved swiftly
to the attack. Not me. I used a
slightly more unorthodox tactic known as 'Dumb Luck'.
SUBCHAPTER 524 -
complete shock, my dance career had suddenly been given a
new lease on life here in January. Although I
was very grateful, this strange turn of events struck me as
totally wrong. Let's face it, I never
bargained for this. Indeed, I had resisted the
coming of the Urban Cowboy Era with
every ounce of my being. And yet a series of
remarkable events had prepared me to teach Western
despite my intense negativity. My situation was so weird, I asked myself if it
possible for people to succeed in spite of
answer was yes, of course. I need look no further than my
own situation. For the second time in my life,
through a major Quirk of Fate, I had accidentally prepared
for a major dance phenomenon without the slightest
idea of what lay ahead.
Back when I received all
the breaks necessary to become Houston's first Disco teacher, I was
99% convinced that Fate had surely been involved. Now to see
it happen again with Country-Western dancing, I upgraded my certainty to 100% that Fate was
involved. I could not get my mind off the Arabic saying that
what is destined will reach you even if it lays underneath two
mountains. Who could deny that Fate and Fortune had moved a
mountain to turn me into a Disco teacher? Then while I clung
desperately to Disco, the only thing that ever made
me truly happy, Fate and Fortune had moved yet another mountain to make
me a Western teacher.
Western teacher? C'mon now, this is
ridiculous!!! You know and I know that of
all the people in the world, I did not have any
business being a Western... much less the ONLY
ONE. And yet here I was poised to take
advantage of another potential dance phenomenon. How
could I possibly be so Lucky?
Or maybe the
better question was why wasn't I smarter to begin
During the Western Transformation of Spring 1979, I
had all the information I needed to realize that
Western would one day replace Disco. So why
didn't I simply accept the inevitable and start
visiting the Western clubs immediately?
me. That would have made too much sense.
Rather than take the obvious step to at least
investigate what was going on, I avoided
visiting Western clubs like the plague. I resisted the coming Western phenomenon tooth
and nail. I vowed that I would 'Never'
teach Country-Western dance. As they say,
Never say Never. Here I was in
January 1980 prepared to
teach Western just as it was ready to break wide
open. Was I lucky or
Sure I was lucky. But I was
also Stupid. I had already explored the
possibility of the existence of 'Cosmic
Stupidity'. Now I began to wonder if there
was corollary phenomenon known as 'Dumb
definition of 'Dumb Luck' is something
wonderful that happens unintentionally and
without planning. Would the Reader be
willing to agree that definition pretty much
summed up my sudden emergence as the city's only
I was so
dumb, I was the last person in Houston to realize
that Cowboy was a palace, not a dump.
Then came Fright Night which was
the direct result of my stupid decision to teach
a class blind. Due to to my last-second
Fright Night enlightenment, I barely got the advertisement
for my lucrative January Class Factory
Western class published under the wire.
If I had waited one day longer, no doubt Deborah
would have found someone else to teach the
January 1980 Western class instead of me.
wasn't 'Dumb Luck', then what was it?
Indeed, it was the move to get a class listing
inserted into Class Factory for
January that propelled me to the head of the
line in 1980. Although I did not know it
at the time, I would later realized by the
slimmest of margins the spotlight would shine on
me at the very start of a large cultural
knew I had been lucky many times. For
example, running into Deborah at the Lance
Stevens Country Crash Course back in July 1978
had been the stroke of good fortune that
seriously elevated my dance career to begin with. That
had been 'Luck'. However, this last-second
Fright Night rescue was much different.
something I should have figured out for myself,
yet I had been totally blind. I actually
felt embarrassed that I was so ridiculously
ignorant that Fate had to come along and bail me
Kicking myself hard for my negligence, I
doubted if it was possible for anyone to be
dumber than me. However, oddly enough, while
writing my book, I suddenly realized that the
phenomenon I refer to as 'Dumb Luck'
extends past me.
did my research, I came to realize the producers
of Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy
were the beneficiaries of considerable 'Luck'
in addition to their skill. In addition,
as we shall see, these men were also guilty of colossal misjudgments only to be bailed out by 'Dumb
Luck'. Before I begin the tale of my
own Urban Cowboy adventures, I
would like to share two remarkable 'behind-the-scenes'
stories that deal directly with Luck
and Dumb Luck.
SUBCHAPTER 525 -
When it came to Saturday Night Fever, Robert
Stigwood was unbelievably lucky. However, he wasn't
just lucky, there is considerable evidence that he was also dumb lucky.
Stigwood began his career as a music
producer. Born in Australia, Stigwood moved to England at age
21. Stigwood had a college degree, but no idea what to do with it. After a series of dead-end jobs, Stigwood discovered he had an interest in promoting local
rock bands in Portsmouth.
Climbing the ladder, Stigwood got his start in the mid-Sixties as the manager of
Eric Clapton. It was Stigwood's idea to pair Clapton
with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. This led to
Cream, the superstar rock band that briefly rivaled the fame
of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Along the way, Stigwood managed The Who (Tommy, Pinball
as well as the Bee Gees from Australia.
Gees were in awe of Stigwood. They described
him as a creative genius with a very quick and dry wit.
Stigwood was an aggressive manager who wasn't afraid to take
chances. Stigwood had a favorite saying.
"There are a lot
of ways to become a failure, but never taking a chance is
the most successful."
Unfortunately, Stigwood's bold
style got him in a lot of trouble early in his career. Stigwood
victim of a bad move that led to one of the funniest
rock 'n roll history.
In 1966, Robert Stigwood tried to poach another manager's
act into his own fold. The manager, Don Arden, took
Don Arden: "I had to stop
these overtures – and quickly! I contacted two
well-muscled friends and hired two more equally huge
toughs. The five of us went along to nail this cocky impresario to his
chair with fright.
There was a large ornate ashtray on
his desk. I picked it up and smashed it down with such
force that the desk cracked – giving a good impression
of a man wild with rage.
My friends and I
had carefully rehearsed our next move. I pretended to go
berserk. I lifted the impresario bodily from his chair,
dragged him on to the balcony and held him so he was
looking down at the pavement four floors below. I asked
my friends if I should drop him or forgive him. In
unison they shouted: 'Yeah, do it! Go ahead and
with shock, I thought he might have a heart
attack. Immediately, I dragged him back into the
room and warned him never to interfere with my
Stigwood learned his lesson. From that point on, Stigwood
stayed closer to the rules and enjoyed considerable success.
SUBCHAPTER 526 -
the bee gees
Robert Stigwood parlayed his early success in the music
industry into productions
on stage and in film. Stigwood learned early on to mix
music with drama. Nearly every one of his productions involved
Stigwood's stage credits were
Sweeney Todd, Hair,
Oh Calcutta and
Jesus Christ Superstar.
His movie credits would include Grease,
Gallipolli, and Jesus Christ Superstar
as well as musical film extravaganza Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Stigwood's main passion was to do Grease,
the exciting 1971 musical. By a twist of fate, his
efforts to bring Grease to screen would
accidentally lead Stigwood to produce an even more famous
project, Saturday Night Fever.
The Bee Gees were an the
Australian rock group that consisted of
three brothers, Barry, Andy, and Maurice Gibb. The
had gotten their start in the late Sixties. With Robert
Stigwood as their manager from the start, the group immediately scored some initial hits.
Thanks to their instant success, the Bee Gees were said to be the next Beatles.
However, they fizzled almost as fast as they sizzled.
You know the story... drugs, booze, distractions.
As of 1975, the Bee Gees were washed-up
has-beens who were being referred to in the past tense.
Fortunately Stigwood had enduring
faith in the Bee Gees. Stigwood had a
real soft spot for these guys. They were always his
pet project. The problem was that once a
rock band loses its moment, it is very difficult to
By the time the mid-Seventies
rolled around, the Bee Gees were toast.
Although they were terrific songwriters, they had not had a major hit in years.
Their music consisted of gentle ballads at a time
when Hard Rock was the dominant sound. It didn't look good
for the Bee Gees.
Fortunately Stigwood stayed with the Bee Gees. Stigwood told the three
brothers that he believed in them. He encouraged
them to keep working and keep writing.
"You know what they say.
The harder you work, the luckier you get."
Stigwood promised that sooner
or later their luck would turn. Stigwood had a suggestion.
Why not move away from ballads, the Bee Gees staple, and
take advantage of the growing American interest in dance tracks?
Good idea. The Bee Gees moved to Miami
and began experimenting.
In 1975, they crafted a
dance-oriented disco song titled Jive Talkin'.
To their surprise, it became their first #1 hit in four
years. Jive Talkin' started their
comeback. The band liked their new
sound, so they stayed with it. You Should Be Dancing
was released released in 1976 and quickly became their
second dance track to hit #1.
Stigwood was pleased that his suggestion had worked out
so well. At the same time, he was surprised at the
amount of interest in this unorthodox dance music.
Disco music was hardly his cup of tea, but
Stigwood understood that success in this business was
unpredictable and difficult to attain. His advice
was if it works, stick with it.
The script for
Saturday Night Fever
appeared on Stigwood's desk out of nowhere. This huge
break should be referred to as 'Luck', a wonderful
accident so speak. The moment he saw the word 'Disco',
one can imagine his fondness for the Bee Gees played a major
role in his snap decision to pursue the project.
it turns that out that the Bee Gee's last-minute inclusion
in the movie soundtrack would
be the perfect example of that Robert Stigwood was the
beneficiary of Dumb Luck in addition to his considerable
SUBCHAPTER 526 -
Nik Cohn was the next piece of the puzzle. Born in London in 1946, Cohn got his
start as a rock critic. Always the clever guy, by the
age of 18 Cohn was a fixture on the swinging London Mod
scene of the late Sixties. He partied with rock stars
and hung out with his celebrity friends on tours.
With an ear for gossip, Cohn figured out a way to make
money off their fame. He contributed briefings about mods and rockers to
The Observer. Along the way, Cohn wrote
a 1969 book about the history of rock 'n roll in Britain.
Nik Cohn had an odd claim to fame to say the least. Cohn
was a close friend of Pete Townshend, lead singer of the
Who. Cohn was an avowed pinball maniac and
Townshend loved watching him play. Cohn's obsession
with the pinball machine became the inspiration for
Townshend’s classic song Pinball Wizard.
Cohn was an adept climber. He parlayed his media
position into a circle of important contacts within the British music
business. One of the men he rubbed elbows with was
Robert Stigwood. Since Stigwood was the manager and booking agent of the
Who at the
time, this illustrious rock band became Cohn's
connection to Stigwood's business operations.
spent time on the set during the 1974 filming of Stigwood's
film version of Tommy featuring the Who.
In the process Nik Cohn became
a close friend with Bill Oakes,
president of RSO Records (Robert Stigwood
In 1975, Oakes invited Cohn to come join him in New York.
After crossing the Atlantic, Cohn crashed on the couch in
Oakes' apartment. Cohn soon landed
a job with Clay Felker's New York
magazine to cover the New York music scene.
One night Nik Cohn followed a tip and took a taxi over to
Brooklyn. He visited a nightclub known as
a Disco hotbed. Previously
Disco had been a phenomenon
limited to New York's gay bars.
was fascinated to see this new style of dancing had
migrated to a working class neighborhood.
Cohn's visit gave
him an idea. It seemed that
Disco was spreading like a virus.
experience with the music scene suggested there was a story
here. Cohn went
back to Oakes' apartment and immediately started writing.
idea had been to pitch this idea to Clay Felker at New York
magazine. Then it crossed his mind that
perhaps the Stigwood organization would be interested in his
well. As an afterthought, Cohn handed the story to his friend Bill
Oakes and asked him to pass the story
Kevin McCormick who was in charge of
film development for RSO.
knew who Nik Cohn was. The two men had worked
together on another movie project. The
moment McCormick read the
story, he saw the potential.
McCormick made sure the story
reached the desk of Robert Stigwood.
Stigwood was sold from the start. This story just
might be the answer to the huge John Travolta gamble he had
After Nik Cohn finished his story, he went to work on
getting it published
by Clay Felker at New York magazine.
Cohn actually went to the trouble of tracking Felker down
while he and several friends ate dinner one night at a posh New York
restaurant. Talk about aggressive!
Cohn told Felker his idea depicted
world of lower-middle-class, lower-IQ youths who lived in
Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx in the mid-1970s.
These teens and young adults wrapped their entire lives
around Saturday nights in the Disco clubs.
To Cohn's dismay, Felker
just laughed in his face. Ridiculous. Then
Felker rubbed in it. With Cohn standing there, Felker
embarrassed the young man by asking his dinner guests what
they thought about a story covering
the Saturday night dance ritual of young working-class
They all scoffed.
Who gives a flip about a bunch of poor kids who like to dance on Saturday
night? They had heard it before. That story was as old as
Beach Blanket Bingo, Motown and Elvis
Felker said forget it.
To him, Disco music was a fringe phenomenon
exclusive to young people.
Cohn was crushed, but he wasn't going to give up that easily. He
approached Felker's partner Milton Glaser who decided to
champion the story. Despite mixed feelings, Felker
gave in and let the story run. Nik Cohn's
Rites of the New Saturday Night,
was published on June 7, 1976.
Nik Cohn was about to get lucky, very lucky.
When Robert Stigwood saw the article appear in New
York magazine, he panicked a little. He had
just signed John Travolta to a million dollar contract and
needed a movie for Travolta to star in. Stigwood could
not take a chance of letting this story get away.
Stigwood told his lawyer friend Fred Gershon that this movie
could worth a hundred million dollars. Gershon wasn't
quite so confident, but negotiated rights to the story
nonetheless. To his surprise, Nik Cohn began playing
hardball. He had heard from his friend Bill Oakes
just how interested Stigwood was in this story as a script
for a movie.
Nik Cohn had agreed to $10,000 as the price for an option on
his article. Kevin McCormick was already on board to
produce the movie. To Stigwood's surprise, at the last
minute another producer materialized who had heard about the story before the
Cohn's deal was finalized. Gosh, too bad, suddenly the price had gone up. Gershon
smelled a rat. He suspected that Nik Cohn
pitching this story to everyone with a phone number.
Sensing they were being hustled, Gershon suggested that
Stigwood back off.
Stigwood wouldn't hear of it.
He had to have this movie, so he
over the negotiations.
"I'm going to pay the kid whatever
it takes." Stigwood
the deal down by
offering Cohn a first
shot at the screenplay for a guaranteed $150,000, as
well as percentage points in the soundtrack album.
Fred Gershon was
aghast. He had never heard of music
percentage points for a writer. Stigwood said this
was at Nik Cohn's insistence.
Cohn was very shrewd. Using
his own instincts plus the inside knowledge his friend Bill
Oakes unknowingly passed on, Cohn could
see the soundtrack would obviously be important
to a dance movie.
Cohn was indeed sharp. This
incident was very likely the first time a writer
had ever gotten points
for a music album, certainly when
the property was little more than
a magazine feature.
was a born hustler.
Now we know why Cohn pushed Clay Felker so hard... he was
trying to run up the selling price of his story!
Cohn's greatest accomplishment was getting Felker to print his story.
Since Felker was
dead set against it, Cohn had to move mountains to get Felker
to move on his story. However, once the story was
published, Cohn was off to the races. Now he had
the credibility he needed to raise his asking price.
Given Clay Felker's initial lack of enthusiasm, it is a small wonder the story ever got
published. However, even
more amazing, the story was a complete fraud.
the Tribal Rites story was a total
Twenty years after Saturday Night Fever came out, Nik
Cohn admitted the story which inspired the script was a
fraud. However Cohn swore he had a good excuse.
Cohn explained that he had run into a serious language
Raised in England, Cohn complained he could not understand a
single word the uneducated Brooklyn teenagers were saying.
Their accents and terms were such a complete mystery to him,
Cohn gave up trying to understand. He simply observed
for a while, then went home. Cohn decided to fib.
Facing a deadline, what else could he do? Cohn said he
based his story on Rebel Without a Cause.
Put on your dancing shoes, James Dean. "You're
tearing me apart!"
Believe it or not, two years later Cohn changed his story
time Cohn admitted the problem had nothing to do with the
language barrier. In reality, Cohn never even set
foot in the nightclub. On the night he visited 2001 Odyssey,
just as the taxi pulled up, there was a fight breaking out on the
sidewalk. Cohn decided it was safer to stay in the
taxi and watch. To his surprise, one of the fighters
lurched over to Cohn's cab and threw up. With that, Cohn
told the driver to get him the hell out of there.
As they drove
away, Cohn caught a glimpse of a tall, confident figure
standing in the club doorway. Dressed in flared
crimson pants and a black body shirt, the man was coolly
surveying the action. Cohn was impressed by the man's
aloof demeanor. There was a special quality to this
as if he was operating on a different plane from the rest. On
the spot, Cohn had his hero.
wrote a completely fictional story using
2001 Odyssey as his location and the unknown
figure as his star.
Cohn had once hung around a charismatic street hustler named
Chris at a spot called Shepherd's Bush in London.
Basing his main Disco character on Chris, Cohn worked from there.
When Cohn was
finished, he added a note that insisted 'everything in
this article is factual.'
friends, is the very definition of chutzpah.
Yes, sad to say, there
was no real-life Tony Manero. Just add Tony Manero to the list of
Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and tooth fairy disappointments.
Nik Cohn had pulled off one of the great scams in literature.
Lying through his teeth, Cohn had parlayed a 15-page short story into
a small fortune. There were countless other perks as well. As a reward, Nik Cohn got to hang out with the biggest stars
and attend premieres with beautiful singers draped on his
arm. Not bad, huh?
Here's my favorite part. During the Nineties when
Cohn's career hit a stand-still, Cohn hit it big with his
first mea culpa. I assume he got paid for the story.
Then two years later, Cohn hit it big with another mea
culpa. I assume he got paid for that story too. Who would have ever
thought that lying could be so lucrative?
Let's face it, there’s nothing quite like seeing the words ‘based on a true
story’ in a movie. Great selling point, yes?
No doubt there was much sanctimonious criticism when the
truth came out that the entire story was imagination.
But in reality, there was only one real victim - Clay
Felker. Nik Cohn leapfrogged to the stratosphere using
Clay Felker's shoulders as his springboard.
Now we know why Clay Felker was so determined to pay
everyone back with Urban Cowboy in return for
being duped by Cohn's bullshit Tribal Rites in
the first place. The desire for redemption clearly
burned deep in this man.
for one applaud Clay Felker. There is some fascinating
Karmic Justice in the way Felker parlayed being deceived and
taken advantage into creating a fortune of his own.
Nice work, guy.
SUBCHAPTER 527 -
consider Robert Stigwood to be an unusually Lucky guy, there
can be no doubt the man possessed considerable talent as well. His 1976
decision to sign John
Travolta to a three-movie deal was sheer genius.
Back, Kotter was a 1975 television sensation.
The show was based on a sarcastic, street-smart high
school teacher who takes a group of incorrigible yet
loveable teenagers under his wing and shows them the light.
From the start,
John Travolta had been the undeniable break-out star of the
show. However, he was not without his critics.
Some suggested Travolta couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Ironically,
since Travolta was a high school dropout, it was
said he was just playing himself.
Maybe so, but his popularity was off the charts.
Travolta could not go out in public without being mobbed.
By the second season, Travolta received more than
10,000 fan letters a week.
was Robert Stigwood thinking? Producer Stigwood
had just placed
a million dollar bet on this young TV star. A million dollar
contract for some kid with no longevity, no track record?
thought Stigwood had gone nuts. In the history of
television, so far no one had ever made the transition from TV
star to movie star. Therefore the idea of paying a
million bucks to an untested actor was quite a stretch,
especially since many assumed that Travolta was barely more
talented than Vinnie Barbarino, his dumb but sexy TV character.
Fortunately, Stigwood was privy to
something others were not aware
of. Stigwood had been a fan of Travolta
well before Welcome Back, Kotter.
Back in 1971, Stigwood had auditioned Travolta for the lead
in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Although Stigwood noticed Travolta had
oodles upon oodles of talent, there was
one problem... Travolta was only 17. Too young
for the part.
Nevertheless, Stigwood penciled a note on a
yellow pad: “This kid will be a very big star someday.”
Around the same
time as Travolta's youthful audition, Stigwood had his eye on something else: Grease.
Stigwood was a huge admirer of the musical that
debuted in 1971. Based on a
hunch, Stigwood had taken out an option on Grease.
He planned to make it a movie after the play ran its course.
When Stigwood saw Travolta, he
immediately visualized Travolta as a great fit for the
movie version of Grease somewhere down the
road. Once Travolta
confirmed Stigwood's initial instincts with his Kotter breakout, Stigwood decided to lock
up Travolta to do Grease before the kid's price
climbed any higher. Stigwood was convinced that Grease
was the perfect vehicle for the cocky teen heartthrob.
Then came the bad news. Grease
was suddenly off-limits!
There was a clause in the contract for Grease
that said Stigwood's option would have to wait until 1978 in case the musical was still going strong.
Was Grease still going strong in 1976?
You betcha. It was Stigwood's bad luck to take out an
option on the longest running play in Broadway history.
No problem. Stigwood assumed for a little cash, the producers would let
him start filming sooner. Wrong. The producers refused to let Stigwood proceed early.
Stigwood was heartsick. He had signed
Travolta based on the gamble the show would be available
soon. It was 1976 and he would
have to wait until 1978 like the option said. To wait
two years was utter madness. Travolta was hot right now!
This was serious bad luck. Or was it? Stigwood
certainly thought so. However, anyone familiar with
Fate knows that sometimes bad luck has a
way of turning into good luck.
In this case the Stigwood's ambitions were rescued when Nik Cohn's
story appeared out of nowhere.
realized that Cohn's
story would be perfect for Travolta's talents.
Now wasn't that a nice little coincidence??
It almost makes you wonder if Fate was involved.
SUBCHAPTER 528 -
DROPPING THE BALL
Robert Stigwood was in a serious hurry to take
advantage of the handy appearance Cohn's story and
Travolta's contract. He wasted no time finding a
director. To his surprise, the talented John Avildsen
chosen to direct Saturday Night Fever based on
his recent work directing Rocky.
seeing a rough cut of
hired Avildsen on the spot.
Stigwood knew he was taking a chance. A keen observer of talent,
Stigwood could see Avildsen was
abundantly gifted. However, Stigwood wondered why a director of Avildsen's caliber was available.
Was Stigwood missing something? He checked around
and discovered Avildsen had been fired from Serpico.
In other words, Stigwood knew full well he was taking a risk with the
temperamental director when he hired him.
Sure enough, almost from the start, Stigwood regretted
taking a chance on Avildsen. To begin with, the temperamental director
insisted on hiring a temperamental writer.
Norman Wexler. Not so fast!
Stigwood pointed out that Nik Cohn
was already working on the script.
Avildsen replied that Wexler was a genius. Did
Stigwood want his movie to rest on the talents of an
amateur with a 15 page magazine story or hire a proven
Stigwood saw Avildsen's point and
relented. Then he asked his director a question.
If this Wexler
guy was so good, then why was he available? "Because
Norman Wexler is a madman."
Avildsen wasn't kidding. Wexler was a real-life Jekyll and
Hyde. A Harvard graduate with an IQ of 180, Wexler had
done brilliant work on Serpico, a truly
superior movie. At the same time, his psychosis made
him fearless with delusional grandeur. He was a vicious,
vindictive paranoid who was shockingly uninhibited.
Throughout the filming, Norman Wexler terrorized various
people on the set with his antics. When Wexler was off
his medication, he could turn very aggressive. One day
Wexler showed one of the female extras the .32 caliber
pistol he was carrying. He was trying to impress the
woman, but it had the exact opposite effect.
No one gave
Norman Wexler the slightest bit of trouble after that.
in the industry would touch Wexler, but Stigwood had
decided to take a chance. Wexler was not only a
genius, he was desperate for work. Stigwood had a
hunch Wexler was likely to pour his
soul into the project. Indeed, Wexler's script was so
brilliant one has to wonder if his own pain gave him so much
Wexler captured the bleak lives of the
oft-struggling Brooklyn street kids far too well.
In the meantime, Stigwood had
director John Avildsen.
Rocky had just been
released and Avildsen was getting a ton of press.
Perhaps Avildsen's success with Rocky had gone to his
head. Avildsen seemed to be getting John Travolta confused with
Rocky's Sylvester Stallone. Taking a
page out of West Side Story,
Avildsen told Stigwood he wanted to use Travolta for a big fight scene in the club. Avildsen's vision was some sort of West Side Story
rumble, the Disco version of Sharks versus Jets. Stigwood,s assistant Kevin McCormick tried to explain this was a different kind of movie.
Trying his best to patient with the volatile director, McCormick offered a compromise. Why not let some of the extras have the fight if it was that
Avildsen wouldn't listen. It had to
be Travolta throwing the punches. No one else would
do. McCormick asked the writer Wexler what he thought.
Wexler said the fight was not consistent with Travolta's
standoffish character. McCormick put his foot down and
Angry at Wexler for not backing him, Avildsen
pointed out that Wexler was
insane which justified bringing in another writer.
McCormick gave Avildsen the 'too many
cooks' cliché, but it went right over the director's head.
Avildsen put his foot down, so
now Saturday Night Fever had its third writer.
Avildsen's next move was to irritate
Travolta. He decided Travolta
was a rotten dancer and way too fat.
He told Travolta to lose 20 pounds.
When Travolta didn't move fast enough to please Avildsen, he brought in Sylvester Stallone's
Rocky trainer to
accomplish the feat.
Although Travolta was incredibly insulted
by Avildsen's blunt criticism,
to his credit, the actor decided to cooperate.
The final straw was the music.
This was a movie about music and dancing. They were about
to film, but there
was no music.
Everyone noticed the problem, but they were so frightened of
John Avildsen, they kept their mouths shut. What was
John Avildsen had been told to line up the Bee Gees, but
the suggestion so far. Why was this? Avildsen could not stand the Bee Gees!
He considered them to be washed up has-beens plus he
couldn't stand grown men singing in falsetto.
So he had chosen to disobey what was more or less a
At the time, Stigwood was nowhere to be
seen. During the
pre-filming stage, he was preoccupied trying to
sign the Rolling Stones to his record
label. Someone in the negotiations was getting very
greedy and Stiggy was sick of dealing
with Piggy. Finally Stigwood had
his fill and walked
away from the deal. On the
return flight to New York,
Stigwood was still really irritated over the blown
So was Stiggy in a good mood?
The moment Stigwood learned that shooting was just about to begin and
did not want to use the Bee Gees,
he blew his top and began screaming at the top of his lungs.
Stigwood could not believe Avildsen had
refused to contact the Bee Gees.
Robert Stigwood considered the Bee
Gees his protégés. He had developed them from the
start. He owned their management, their record label,
and their music publishing rights. Since he had
embarked on this project specifically to help assist the Bee
Gees with their new Disco music career, getting them on board was a foregone conclusion.
Try to imagine how Stigwood
felt upon learning on the eve of filming
that the Bee Gees
were completely in
the dark. Furthermore, so far no one had agreed on a single song for the
movie. Stigwood was staring at a Musical without
Music. This was worse than the Sound of Music
without Edelweiss or Do-Re-Mi.
Stigwood was at a complete loss. What was he going to
do without the Bee Gees?
his office for a meeting.
When Avildsen called the Bee Gees a
bunch of washed-up white guys who sounded like teenage girls
when they sang,
Stigwood nearly had a stroke. Just as the arguing reached a
Saturday night fever pitch, the telephone
rang. It was Fate calling.
answered it himself and started to smile.
Grinning, Stigwood turned to Avildsen.
"Well, John, guess what? I have
good news and
I have bad
The good news is that you have just been
nominated for an Academy Award for
The bad news is that
SUBCHAPTER 529 -
John Badham was
hired to take Avildsen's place. However, amidst the chaos of this
change on the eve filming, everyone seemed to forget there was still no music chosen
for the film.
Meanwhile the Bee Gees
had no idea what was going on. They were busy mixing a live
album in the north of France.
One day when Travolta was
doing dance rehearsals, someone
put on the Bee Gees song 'You Should Be Dancing,'
a hit which had
been released the previous year.
Travolta said, 'Hey, that's a pretty good song.
Nice beat. Why don't you see if these Bee Gee guys have any other songs?'
When Stigwood heard what Travolta had said, he had a panic
attack. Despite his direct orders, the Bee Gees had
still not been contacted. His heart racing, Stigwood immediately got on the
Stigwood told the Gibb
brothers that the
song You Should Be Dancing
was great and that Travolta liked it.
told them a little bit about the movie... it was a
cocky dance stud surrounded by countless adoring women.
Then Stigwood got to the
point and asked the guys if they
had any other
songs they could contribute. Or
if they felt like it, maybe they could write the entire
The three brothers were fairly shocked.
This request was completely out of the blue.
The Bee Gees looked at each other and nodded, 'No way, forget it!'
Feeling a bit guilty, the brothers spoke up.
you can't just ring us up and expect us to drop
everything we are doing. You know damn well we
can't just snap our fingers and pull a hit song out of
thin air. Besides, we have our own
album to do.
We're sorry, but
we don't have the time to sit down and write
music for your
Stigwood said he understood and hung up. Stigwood was
forlorn. He wasn't mad at the brothers, but it hurt
him to know he taken on this project specifically to help
them and now the opportunity had gone to waste.
the brothers kicked it around. Barry Gibb pointed
out that Stigwood had been their friend through thick and
thin. Even when things were rough, Stigwood believed
They started to nod. It was true, Stiggy had always
been there even when they totally screwed up their career.
With their conscience prodding them in the right direction, the brothers
changed their mind. In an extraordinary show of
Gibb brothers stopped what they were doing and began to work
'feverishly' on this out of
the blue project.
The thing is,
the Bee Gee's sudden change of heart wasn't ordinary Luck,
this was Dumb Luck. Everyone had dropped the
ball on the Bee Gees and yet at the very last minute,
Stigwood got his guys on board with his desperate
I have wonder if
Robert Stigwood was as curious about Fate as I am. If
so, he had to be embarrassed that Fate had to come along
to bail him out.
next was crazy. Once they got started,
their imaginations were on
three brothers wrote five songs in one weekend, every one
them destined to be mega-hits.
How Deep is
Than a Woman
If I Can't Have You
One week after
the phone call, Barry Gibb handed Stigwood seven dance tracks.
In addition, two previously released
Talkin' and You Should Be Dancing,
were on the album.
The Bee Gees
would be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams when they became the featured artists on the
upcoming blockbuster SNF music album. The soundtrack
became the top selling
album in history until Michael Jackson's Thriller.
Ah, Fate and its
twists and turns. Destiny was breaking right for the
Despite having no idea how their music would be used,
catchy songs would lead to an amazing comeback in their
Thanks to their
uncanny burst of creativity, the Bee Gees
would soon become the hottest group on the planet.
SUBCHAPTER 530 -
As we have
learned, in 1976,
like magic, everything
came together for Robert Stigwood. Three parts -
perfect story, perfect actor, perfect music - fit together
so perfectly that one might actually be tempted to give the
concept of 'Synchronicity' a closer look.
a term synonymous
with 'meaningful coincidence'. To believe in
Synchronicity is to believe in the old saying that there are
no accidents. Not everyone agrees with this
Synchronicity is one of those mumbo jumbo terms like
mojo, sixth sense and voodoo
that skeptics relegate to the dustbin of pseudoscience.
So is there any
reason to believe in Synchronicity? Good question.
opinion, the easiest way to make a case for
Synchronicity is to point my finger at
Saturday Night Fever.
Not much was
expected from this movie.
Keep in mind this was supposed to be a low-budget
throwaway project. All Stigwood was trying to do was
keep Travolta busy until Grease became
available. And yet by complete accident, Stigwood was
hit a gold mine with Saturday Night Fever because he
three talents... Travolta, Bee Gees, and Wexler... at the
absolute hungriest part of their careers. Working
together, Stigwood and his talented men came up with
People might ask if anyone knew in advance how special the
movie was going to be.
Bill Oakes, right
hand man to Robert Stigwood, said that his boss was certain
this was going to be a big hit. However, to everyone
else at Paramount,
the success of Saturday Night Fever
came as a huge surprise. Before the release, the smart-ass
muckamucks at Paramount thought the movie was
Oakes was especially resentful of their
"Paramount didn't care
a lick about our movie. They gave
us an office on the lot the size of a broom closet and
called Fever the studio's 'little disco
movie'. I could not stand that phrase.
Senior executives for Paramount would visit
the Fever set. They would snoop around,
complain about this or that, then ask
your little disco movie doing?"
thought the whole thing was rather
silly because they believed Disco had run its course.
Actually, there was some truth to
that. Back in 1976 when the Nik Cohn article appeared in
magazine, many people in the music industry believed
Disco music with its
repetitive electronic background and vapid lyrics was on
In the years to follow,
Fever was credited with
kicking off the Disco Era, but
in truth the movie breathed
new life into a genre that was dying.
The point here is that Saturday Night Fever
did not jump on a swelling bandwagon, but rather resuscitated
something out of nothing.
Although I speak
of 'Luck' as a major factor, there was clearly a great amount of
skill involved as well. One of the smartest moves
Robert Stigwood made
was to release the music
before the film's debut. This strategy was both
innovative and brilliant. No soundtrack had ever been
released in advance before.
Here is an anecdote that bears out the effectiveness of
move nicely. Michael Eisner, head of production at
Paramount, was skiing in Vail, Colorado, two weeks before
the movie opened.
heard Staying Alive at the bottom of the
ski lift. Then it was playing at the top of the lift and
I heard it again in the restaurant at the top of the
Something was definitely going on, so I called my
boss Barry Diller, head of Paramount. I said, "Barry,
what do you think? Do we have a hit here?"
Then the movie opened. Travolta was the biggest
thing that ever happened. In the first 11 weeks,
the movie made $11 million. Over time, it would
gross $285 million. The soundtrack was not only
the best-selling soundtrack of all time, it would hold
the record for 14 years, an eternity in this business.
Someone really knew what they were doing with this
Oh boy, they sure did know what they were doing with the
music, didn't they? Let's wait till the last minute,
then call the Bee Gees.
Well, if you can't be smart, then be Dumb Lucky.
Robert Stigwood caught a real break with the script
as well. Stop and think about it. Nik Cohn had
written something inauthentic off the top of his head, then
insisted he be allowed to write the script as part of his
However, Cohn had little or no experience at
writing a movie script. Stigwood was fortunate that
John Avildsen recognized the mediocrity of Cohn's work and
insisted on hiring Norman Wexler over strenuous objections.
To Stigwood's amazement, Wacko Wexler
took a fake 15 page magazine story and gave this
low-budget movie a truly extraordinary script.
Avildsen told Travolta that he was fat and couldn't dance a
lick. Deeply offended, Travolta worked his butt off to
prove Avildsen wrong. The point is that the so-called
disgraced director John Avildsen actually made a huge and
largely un-credited contribution to the success of this
However, the most incredible break of all had to be the
inclusion of John Travolta. It was uncanny how
Travolta was tailor-made for the role as the cocky yet moody dance stud.
Dinah Manoff had this to say.
"There was an energy surrounding John unlike anything I
had ever experienced. It wasn’t even lusting.
It was being in the presence of something epic. I
had never been around a charisma that was at its peak
that way. I cannot describe it to you. There
is no other movie star I have ever been around who
carried the energy John did in those days with
Grease and Fever. And the funny
thing is that John didn't even know how good he was.”
Every once in a while a movie
comes along that no one expects much from, but somehow it becomes special. Most people
point to Casablanca as the best example. In a
Saturday Night Fever
became a classic as well.
Despite the low expectations for
this hard-hitting story of directionless youth
with Travolta as the Dancing James Dean packed quite a punch.
Travolta was very
convincing as the ambitious young man who yearned to make
something of himself. Saturday Night Fever struck
a chord with audiences all over the world.
changed John Travolta’s life. What Marlon Brando and James Dean
were to the Fifties and Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison to the Sixties, Travolta
achieved equal status in the Seventies. Saturday
Night Fever gave the decade its cultural identity and John
Travolta became a pop culture phenomenon.
Thanks to Robert Stigwood's gut-feeling about his boys,
revived the career of the Bee Gees.
original music score anchored
best-selling movie soundtrack album of all time.
And the box office?
Saturday Night Fever would go on to gross $285 million.
Its combined box office and soundtrack sales would make it
one of the most lucrative films in history.
And yet lost in
the all the hoopla was the original budget... $3.5 million.
Robert Stigwood truly
had the Midas Touch.
As for me, considering the importance Saturday Night Fever
had on my life, I studied Robert Stigwood with intense
curiosity. How do successful people become successful?
In Stigwood's case, it was obvious that
he had a keen eye for talent.
characteristic was Stigwood's willingness to
bet on his own instincts. Of course talent and
original ideas are a pre-requisite to success.
However, often the difference
between a successful person and an unknown is the courage one has to bet on
one's ideas and take a calculated risk.
Most of all
I could not escape the feeling that Stigwood was lucky.
In fact, I am
surprised at the number of successful people who cite 'Luck' as a major
factor. Many tales of successful people involve being
in the right place at the right time. Thanks to a
lucky break, they were chosen for a position ahead of
other people just as talented and just as ambitious.
To me, the story of
Robert Stigwood is pure Fate. At this
one magic time in his life, everything turned to Gold.
Even when Stigwood screwed up... John Avildsen and the Bee Gees story
for example... things worked out to perfection. Personally
speaking, I think someone up there liked Robert Stigwood.
To me, the
funniest thing of all is that the entire phenomenon started
on a fake story. Without
Slick Nik and his brazen nerve to pass off a fairy tale as
the Real Thing, Disco would be little more than a footnote
as silly music from the Seventies.
would be no Bee Gees megahits, no Travolta
superstardom, no Disco acrobatics, and no nostalgic Disco parties
complete with ugly clothes, bad jokes and funny hair.
All this because some English stiff made up a wild yarn and
sold it as truth. Barry
Gibb once said to Nik Cohn, “This is all your bloody fault, isn’t it?” Cohn
I don't approve of Cohn's methods, but Nik the Slick was
definitely Destined to be a part of this unusual story.
No doubt Nik Cohn was riding a Magic Carpet Ride of his very
Nik Cohn definitely got lucky. But you know what?
So did a lot of other people! Stigwood, Travolta,
Cohn, Wexler, the Bee Gees to name a few. Throughout the
of Fever, I got the feeling
that everyone involved suddenly became smarter, more
instinctive and creative than at any other time in their
life. Everyone was at the top of their game. Using a
sports cliché, it was a career year for everyone.
The way Fever worked out so perfectly defies
the imagination. In fact, so many things clicked, one
might believe Robert Stigwood had the Wheel of Fortune spinning in his direction
and brought everyone else along for the ride.
Do you believe in
SUBCHAPTER 531 -
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
definitely has its ups and downs. Here is a very
curious footnote to the saga of Saturday Night Fever.
Robert Stigwood's next project after
Fever was a 1978 rock musical titled Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band. Robert Stigwood
hatched a plan for a movie based on the legendary Beatles
album. As Stigwood was fond of saying, "There are a lot
of ways to become a failure, but never taking a chance is
the most successful."
Stigwood had purchased the rights to use 29 Beatles songs
for a play. Now he was determined to do something with
them in a movie. The concept was to reproduce an
MGM-style musical using Beatles music. Unfortunately,
this was a very complicated idea. Stigwood made the
mistake of hiring someone who had never written a script for
Stigwood came out okay. The movie cost $13 million
and box office was $20 million. However,
critically speaking, people considered the movie an
In 1978, the Bee
Gees and Peter Frampton had both reached mega-stardom.
They sold millions of records, had their faces
plastered on magazine covers and played
sold-out concerts to venues across the globe. Then this
movie came along and made them a laughing stock for a
Casting the Bee
Frampton as stars of the movie seemed like a sure
winner. What better way
to sell countless billions of records? But instead
it all went wrong.
A cursory look at
the reviews should be enough to get the idea..."the film
is humorless", "a film with a dangerous resemblance to
wallpaper", "ranges from barely tolerable to embarrassing",
just doesn't work", "quite possibly the silliest movie
ever conceived", "mind-bogglingly awful".
When asked about
the film in a 1979 interview, George Harrison expressed
sympathy for Stigwood, Frampton and the Bee Gees.
acknowledged they all worked hard to make Sgt. Pepper
only to see their efforts bomb miserably.
Harrison went on to
Frampton and the Bee Gees:
"I think it damaged their
images and their careers, and they didn't need to do that.
It's just like the Beatles trying to imitate the Rolling
Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better.
Now that I think about it, I don't think me
and my mates could have saved this movie if we did
Robert Stigwood passed away in 2016. His death allowed
music critic Bud Wilkins to say what he really thought about
Stigwood's Sgt. Pepper. Here is an
edited look at Mr. Wilkin's 2016 article titled
Through a Glass Sparkly: Robert Stigwood and Sgt. Pepper.
"The recent passing of music impresario-turned-film
producer Robert Stigwood motivated me to cast a cold eye
back over his cinematic legacy. Let us invoke
Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the
Ugly as a way to review the man's work.
The Good: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973),
Tommy (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and
Grease (1978). These properties prospered,
one supposes, in direct proportion to Stigwood’s
non-involvement in their making.
The Bad: The still-suppressed Moment by Moment
(1978), with Lily Tomlin’s bored hausfrau romanced by an
aimless drifter called Strip (Stigwood touchstone John
Travolta), as well as a couple of ill-advised sequels,
Grease 2 (Greasier) and Staying Alive (a
baldly defiant statement of intent from House Stigwood).
The Ugly: And then there’s what, by any yardstick,
must be recognized as the absolute apotheosis of
Stigwoodian awfulness: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts
So what is my point?
In this tale of two movies, everything Stigwood did in
Fever turned to Gold and everything Stigwood did in
Sgt. Pepper turned to Coal.
Saturday Night Fever... succeeded
far beyond anyone's imagination. The perfect script
appeared at the perfect moment to take advantage of the
perfect actor and the perfect music group all at
the same time.
Think of all the things that had to go right. You had
an unproven TV actor, a
fraud magazine writer, a temperamental Diva Director, an insane script writer,
a controversial mid-stream change of directors, plus a washed-up rock band
who had no idea what was going on till the last possible
broke right to turn what should
have been a forgettable Grade B flick into one of the most famous movies
in cinema history. Everything clicked. That, my
friends, is the power of Synchronicity.
Stigwood had the sense to stay with the Bee Gees, he saw the
star potential in John Travolta, he understood the value of
the Nik Cohn story, and he had the foresight to release the
music ahead of time. Seriously, anyone who can turn a
$3.5 million investment into a $285 million bonanza gets my
some sort of All-Seeing Wizard.
how do we explain the sad fate of the pathetic Sgt. Pepper
Sgt. Pepper had everything
going for it... big stars, big budget, great music,
Stigwood's reputation... and yet it flopped miserably.
In my opinion, Robert Stigwood was the beneficiary of an
amazing run of Good Luck during Fever
and just the opposite in Sgt. Pepper.
In the case of Sgt. Pepper, whatever could go wrong, did go wrong.
Poor Robert himself admitted he had some very Bad
Luck with his Sgt. Pepper project. Hmm.
It seems we all have our tests, don't we?
As for me, I strongly identify with Stigwood. I take
Stigwood's rise and fall seriously because his story reminds
me of my own career. Like Stigwood, I did one really
great thing in my life... I created a wonderful dance
studio. There was a moment in time when everything I
did clicked just like the Synchronicity of Saturday
Night Fever. It was an amazing time. No
matter what I did, it worked! For a while there, I
really thought I was the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Then one day late in my career I decided to embark on a new
project. I had my skill, my experience, the proper
location, plenty of funding, a great web site, a great
mailing list, contacts galore, and a terrific reputation.
I could not fail. It was a no-brainer.
However, the moment I started, everything that could go
wrong did go wrong. Looking back, I don't recall
making a single mistake. I did everything right.
I was prepared, I was polite, and I knew what I doing.
But it didn't matter! Many small disappointments
spread out over six months added up to the point where I
realized I was wasting my time.
Since I didn't need the money, I folded my tent and moved
on. At the time, I thought about Achilles. Not
only could I see Achilles staring incredulously at the
poisoned arrow sticking out from his vulnerable ankle, I
knew exactly what must have passed through his mind.
"Oh, for crying out
loud, there is no damn way Paris could have hit my ankle
from a hundred yards away! Those blankety blank
Gods did this to me! I am sure of it!"
The failure of my second project was truly one of the most
fascinating moments of my life because it made me humble.
Back at the start of my career when I was a hopeless klutz,
I succeeded thanks to one lucky break after another.
Now at the end of my career when I didn't need anyone's
help, I received one bad break after another and failed.
took a good hard look at my failure and came to one very
important conclusion... if it isn't meant to be, then all
the talent in the world won't make a damn bit of difference.
The message could not have been more clear. When I was
young and foolish, I succeeded. When I was old and
wise, I failed. By the laws of Reality, it should have
been the other way around. However, by the laws of
Mysticism, what is meant to be is meant to be.
“What is destined
will reach you, even if it be underneath two mountains.
What is not destined, will not reach you, even if it be
between your two lips.”
After my failure, what happened next?
My failure helped me to accept it isn't what I want to do,
it is what God wants me to do. I once created the
largest dance studio under one roof in America, but I know
in my heart I could not have succeeded without Divine
assistance. That is the basic tenet of my entire
What I discovered is that talent, while important, is never
enough. God's Will is more important.
So what did I do next? I was so dumbfounded at my
failure, I was actually MORE CONVINCED in Fate than I had
ever been in my life. That is when I decided to write
my book. I decided my story was so preposterous, it
needed to be told.
Writing Destiny has made me realize that maybe I am not nearly
as talented as I hoped I was. If it wasn't for all my
Dumb Luck, I doubt my dance career would have amounted to
much and this book would have never been written.
If one accepts the concept of Fate and Destiny, then the
story of Robert Stigwood... and myself... can be
summed up very easily. When you're Hot, you're hot.
When you're Not, you're not. There are some things
over which we have no control.