Dirty Dancing first sashayed into theaters in 1987, and the beloved coming-of-age semi-musical has entertained, energized, and, yes, even enlightened multiple generations ever since.
Perfectly capturing both the early 1960s setting of its story and the late-’80s time of its release, Dirty Dancing has served a cultural touchstone for multiple generations—and it continues to.
The film made superstars of Patrick Swayze and, for too brief a time, Jennifer Grey; the soundtrack album sold a stupefying 32 million copies; and by way multiple spin-offs, knock-offs, rereleases, TV versions, live stage musicals, and a 2004 big-screen sequel of sorts (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights), the endlessly delectable Dirty Dancing has long proven that it will strut, sway, swing, and—oh, yes—scintillatingly seduce audiences forever.
So now let’s celebrate 28 years of Dirty Dancing with 28 facts, figures, inside stories, and behind-the-scenes tidbits. We promise: you’ll have the time of your life!
Growing Up Baby
Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein based Dirty Dancing on her own early 1960s adolescent experiences. Her father really was a doctor and her Brooklyn family really did visit Catskills resorts every summer. She vividly remembers "dirty dancing" with an instructor from the rough side of the tracks who was intimidatingly experienced (in every sense). In addition, Bergstein says she didn’t shake the nickname “Baby” until she was in her twenties. It's a good bet Eleanor even "carried a watermelon!"
26 Going on 16
Twenty-six-year-old Jennifer Grey won the lead role of Frances "Baby" Houseman after producers gave her exactly five minutes to convincingly pull off playing a character in high school. On the spot, she convinced them all she was sixteen.
Jen came by her dance acumen naturally: her real-life dad is legendary Cabaret song-and-dance phenomenon Joel Grey.
Sarah Jessica Houseman?
Sarah Jessica Parker had been the next closest contender to play Baby. After SJP’s cult TV series Square Pegs went away in 1983, she scored by dancing on the big screen in both Footloose (1984) and her own star vehicle, Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985).
Val Kilmer turned down the chance to smolder up the screen as dance instructor Johnny Castle, opening the door for Billy Zane. When Zane and Jennifer Grey delivered zippo in the chemistry department, Patrick Swayze pirouetted on into the production.
Casting Swayze was not entirely smooth strutting. Grey thought he was a jerk when they both appeared in Red Dawn (1984). In addition, Swayze was 34 and would be playing ten years younger—as would Jen. Regardless, once the stars met again, the fireworks ignited and the world forever after had its one true Baby and Johnny.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the ’80s most celebrated pint-sized sex therapist, initially agreed to play the thieving Mrs. Schumacher. After some consideration, though, Dr. Ruth pulled out due to image concerns about her portraying a pilferer of purses.
Classic Catskills: Synagogues, Funnymen, and Summer Thrills
Upstate New York’s plethora of summer getaways in the Catskill Mountains served as an annual destination for Jewish families for much of the 20th century. That experience has long been a stronghold of Jewish-American arts and entertainment. Comedians have especially championed the Catskills, referring to its network of resorts as “the Borscht Belt.” Dirty Dancing added a decidedly romantic and female chapter to this rich segment of cultural history.
Of the resorts visited by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, Kutshner’s Country Club served as the main inspiration for Kellerman’s, where the action takes place in Dirty Dancing. The 2015 documentary Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort chronicles the popular upstate New York’s history up to its final season in 2013.
Shooting Below the Borscht Belt
Despite its Upstate New York Setting, Dirty Dancing shooting took place primarily in Virginia and North Carolina.
Freezing Among Fake Foliage
In order to utilize summer getaway locations, filmmakers had to shoot Dirty Dancing in the fall. As a result, the stars were frequently chilly on set (Grey and Swayze’s lake scene proved especially icy) and autumn leaves had to be spray-painted green.
Going for Pembroke
Dirty Dancing’s cast and crew mostly stayed and largely filmed at Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke Virginia. After the movie hit, tourists flocked to the Lodge, and it has hosted regular Dirty Dancing events every summer since then.
Dirty Dancing opened in late summer to genuinely positive reviews and solid box office returns. Teens, however, fell in love with the movie, repeatedly returning to see it and keeping it in theaters even after it came out on videocassette. It ended up the 11th biggest moneymaker of 1987.
Ultimately, Dirty Dancing, made for $5 million, grossed more than $214 million in theaters worldwide. Regular big-screen revivals and midnight showings keep adding to that box office total.
Dancing Along at Home
Dirty Dancing ruled as the most popular home video rental of 1988.
Music and Dancing
The Dirty Dancing soundtrack, to date, has sold in excess of 32 million copies. It spawned a 1988 follow-up album, More Dirty Dancing, and generated three monster pop singles: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes; “She’s Like the Wind” by Patrick Swayze; and “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen.
Still Singing, Still Dancing (Especially in Ireland)
Ultimate Dirty Dancing, issued in 2003, collected every song associated with the film. Four years later, Dirty Dancing: Twentieth Anniversary Edition was a two-disc set that also contained all the songs, plus a DVD of music video and behind-the-scenes clips. The original soundtrack continues to sell well worldwide, particularly in Ireland, where it still occasionally re-enters the pop charts.
Bill Medley, the deep-voiced sensation of the Righteous Brothers who sings the unmistakably male part on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” says that when he heard the title Dirty Dancing, he thought, “It sounds like a bad porno movie.” He recorded the song anyway, thinking not much would come of it. Three years later, Medley's voice lit up another Patrick Swayze romance classic, as the Righteous Brothers's "Unchained Melody" underscored the pottery scene with Demi Moore in Ghost. In 2014, Medley titled his autobiography, The Time of My Life.
Jennifer Warnes, who sings co-lead with Bill Medley on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” scored another #1 movie theme duet five years earlier. That’s when she paired up with Joe Cocker on “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman. On a side note, Jennifer also famously duets with B.J. Thomas on “As Long as We've Got Each Other” the theme song from the TV sitcom Growing Pains.
Righteous, Oscar (and Grammy)!
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” hit #1 in November 1987 and sold more than 500,00 copies. Just a few months later, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals at the Grammys, and the writers took home the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Eric Carmen, who charted at #4 with the Dirty Dancing single “Hungry Eyes,” had been the lead singer of ’70s power-pop legends, the Raspberries. This success scored him a follow-up solo 1988 hit, “Make Me Lose Control.”
He’s Like the Wind
Patrick Swayze co-wrote “She’s Like the Wind" for his earlier movie, Grandview U.S.A. He intended it for Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 1984 car-racing comedy-drama. The Dirty Dancing version hit #3 on the Billboard singles chart.
Live and Dirty
In 1988, Bill Medley and Eric Carmen headlined Dirty Dancing: Live in Concert, a touring stage review that played 90 cities in 90 days.
Too Hot for TV (Maybe)
CBS aired Dirty Dancing, the TV series, for 11 episodes in 1988. Patrick Cassidy and Melora Harding co-starred as Johnny and Baby, while young Paul Feig—Freaks and Geeks co-creator and director of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot—played Norman Bryant.
Just Right for UK TV (For Two Years)
Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life, a reality TV dance competition, ran in the UK for two seasons between 2007 and 2008. The show took place at the Mountain Lake Lodge. Miranda Garrison, who played Vivian Pressman in the movie, served as one of the judges.
In 2004, Eleanor Bergstein adapted her screenplay as a live musical titled Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. The show has been mounted with tremendous success in Toronto, Chicago and Europe, and toured North America in 2014. Although intended for Broadway, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage has not yet reached the Great White Way proper.
Even after an onslaught of Dirty Dancing-themed workout products, perhaps the most curious spin-off came out for the movie’s 20th anniversary. Dirty Dancing: The Video Game. The computer game’s official promo text pretty much says it all: “Learn how to dance with Johnny and Penny. Start slow and try your best, see how fast you progress with their expert help! Create your own character and check into Kellerman's - personalize your cabin with tons of amazing collectables and furniture. Take part in 10 great games as soon as you learn the moves needed to take part in the End of Season Dance Contest!”
In 1997, Conan O’Brien prompted 10th anniversary theatrical re-release of Dirty Dancing by asking his viewers to bombard the studio with demands to see it on the big screen. Conan may or many not actually a fan; the bit was just a gag—but, lucky for the movie’s millions of legit boosters, it worked!