OTD in History… August 21, 1987, Dirty Dancing opens in theaters
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 21, 1987, the movie Dirty Dancing opens in theaters, the low budget film would go on to make records as one of the biggest selling home videos in history. The film starred Patrick Swayze as a dance instructor and Jennifer Grey as a recent high school graduate entering college and looking to change the world. The movie is set in the summer of 1963 just before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the country plunged into the Vietnam War. The coming of age story was located at a fictional Jewish summer resort called Kellerman’s in the then-popular vacation spot the Catskills in New York. On its release, the New York Times called Dirty Dancing “a metaphor for America in the summer of 1963 — orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions, a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot.”
The movie was primarily a love story between Swayze’s Johnny Castle and Grey’s Frances “Baby” Houseman revolving around “dirty dancing,” and based on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein time vacationing with her family in the Catskills. The movie also dealt with some weighty and still taboo issues including abortion, which was still illegal in 1963, class differences, infidelity, criminal activity, and the prerequisite generational gap. The movie’s production was plagued with setbacks, illness, injuries and bad weather, and it nearly went straight to video. Even in 1987, the movie lost a corporate sponsor because of the abortion storyline and scene in the movie.
Still, the movie went on to more than $200 million at the box office, $170 million in 1987, two subsequent releases, over a million copies sold on home video and DVD, and was the highest grossing home video in 1988. The movie spawned two multi-platinum soundtracks that peaked at the top of the Billboard charts, with the first soundtrack topping the charts for 18 weeks and selling 32 million copies. The movie also garnered four Golden Globe nominations including best actor and actress for Swayze and Grey. It went on to win three awards for the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, the theme used for the finale dance, including the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song and Grammy Award for Best Duet, the song also topped the Billboard top 100 singles charts.
Dirty Dancing was immortalized in pop culture, including a short TV series, a reimagining prequel in 2004, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, where Swayze had a cameo as a dance instructor and a musical TV remake version in 2017 for its 30th anniversary. Dirty Dancing is considered the top chick flick film, one of “Women’s most-watched films,” while the movie is most remembered for Swayze’s line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” The movie has reached a pop culture status that none of those involved could have imagined, especially since “It seemed fluffy — nothing more than a summer camp movie,” as Swayze called the script in his 2009 autobiography The Time Of My Life.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.