In 1947, the creator of Dick Tracy comics introduced the character of Sparkle, prompting an enterprising fan to develop the phenomenally successful Baby Sparkle Plenty doll. At 14 inches tall, Sparkle’s golden tresses fell near to her waist and could be brushed and braided. Her skin was washable. She had several outfits. And young Ellen Travolta wanted one oh-so-badly.
How badly? Enough to negotiate its acquisition through her grandmother, who asked in return that the headstrong and much-beloved first-born child of Helen Cecelia and Salvator “Sam” Travolta allow her parents to finally take a trip to nearby New York City — without her. She was 8 years old.
“What Elle wants, Elle gets,” said Travolta, referring to her childhood nickname.
She’s only half-serious. Born in Englewood, N.J., in 1939, she was not yet a teenager when her grandmother died, yet she easily slipped into a caregiving role, even as additional siblings arrived — two more sisters and three brothers.
Travolta attended Carnegie Mellon University, married, had two children, and landed her first television role — All in the Family — in 1976. More roles (and a divorce) followed: Police Story, One Day At a Time, The Love Boat, Diff’rent Strokes. She had a recurring role on the ‘50’s-based sitcom, Happy Days, and played radio host Marion Keisker, the first person to have recorded the future superstar in John Carpenter’s 1979 television film Elvis.
All throughout, Travolta supported and encouraged her many siblings, many of whom are also in the entertainment industry.
“I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility,” she said.
She knew, for example, that her youngest brother, John, loved planes, but had never been on one, so she sent him an airline ticket for a short Newark-to-Philadelphia flight. Travolta, who was appearing on stage in the production of Gypsy at the time, was delighted; John even more so (he’s since become a licensed pilot and ambassador-at-large for Quantas).
“Best 25 bucks I ever spent,” she said.
This year, what Travolta wanted for the holidays were stories about other people’s toys: one they got, didn’t get, or gave.
After judicious editing, 14 of those stories are being incorporated into “Christmas Unwrapped,” a cabaret-style production hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Resort. It features various members of the Travolta clan: her sister, film and television actress Margaret Travolta; her daughter, Molly Allen Ritter, whose voice would be recognizable to radio listeners in the Spokane metropolitan area; and even her granddaughter, Lola Rose Fridley. Running from Thanksgiving to mid-December, the performance also includes regional singers and actors: Mark Cotter, Abbey Crawford, Laura Sable, and Patrick Treadway.
One of the stories in the show, confides Travolta, is from her brother John — Johnnie, she calls him lovingly — whom audiences know from such movies as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, and Michael.
Another story featured in the production is about a woman’s childhood memory praying for her doll to come to life, only to realize she’d have to feed and care for it. In the end, the girl had a change of heart, praying for exactly what she gets on Christmas Day: the doll stays a doll.
This year’s production builds on the success of the 2017 “Christmas with a Twist: ‘Tis the Season for Family,” in which Travolta incorporated reader submissions with those from her sizable family, who also were part of the cast.
Missing, however, was Jack Bannon, Travolta’s husband of 34 years, who passed away last October. Travolta was bereft, still is.
“He was my friend,” she said simply, fighting back tears.
And yet work — rehearsals, correspondence, attending to details — as well as sticking to her exercise regimen of walking, water aerobics, and working with a personal trainer gave structure to her days.
“It saved my life,” said Travolta.
She and Bannon first got involved with the holiday-themed production in 2013 when the existing theater company disbanded. By that time, the names and faces of Ellen Travolta and Jack Bannon, best known for his role on the ‘70s and ‘80s series, Lou Grant, were fairly common throughout town. Both had appeared in various Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater productions since relocating to Coeur d’Alene from the Los Angeles area in the ‘90s and were regular supporters of local visual and performing arts events.
Travolta didn’t grow up pursuing community theater — that was her mother’s bailiwick — but has come full-circle, finding a sense of community not unlike that in her own family. In fact, that’s partially what brought Travolta and Bannon to the area.
In an oft-told story, Travolta relayed that she was on hiatus from filming a television show in 1989 when fellow actor, Daniel Baldwin recommended the couple check out north Idaho. On their trip, someone recognized them, said Travolta, and asked if they wanted to be in a play. They did, traveling to the area several years before relocating permanently in 1994.
“By the time we moved here we had a social life.” ISI