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‘Dirty Dancing’ at 30: How Baby and Johnny Won Over the Skeptics

It’s been 30 years since Baby and Johnny had the time of their life, but “Dirty Dancing” remains as popular as when it opened on Aug. 21, 1987. Actually, it’s even more popular: When the ABC remake aired May 24 this year, fans immediately registered anger and/or disappointment on social media. It was a reminder that the magic of the 1987 version could not be duplicated.

The original “Dirty Dancing” was one of the summer’s biggest surprises. It was filmed on a $6 million budget and earned $213 million at the box office, plus has a long and booming afterlife in video and spinoffs.

Filming of the Vestron movie — written by Eleanor Bergstein and directed by Emile Ardolino — was done on two main locations: Lake Lure in N.C., and the Mountain Lake Lodge in Giles County, Va. Mountain Lake was responsible for many of the exterior shots. The lodge, built in the 1930s, had the perfect look to re-create Kellerman’s, the fictional Catskills resort in 1963.

When Mountain Lake’s reps signed on, their main concern was that filming would interfere with the activities of the guests. And attorneys included a clause that Mountain Lake could remove its name from the film if they didn’t like what they saw.

The resort’s team thought the movie was to be titled “Dancing.” J.W. McMillin, general manager of the resort at the time, told Variety in 1987 that the staff and locals were horrified when they heard the title change. McMillin said, “When the name ‘Dirty Dancing’ came out, we thought, ‘Uh oh, what have we been a part of?’”

A local chamber of commerce meeting was held and in Spring 1987, two hotel representatives were sent to New York to see a rough cut of the film, to decide whether to exercise their contractual rights. They returned to Virginia with a thumbs-up, and there was a tentative sigh of relief.

But the biggest vote of approval came when the film opened at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg. “Everyone in town loved it,” reported McMillin. “It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened here. I think everybody in the county has seen the film at least six times,” he told Variety four months after the film opened.

And, of course, business increased at the resort. When the execs received a poster, McMillin reported, they decided, “By golly, we’ll just go right ahead and put it up” in the lobby.

The other location, Lake Lure, was a former boys camp, with less activity from tourists, thus easier filming. Although the two sites were hundreds of miles apart, the magic of Hollywood made them seem like one spot.

Both locations have benefited from their connection to the film, and mountain resorts in various states continue to have “Dirty Dancing” weekends to capitalize on the film’s popularity.

Six months after the film debuted, Vestron took out an ad in Variety on Feb. 8, 1988, bragging that the soundtrack sold more than 5 million units and spawned a sequel album, “More Dirty Dancing.” The movie also chalked up then-impressive 375,000 video units and easily hit No. 1 on Billboard rental charts.

There were also a 1988 TV series starring Melora Hardin, Patrick Cassidy, and Paul Feig, two semi-sequels (“Havana Nights” and “Capoeira Nights”), a concert tour, stage adaptation, books, calendars, clothes, mugs, workout videos, books, endless spoofs, plus routines on “Dancing With the Stars.” And, of course, the TV remake.

But despite all these incarnations, there is no substitute for the original Baby and Johnny: Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Three years after “Dirty Dancing,” Swayze had even greater success with the 1990 “Ghost,” co-starring Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore, which hauled in a mammoth $505 million.

When Swayze died in 2009, Grey fondly recalled working with him and “doing this tiny little movie we thought no one would ever see.” Some films earn big box office when they open, but then fade from memory. “Dirty Dancing” is part of a rare group of films that maintains fondness and devotion from fans that’s just as strong 30 years later.

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