‘Grease’ creator offers scholarship

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Jim Jacobs has got bills—dollar bills—and the co-creator of the musical “Grease” is about to make them multiply for students.

Jacobs visited Columbia Sept. 18 to finalize plans with the college for two eponymous scholarships for musical theater students starting in fall 2013.

“What am I going to do with this bread?” Jacobs said. “Why don’t I give it to the needy children’s fund of Chicago. That would be Columbia College students.”

Basic qualifications include a 3.0 GPA and the completion of 12–29 credits, said Eric Winston, vice president of Institutional Advancement.

Albert Williams, a faculty member in the Theatre Department, said the two $5,000 scholarships will be invaluable to students with the passion, drive and talent but not the means to afford college.

“Jim decided, without any prodding from us, that [the scholarships] should target [students returning as] sophomores,” Williams said. “It’s only going to be for people who are freshmen this year and then apply to get it next year, so that really makes it an important tool for retention.”

Jacobs, 69, said he began working on the scholarship after attending An Evening of Cabaret: Journeys and New Beginnings in Studio 404, 72 E. 11th St., in February 2011. The event was a fundraiser for the Betty Garrett Musical Theatre Scholarship, which has similar criteria but does not take financial need into account.

“The [scholarships are] going to be need-based and talent-based,” said Ruby Schucker, director of Planned Giving and Major Gifts, which budgets and disburses funds donated to the college. “All of the fine tuning has been done. And we do have information online for students.”

The scholarship criteria gives the Theatre Department responsibility to be fair and rigorous in student evaluations, Williams said. “It makes a student decide pretty early on if they’re going to stick to [musical theater.]”

The program is unique because it merges many skillsets, he added. “[People] don’t do it for the money. It’s about the passion, the need to do this work.”

Jacobs grew up in Chicago and attended William Taft High School, which served as the inspiration for “Grease.” He then took two years of night classes at Loop Junior College, and that is the extent of his formal education.

“My parents, they dropped out of school during the Depression, and if it was good enough for them to work in a factory, it was good enough for us,” Jacobs said. “I thought, well, you know, that’s crap. So maybe if I go to junior college I can eventually further my education.”

Jacobs met the president of a community theater while working at the Chicago Tribune during his freshman year of college, and he immersed himself in the percolating off-Loop theater scene. During this time, he befriended The Second City founders Paul Sills and Bernard Sahlins.

“I just let it happen man,” he said of his life and career. “I was lucky enough to work with good people, it seemed, no matter what part of life or music or theater I went into.”

Jacobs said the professional relationships he’s built have endured because of his willingness to invest in other artists, which was how he met “Grease” co-writer Warren Casey, in 1963.

“Everyone goes on their own ego, but I latched onto Warren immediately,” Jacobs said. “I said, ‘This is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life.’ So we hung out and knew each other for seven years before the idea of ‘Grease’ hit me one night.”

Jacobs and Casey’s follow-up was “The Island of Lost Co-Eds,” the first show Columbia produced at what is now the Getz Theater.

“[Columbia] was a tiny little nothing in the south end of the Loop that nobody even hardly knew about,” Jacobs said.

Through his stepdaughter, a senior in the Theatre Department and the cabaret’s choreographer, Jacobs reconnected with many of his peers and encountered students studying dance, acting and music who could use the help of his scholarship.

“It’ll be there every year until I’m on the wrong side of the grass,” Jacobs said. “It’ll all be there for the students.”