Henry Winkler’s Fonz is “a lightweight,” John Travolta’s character in Grease is “an absolute nothing,” and the whole movie suffers from a “weak” script. Says who? Says Jon Bauman, part-time arbiter of that subculture and full-time lead greaser (“Bowzer”) of rock’n’roll’s perennial parodists, Sha Na Na. The group, though overaged (26 to 32) for its material, has in fact never been bigger. Its rock-and-variety series was last season’s surprise hit of TV syndication and has been renewed in 136 cities. Then, in addition to a cameo gig (as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers) in the movie Grease, the ersatz rockers waxed six of the songs on the sound track album—which has just toppled the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls from No. 1 on the charts. And that, figures Bauman, is how it should be. After all, “Sha Na Na was unquestionably the stimulus for the entire ’50s craze.”
Modesty aside, he may have a point. Sha Na Na (the name comes from the background chorus to the Silhouettes’ 1958 hit, Get a Job) evolved from a Columbia University choral group in 1969 (preceding Broadway’s Grease by three years and TV’s Happy Days by five years). By the end of the year they had played Woodstock and soon became a coast-to-coast campus sensation. But as they grew, they wound up one of the most bitterly fractious New York groups this side of the Yankees.
“There have been times when the blood has been very bad,” says Scott Simon, “and Bowzer has always been one of the focuses.” The problem, says “Screamin’ Scott” (as he is known in the act), is that the beaky Bauman is “unquestionably the star—at some distance you’ve got Lennie Baker and Johnny Contardo. All the others are more or less anonymous.”
The group hit bottom four years ago when one member, Vinnie Taylor, died of a heroin overdose—ironic in a band that projected an up-beat, good-time image. It was about then that Bauman sued the band to recover the half salary he’d been docked for missing dates due to a collapsed lung. The suit was quickly settled, but tensions still remain. Harrumphs Denny Greene, the group’s only black member, “Sha Na Na is 10 people. I don’t necessarily agree that Bauman’s the most recognizable. I find I’m extremely recognizable wherever I go.” He’s only half-kidding. “What you’ve got,” says Scott, “is some semi-talented people who ignore the reality that everybody is not as interesting as everybody else. When we’re on the road, it’s a potentially unhealthy situation any minute.” However they feel, no one doubts Bauman’s dedication. “He works on Bowzer 24 hours a day,” says the 300-pound sax man, Lennie Baker.
Bauman’s dentist father and what he calls “the worst Jewish mother cook in the world—her idea was to feed the spirit” didn’t raise their boy to be a greaser. He took weekly piano lessons at Juilliard for six years, and recalls that “my entire life from 5 on, when I read Evangeline, was spent getting into college.” But growing up in Queens, he picked up unwanted pointers that would help him in his act. “Some Bowzer-like guys hung out in front of a local luncheonette,” he recalls, “singing a cappella and molesting kids. I had my books kicked down the sewer a few times.” Local hoods once “told me to give them money, or they’d beat the shit out of me. I never got my money back until I became a Bowzer myself.”
That happened in 1970, after Bauman graduated magna in music from Columbia. Tapped to replace a Sha Na Na who had quit to become a rabbi, Jon claims to be the one who introduced skits into the musical show. “I was the only guy who was really into developing a character,” says Bauman, who also once studied acting with Lee Strasberg. “Before I came along nobody talked onstage. After a year we couldn’t get by on the fad aspect.”
The solidity in Bauman’s life is his wife of seven years, Mary, 28 (of the Ryerson steel family), a former Montessori school principal. Because of the TV commitment, they have relocated from New York to a three-bedroom condominium in Studio City. During Jon’s rare free time (Sha Na Na taped 16 shows during June and is now touring) they enjoy such non-Bowzer pastimes as marathon hikes and serious bird-watching. “And,” Mary tosses in, “I’m trying to get pregnant.”
The diehard group seems to be solid enough to justify that. “Everyone’s getting older and more tolerant,” thinks Mary. Jon, “bothered but not embittered” by the group’s many tiffs, adds: “Besides, with 10 guys, you can’t agree on anything—including splitting up.”