“Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out . . . to that same old place that you laughed about” is the opening line to the John Sebastian hit theme song from the beloved Brooklyn-based TV series Welcome Back, Kotter.
The show debuted on Sept. 9, 1975. Comedian Gabe Kaplan played title character Gabe Kotter, who returns to teach at his alma mater. Kaplan grew up in Bensonhurst and attended New Utrecht High School, which doubled as the fictional James Buchanan High in the TV series.
Kotter is tasked with teaching a remedial class of underachieving students known as the Sweathogs. The ethnically diverse group includes Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs; Juan Epstein, portrayed by Robert Hegyes; class clown Arnold Horshack, played by Ron Palillo; and in his debut role, John Travolta as heartthrob Vinnie Barbarino.
The show ran for four seasons as audiences fell in love with the motley group of wisecracking Sweathogs, until its final broadcast on June 8, 1979. Other cast members include Marcia Strassman as Julie Kotter and John Sylvester White as put-upon Vice Principal Michael Woodman, who later becomes principal.
The show featured many distinctive pop culture moments including Horshack’s loud nasal laugh, Washington’s effusive greeting, “Hello, Mr. Kott-err,” and the perpetually dazed Barbarino with his catchphrase, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”
The characters were originally featured in Kaplan’s comedy routine “Holes and Mellow Roles,” and all were based on actual students Kaplan knew at New Utrecht. Except for Arnold Horshack, their names were slightly changed.
The series has developed a cult following and has been a staple favorite in syndication and on DVD. Sadly, with the exceptions of Kaplan, Travolta and Hilton-Jacobs, everyone in the original cast has died. White died in 1988, Palillo and Hegyes in 2012, and Strassman in 2014.
Hilton-Jacobs has guest-starred on television shows and appeared in films, and sang on Rick James’ 1981 album Street Songs. Kaplan has also appeared on television and in movies but has devoted most of his time to playing professional poker, finishing ninth place in the 2007 World Series of Poker. Travolta is a movie icon, starring in classic films like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Urban Cowboy,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty” and “Hairspray.”
But for anyone of a certain age, Travolta will always be Vinnie (“I’m so confused”) Ba, Ba Ba Ba, Ba Barbarino, the charismatic leader of a group of misfit students we fell in love with nearly 45 years ago.