CSUN gets iconic “Grease” actress as a professor

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John Travolta and Chicano studies professor Annette Cardona dancing on the set of the movie “Grease”. Courtesy of Annette Cardona

It wasn’t until she was an adult that Annette Cardona’s mother first bought her a Barbie doll. It was dressed in tight, cropped pants, a fitted sweater and a yellow scarf. The doll’s face and dark curly hair resembled Cardona’s.

“It was so ironic,” Cardona said. “When I was a little girl, my mother wouldn’t allow me to have Barbies.”

Money, she said, went to other things.

However, when the Cha Cha Barbie was released in 2008, Cardona’s mother broke her own rule and bought the doll fashioned after the character her daughter played in the popular movie, “Grease.”

The doll represents only one of Cardona’s many accomplishments. Numerous television, theater and film performances adorn her resume, attesting to years of hard work.

But performing is not her only passion, Cardona said. She enjoys sharing her performance knowledge and experience with others, a love that led to her current position.

Cardona is now a professor of speech and interpersonal communication in the Chicano studies department at CSUN.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Cardona said she started dancing at the age of four upon a pediatrician’s recommendation.

“My legs were bowed and the doctor thought dance might help,” she said. “I really took to dancing.”

Just out of high school, Cardona auditioned for a local production of “West Side Story” and got a role as a member of the chorus. Before long she was traveling all over to dance, and by age 21, had performed on Broadway alongside Katharine Hepburn, she said.

Later, after a performance in Los Angeles, Cardona said an agent attending her show approached her.

“That was the start of my doing television,” Cardona said, crediting the agent for beginning her series of guest appearances on shows such as Magnum P.I. and Gunsmoke.

Cardona said she started taking singing and acting lessons to be considered as an actor.

While traveling with shows, Cardona said she met a number of different casting directors, who would recommend her for other roles.

After working on a Tennessee Williams play with Williams himself, Cardona said she was recommended for the movie Grease.

“The stage version of Grease was kind of silly,” Cardona said. “The role of Cha Cha was much different. She was dorky and fat and danced horribly.”

The directors changed the role of Cha Cha to highlight John Travolta’s dancing, Cardona said, adding that there was very little script on Cha Cha, giving her liberty to define the role.

“I almost said no,” Cardona said. “I was working really hard to become an actress and didn’t want to be thought of as just a dancer.”

No one knew it would take off like it did, Cardona said, but Grease is now in its 32nd year and new versions are still being released, including a sing-a-long version that premiered June 25 at the Hollywood Bowl.

Randal Kleiser, director of the 1978 film said he remembers Cardona’s abilities.

“She was the perfect actor to play Cha Cha,” Kleiser said. “I couldn’t imagine anyone better.”

The day the racing scene was shot, Kleiser said, Cardona was ill.

“She showed up and did the scene, with all that dialog and laughing, and I didn’t even know she was sick,” Kleiser said of Cardona’s professionalism.

After Grease, Cardona said she went on to do a number of theater performances, while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Cardona received her master’s degree in social work from New York University and performed for President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1983.

Cardona taught speech communication for the first time in 1997 at Santa Monica College, where she was hired by one of her theater friends in the department.

“I said I didn’t know how to teach public speaking other than what I did in the theater and he said, ‘I want you to do what you do. That’s what we’re missing,’” Cardona said. “That led to my learning the craft.”
In 2002, Cardona took a job teaching at CSUN.

Cardona said she loves teaching at CSUN because she can incorporate a lot of her theater training into her classes.

“I find people are so afraid to speak,” she said. “We’re taught in the theater how get rid of those fears.”

Cardona also uses dance and physical workouts in her curriculum.

“People need to be comfortable in their own bodies. Its all one piece,” Cardona said. “They think I’m nuts when they meet me.”

Elyssa Berger took Cardona’s class in 2008 to fulfill a general elective course needed to change careers.

“The class was transforming,” Berger said.

Berger added she enjoyed the class she had wanted to “get out of the way.”

She demands people participate, Berger said. At first there was some resistance, but it didn’t take long for people to join in, she added.

“I saw these big tough guys doing theater exercises,” she said. “They dropped their egos at the door.”

Although Cardona has changed careers, she remains much the same as in her performance days.

“It’s terrific that she’s become a teacher,” Kleiser said. “I’ve seen her over the years and she hasn’t changed a bit.”

 


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