Professor and “Grease” actress Annette Cardona dies

Samantha Tata

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Photo courtest of Annette Cardona

CSUN communication professor Annette Cardona, known for her iconic role in “Grease” as Cha Cha DiGregorio, died Aug. 3. She was 63.

Cardona, a seasoned dancer, singer and actress, died of lung cancer although she was not a smoker.

“Her illness was very fast and did not give any of her closest friends time to have closure,” said friend and chicano/a studies professor Renee Morena.  “There are no easy words to describe Annette or who she was.  She was my big sister, my friend and my colleague—all rolled into one.”

Cardona joined CSUN  as a lecturer in the chicano/a studies department in 2002 after a long career on stage.

The actress-turned-professor was perhaps best know for her electric performance in Grease, where she played “the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s.”

The film’s cult following spawned a Barbie doll collection, including one for Cardona’s character, and a popular sing-along show at the Hollywood Bowl.

“Imagine 18,000 die-hard Grease fans in poodle skirts and leather jackets singing their hearts out in front of a screen the size of Texas,” said Brittany Maiman, CSUN almuna and usher at the Hollywood Bowl. “(Cardona) is part of that legacy.”

Cardona also made occasional guest role appearances in episodic TV shows and performed at the White House for former President Ronald Reagan.

“Annette was an amazing person,” said Dr. Ana Sánchez-Muñoz, assistant professor of linguistics in the chicano/a studies department. “She was so talented and so passionate about everything she did.  She had a fascinating background, yet she was very devoted to our students.”

Cardona’s friends and colleagues describe her as extremely driven. That drive, they said, compelled her to push students to reach their full potential.

Recently, Cardona was involved with the McNair Scholars Program, designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies.

“She drilled them and drilled them, critiqued them and gave them harsh words of advice,” Moreno said.  “But everything came from her desire to make them better, and they responded.”

Her career in theater helped Cardona with public speaking and was especially helpful in teaching students, she told the Sundial in 2010.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Cardona began her long history as a dancer. By the age of 14 she had developed into a serious performer.

She landed a role as a chorus member with a local production of “Westside Story” and by 21 she had performed on Broadway alongside Katharine Hepburn.

Cardona went on to work on a Tennessee Williams play, “The Red Devil Battery Sign,” alongside celebrated Mexican actress Katy Jurado.

The multi-talented artist continued to star in various productions such as Haskell Wexler’s “Latino,” and Jorge Diaz’s “A Cry in the Distance,” at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. It was there where she showcased her talent off stage as co-writer and -director of a musical theater production, “Second Chance,” with Amy Weinstein.

“I cannot imagine life without Annette,” said Moreno. “I will miss her. I already miss her. My life is forever changed in knowing her, and the world is a little less without her.”