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    Posted September 7, 2011

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Remembering Annette Cardona (Annette Charles)

by Travis Michael Holder

My dear friend Annette Cardona, who tragically passed away Aug. 3 at age 63 after a swift and unexpected battle with cancer, is remembered first by the general public as Annette Charles, enduringly famous for the dance sequence she shared with John Travolta as Cha Cha diGregorio, the "baddest dancer at St. Bernadette's" in the film version of Grease. Of any public figure with whom I have ever spent time, no one I've ever known was more instantly recognizable than Annette. People felt comfortable approaching her and she in turn responded with her signature warmth and genuine humility to be told over and again that Cha Cha was so many fans' favorite character in the movie.

One of my most indelible memories of Annette was sitting with her at the opening night of the revival of A CHORUS LINE a few years ago. Tears steamed down her face through most of the performance, partially because her mentor and pal Michael Bennett had asked her to play one of the major roles in the original New York production, but after a long and arduous decision process, Annette had chosen instead to take another juicy offer, to play Aldonza/Dulcinea in THE MAN OF LA MANCHA on Broadway opposite Herschel Bernardi.

But neither the memory of her fast friendship with the late-great Bennett nor loss of a plum role in an historic production were the main reason A CHORUS LINE brought tears to Annette's eyes. Granted, as my frequent companion for many an opening night over my years reviewing for Entertainment Today and BackStage, I can attest that even Neil Simon could make Annette cry. No, the reason was simple: she had a heart the size of all outdoors and spent her life caring more for those around her than anyone I have ever known.

Cha Cha, however, was far from her only accomplishment. Beginning with a questionable ID as a teenage flamenco dancer in small clubs in her native Los Angeles, Annette was discovered by Edwin Lester and brought to the long-defunct LA Civic Light Opera to appear in his production of WEST SIDE STORY, beginning a long and celebrated Broadway and international stage career, working with such significant director-choreographers as Bennett and Bob Fosse in SWEET CHARITY, COCO, PROMISES PROMISES, and as standby for Chita Rivera in Meredith Wilson's 1491.

Among her many accomplishments, Annette originated the role of the Acid Queen in The Who's rock opera Tommy, starred as Anthony Quinn's daughter in the world premiere of Tennessee Williams' RED DEVIL BATTERY SIGN, and took on multiple roles in Candide for Leonard Bernstein. She also starred in the controversial Haskell Wexler/George Lucas movie Latino, among many film and TV appearances, and was especially proud to have performed for President and Mrs. Reagan at the White House alongside Mary Martin, John Raitt and Itzhak Perlman.

Still, none of that was enough for Annette, who returned to school at the height of her success, receiving degrees in both Theatre and Psychology and eventually earning a Masters from NYU School of Social Work in 2001 to become a mental health clinician with the objective of utilizing her background in the performing arts to reach and motivate culturally diverse at-risk youth. But even that wasn't enough for Annette, who while continuing her work as a psychologist, took on a whole new second simultaneous career as a professor of Speech and Communication in the Chicano Studies Department at California State University Northridge-as well as continuing to put creaky old timers like me through our paces at her strenuous Tuesday night weekly dance workshop in Sherman Oaks.

At the time doctors diagnosed her illness just last month, Annette was about to begin yet another job, teaching alongside yours truly at New York Film Academy's west coast Universal Studios-Hollywood campus. Having last spring joined Grease director Randal Kleiser at NYFA's special screening and discussion of their classic film, my students could not stop talking about Annette, whom I'd encouraged them to meet after the event. Her radiating love for everyone, especially blossoming artists, and her sincere caring for the future of the arts, impressed and inspired them immeasurably.

As I join her loving family and many, many steadfast and shocked friends mourning her untimely death, I keep thinking of those students-and how much the fickle universe has robbed them of an amazing learning experience, being taught by someone with the determination and unstoppable spirit of Annette Cardona.

It would have been a gift they would have never forgotten.

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