CSUN College of Humanties Newsletter
page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
  Skip Navigation

“Her selfless work in the community as well as her compassion for her students are things that I will always remember. She pushed her students to not only do their best in school, but to be the best human beings they could be.”


In Memoriam: Annette Cardona

Annette Cardon as Cha Cha in the movie "Grease."
Photo courtesy of Cardona family

Annette Cardona, who died August 3 at age 63, may be best remembered internationally for her role in Grease — credited as “Annette Charles”— as bad girl Charlene “Cha Cha” DiGregorio, the self-proclaimed “best dancer at St. Bernadette's,” who crashes the Rydell High dance-off, bumping and grinding her way to a win with Danny Zuko while a humiliated Sandy leaves the gym in a pouty huff. The audience was meant to side with the sweet and innocent Sandy in the scene, but Cardona gave Cha Cha’s character a magnetism that brought out the self-assured bad girl in all of us. Such was her scene-stealing allure that Mattel fashioned a Barbie doll after her, releasing the “Grease Dance-off Cha Cha” in 2008 to mark the film's 30th anniversary.

That kind of notoriety is hard to beat. Nevertheless, the Cal State Northridge campus community remembers Cardona best as the supportive and enthusiastic advocate who helped students find their voice as an instructor of speech communication and public speaking in the Chicana and Chicano Studies department, where she had taught since 2002. To the classroom she brought her experience in performing arts as well as her training as a mental health clinician, having returned to school following her decades-long career in theater, TV, and film to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and theater at Antioch University Los Angeles and a master's in social work at New York University.

“True actors are open, patient people—their skill set is not unlike that of a good therapist,” Cardona told the campus faculty-staff newspaper @CSUN in a January 2011 profile. “For me, speech communication is about finding your voice and using it to enrich your life.”

Elyssa Berger, a former student who acknowledges she had initially dreaded fulfilling her general education oral communication requirement, told the student newspaper the Daily Sundial that Cardona's class was “transforming” for her as well as for other students. “I saw these big tough guys doing theater exercises,” she told the Sundial. “They dropped their egos at the door.” Another former CSUN student of Cardona's was moved by an online obituary to write, anonymously, “Her selfless work in the community as well as her compassion for her students are things that I will always remember. She pushed her students to not only do their best in school, but to be the best human beings they could be.”

Cardona reached out to younger students, too, merging her training in adolescent psychology with her performance experience to co-write and co-direct the musical theater production Second Chance, which dealt with the impact of issues such as substance abuse, pregnancy, gang violence, and suicidal thoughts among teens. When the show toured secondary schools in the early 1990s, Cardona and her creative partners were often asked to soften aspects that some adults found too controversial, but they always insisted on staying true to the production as written, finding little point in pulling punches when they were trying to deliver a message of hope to youths. Lynne Heffley wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that, following performances of Second Chance, school site coordinators routinely reported upticks in “the number of students who refer themselves for help because of drug dependency, gang involvement, and other at-risk behavior.”

Highlights of the native Angeleno's 25 years in entertainment include having worked with choreographers Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, actors Anthony Quinn and Katharine Hepburn, and playwright Tennessee Williams. She also performed at the White House for Ronald and Nancy Reagan with musical theater star Mary Martin and master violinist Itzhak Perlman. With that kind of résumé, how could Cardona have guessed that her relatively small role in Grease would bring her worldwide fame?

“I almost said no [to the role],” she told the Daily Sundial. “I was working really hard to become an actress and didn't want to be thought of as just a dancer.” The richness of Cardona's experiences and the magnitude of her influence on her students, clients, and community ensure that she'll be remembered for so much more.

Cardona was hospitalized with pneumonia at USC University Hospital in June, at which time she was diagnosed with stage-four nonsmokers lung cancer. She died just six weeks later.

— Submitted by Teresa K. Morrison
page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9