When I was 14 in 2002, I watched “West Side Story” for the first time and became obsessed with the movie musical, which premiered 55 years ago in New York City on Oct. 18, 1961. My dad who introduced me to the film later regretted it, because I listened to the soundtrack every night and tried to learn the dances. “West Side Story” is directly responsible for my love of movie musicals which manifested into the weekly Musical Monday.
“West Side Story” is one of those movies where you notice or learn something new with every viewing and every detail and aesthetic was carefully planned. When you’re obsessed with a film, you research the heck out of it to learn all you can. One thing that I have always been interested in is the story behind all the dancers that made up the film.
The lead actors of Natalie Wood (as Maria), Richard Beymer (as Tony), Rita Moreno (as Anita), George Chakiris (as Bernardo), and Russ Tamblyn (as Riff) are all stupendous. But many of us already know their stories.
I really wanted to delve into the actors you don’t know as well: the story behind the actor who played Baby John who is now a renowned in the New York City ballet world. Or there’s the Shark who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. You maybe didn’t know it, but you probably watched Consuelo on “Full House.”
This is the story behind the Jets, the Sharks and their girlfriends. They weren’t the ones who picked up the Academy Awards for “West Side Story” and didn’t even have their name on the marquee, but their dancing is what mesmerized the audiences.
Jose De Vega (Chino): Next to Bernardo, Chino is one of the few Sharks we know by name or has many lines. Chino is in love with Maria, and her brother Bernardo wants the two to get married. When Chino realizes Maria loves Tony, a Polish-American, Chino tells Maria that Tony killed her brother. West Side Story was Jose De Vega’s first film. He was in a total of five films from 1961 to 1979 and 22 TV shows including “Bonanza,” “Dynasty,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” His only other major film was “Blue Hawaii” (1961) with Elvis Presley. Outside of acting De Vega was a choreographer. He also worked actively to end racial stereotypes in films through the Great Leap, where he directed and choreographed concerts and productions. De Vega died in 1990 at age 56 due to AIDs.
Jay Norman (Pepe): Jay Norman plays Pepe, who is second in command to Bernardo in the Sharks. Jay Norman played Juano in the original 1957 Broadway cast. Pepe is one of the more prominently featured Sharks. Norman was only in a total of three films, including “West Side Story.” In 1964, Norman played Bernardo on the New York City Center production of “West Side Story.” There was little information to be found about Norman, though it seems he’s still alive and may previously have taught dance in North Carolina.
Eddie Verso (Juano): Though Eddie Verso played Shark member, Juano, in the 1961 film, he started out as a Jet. Verso originated the role of Baby John in the London company of “West Side Story.” The 1961 film version was the only film Verso made, but he continued dancing on the stage. He was part of the American Ballet Theater and the Feld Ballet, which is run by his “West Side Story” co-star, Eliot Feld. Verso was acclaimed as the “definitive Jerome Robbins dancer.” Currently, Eddie Verso is the artistic director of the Dance Center of New Jersey.
Gus Trikonis (Indio): Gus Trikonis plays Indio, one of the Sharks, in the 1961 film. The film was a family affair for Gus Trikonis, who is the older brother of Gina Trikonis. Gina plays Riff’s girlfriend, Graziella in the film version of the musical. Outside of “West Side Story,” Trikonis had a modest acting career with films appearing in 15 other movies or television shows including, “Pajama Party” (1964) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964). Trikonis moved to directing in 1969 through 2001. He directed episodes of “The Twilight Zone” in 1986, 12 episodes of the live action “Beauty and the Beast” (1988-90), and 22 episodes of “Baywatch” from 1989 to 1997. Trikonis was married to actress Goldie Hawn from 1969 to 1976.
Jaime Rogers (Loco): Jaime Rogers plays Shark member, Loco, whose character can be distinguished as often wearing sweat head band. “West Side Story” (1961) was Rogers’ film acting job, and he went on to be an established choreographer for multiple TV specials and films from 1965 to 1988. These include TV show “Hullabaloo,” the TV movie “Elvis” (1968), the Diana Ross TV special “Diana!” (1971), 33 episodes of the “Sonny and Cher Show” from 1976 to 1977, Ringo Starr TV special “Ringo” (1978), and 44 TV episodes of “Fame” from 1985 to 1987. In 1976, Rogers was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for “Mary’s Incredibly Dream.” In 2006, Rogers was honored with at the Lester Horton Dance Awards with the Lester Horton Dance Awards for his dance career, teaching and choreography. He now is a teacher in Studio City, CA.
Larry Roquemore (Rocco): Roquemore was cast in the original 1957 Broadway play as a swing, a person who understudies multiple rolls as a dancer or chorus member. He went on to be cast in the 1961 “West Side Story” film cast as Shark member, Rocco, which was his only film role. Rocco is one of the members who is not featured as prominently. On Broadway, he was in the shows Li’l Abner, West Side Story (1957), Destry Rides Again (1959), Tovarich (1963) with Vivien Leigh, and Hallelujah Baby (1967). Roquemore moved to Texas with his wife Bettye, where they founded the Corpus Christi Ballet Theater, which is still active today. He has also been working as a realtor in Texas for more than 10 years.
Robert E. Thompson (Luis): Robert E. Thompson played Shark member, Luis, in the 1961 film version of “West Side Story.” Luis is a Shark member who is more in the background. Outside of acting and dancing, Thompson was a screenwriter and was nominated for an Academy Award (along with James Poe) for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for the film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969). He also received a BAFTA nomination for Best Screenplay for this film. Thompson has more than 50 screen writing credits to his name from 1956 to 1991, which included the TV show “Bonanza,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Thompson died in February 2004 of pneumonia at age 79.
Nick Covacevich (Toro): Nick Covacevich, who also goes by the name Nick Novarro, played the Shark member Toro, who is also not prominently featured. Covacevich/Novarro not the same person as the Cuban-American business man and former sheriff of Broward County, Florida, of the same name. Along with “West Side Story,” Covacevich also performed as a dancer in “Let’s Make Love” (1960) with Marilyn Monroe and “My Fair Lady” (1964) with Audrey Hepburn. He was married to Mary Leona Gage, who was Miss USA of 1957 but was stripped of her title. Covacevich was also a choreographer and worked as a dancer and choreographer in Las Vegas. In 2012, Covacevich joined other former Jets and Sharks to discuss the 50th anniversary of the film.
Rudy Del Campo (Del Campo): Rudy Del Campo was a dancer who performed in three films, including “West Side Story” (1961) as a Shark gang member. He also danced in the John Phillips Sousa biopic “Stars & Stripes Forever” (1952) and the Judy Garland film “A Star Is Born” (1954). In 1962, Del Campo left his dance career and opened the restaurant Casita del Campo. The Mexican is still open in Los Angeles today and is decorated with “West Side Story” memorabilia and other original works of art. Rudy Del Campo passed away in August 28, 2003, in California, at age 76. As of 2012, Del Campo’s second wife, Nina, was running the restaurant.
Andre Tayir (Chile): Andre Tayir played Shark gang member, Chile. “West Side Story” (1961) was Tayir’s first film role and he was acted in eight other TV shows and films, including the TV special “Around the Beatles” (1964). Tayir was a choreographer and created the dances for 67 episodes of “Shindig!” from 1964 to 1966. Tayir also choreographed episodes for “Laugh-In ” (1968), Andy Williams’ TV specials in 1968 and 1969, “Dionne Warwick- Souled Out” TV special in 1969, and “Jack Benny’s New Look” in 1969. Tayir passed away on Nov. 5, 2003, at age 68.
Tucker Smith (Ice): Ice is second in command of the Jets. When Riff is killed, Ice takes over, advising the rest of the gang to play it cool. Tucker Smith was in the original stage play, coming in 1958 to replace Big Deal, and also Riff’s understudy. The role of Ice wasn’t in the original play but was created for the 1961 film. The song “Cool” was performed by Riff in the play, but sung by Ice in the film. Smith also dubbed Russ Tamblyn in “The Jet Song” in the film. Smith had small dancing roles in other films such as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” “The Producers” and “Hello Dolly.” He mainly continued active on the stage and in nightclubs singing and dancing. Film critic David Ehrenstein wrote that Tucker Smith did not peruse a career in Hollywood because he was openly gay, something that wasn’t accepted during that time. In the 1970s, Tucker Smith also owned a bar in Hollywood named “Tucker’s Turf.” Tucker Smith was diagnosed in 1986 with throat, neck and/or jaw cancer. Actress Gilda Radner wrote in her book “It’s Always Something” that Tucker Smith was in her cancer support group. He died in 1988.
Tony Mordente (Action): Action is the hot-headed Jet that is always ready to fight in the 1961 film. However, Tony played A-Rab in the original 1957 Broadway play. Mordente also married Chita Rivera, who played Anita the Shark girlfriend in the original Broadway cast. They started dating during the show and were married from 1957 to 1966. In the film he was cast as Action and one of Jerome Robbins’ dance assistants; helping Natalie Wood with her solo dances and incorporating Russ Tamblyn’s acrobatics into dances. Mordente was cast in uncredited roles in films such as “The Longest Day” (1962), “Love with a Proper Stranger” (1963) and “The New Interns” (1964) and had small roles in TV shows. Mordente also became a successful choreographer and director. He choreographed episodes of “Ed Sullivan” and “Sonny and Cher.” He also directed 42 episodes of “Rhoda,” was the main director for “Seventh Heaven” from 1997 to 2003, and directed 38 episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” from 1993 to 1998.
David Winters (A-Rab): David Winters played Baby John in the original Broadway cast. In the film he was cast as A-Rab, who is the jokester of the gang. The 1961 film wasn’t David Winters’ first film appearance; his first appearance was in 1949 at age 10 and he acted in films and on television through the 1950s. The dance “Cool” in the film “West Side Story” was choreographed for David Winters. More prolific than his acting career was Winters’ work as a choreographer. He was Elvis Presley’s personal choreographer and got his big break as a film dance choreographer by staging Elvis and Ann-Margret’s dances in “Viva Las Vegas.” Winters also choreographed Diana Ross’s World Tour. He was nominated for two Primetime Emmy’s: Movin’ with Nancy (1967) and Ann-Margret: From Hollywood with Love (1969). He also directed and produced several TV and film features. David Winters released the film “Dancin’:It’s On” in 2015 and passed away in 2019.
Eliot Feld (Baby John): Eliot Feld plays Baby John in the 1961 film, the gang member who is the most naive, innocent and frightened. A role on “The Ann Sothern Show” and “West Side Story” (1961) were his only film or television appearances. While filming “West Side Story,” Feld got sick during the number “Cool.” The dancers would go outside to cool off and go back into the hot garage and he got pneumonia. Feld studied at the American School of Ballet and performed as a child in George Balanchine’s original production of The Nutcracker as the prince. He danced with the American Ballet Theatre, and at age 25 in 1967 he created the American Balley Company, which became Feld Ballet in 1978. In 1997, Feld Ballet became Ballet Tech, which is still active today. Since 1967, Feld has choreographed 147 dances and the most recent was premiered in June 2015.
Bert Michaels (Snowboy): “West Side Story” (1961) was Bert Michaels first film playing Snowboy, the gang member who thought he was the smart one. He was in a handful of films including “Gypsy” (1962), also with Natalie Wood, and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). Michaels also choreographed productions in the 1970s and acted on Broadway. He was in the original Broadway cast of “Cabaret” in 1966. In 2012, Michaels contributed to the book “Our Story: Jets and Sharks — Then and Now” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film.
“I never really saw the film objectively until the 50th celebration showing,” He said in a 2012 interview. “I then marveled at all of us…I thought about how much fun we all had. How we became a family. Corny, but true.”
David Bean (Tiger): David Bean played Tiger, who goofs off and acts like Officer Krumpke in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke!” “West Side Story” (1961) was Bean’s only film, and he was on a 1955 TV production of Peter Pan on “Producers’ Showcase.” Since West Side Story’s 50th anniversary in 2012, Bean has made appearances with other cast mates to discuss his experiences.
Robert Banas (Joyboy): Robert Banas played Joyboy, another one of the Jets who has few line and is more in the background. Banas was in more than 30 film and TV shows, mainly as a dancer. Some of these include, “Carousel” (1956), “Damn Yankees” (1958), “Li’l Abner” (1958), “Let’s Make Love” (1960), “Babes in Toyland” (1961), “TThe Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964), and “Mary Poppins” (1964) as a chimney sweep. Banas was also a choreographer on “The Judy Garland Show” (1964), “Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music Part II” (1966), “Mork and Mindy” (1981-82), and “Teen Witch” (1989). Banas was also a director and producer. The book “Our Story: Jets and Sharks – Then and Now” was Robert Banas’s idea and he sought out his former Jet and Shark co-stars to interview them for the 2012 book.
Anthony ‘Scooter’ Teague (Big Deal): Anthony ‘Scooter’ Teague played Big Deal in the film version of “West Side Story,” who was another Jet gang member who was more in the background. Prior to this, he appeared on TV shows such as “Make Room for Daddy” and “The Donna Reed Show.” He later had small roles in the Elvis Presley film “The Trouble with Girls” (1969) and the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967). Teague performed on Broadway in the original cast of ” 110 In The Shade,” the musical adaptation of “The Rainmaker,” and toured with “A Chorus Line.” Teague passed away in 1989 at age 49 due to cancer.
Harvey Evans (Mouthpiece): Billed as Harvey Hohnecker, Evans played Mouthpiece, another Jet who is more in the background. Prior to “West Side Story,” Evans danced in films such as “The Girl Most Likely” (1958) and “The Pajama Game” (1957). In 1962, Evans plays Stephanie Powers’ boyfriend in the thriller “Experiment in Terror” (1962), danced on “The Judy Garland Show,” was a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins” (1964) and even was a dancer in the 2007 Disney film “Enchanted.”
Tommy Abbott (Gee-Tar): Tommy Abbott played Gee-Tar, another Jet that didn’t have a prominate role. He originated this role in the 1957 role and reprised the character in the 1961 film. During the filming of “West Side Story,” Abbott was a dance assistant during the filming. “West Side Story” was the only film Abbott acted in. Abbott was the choreographer for the screen version of “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971). Abbott passed away on April 8, 1987 in New York at age 52.
Susan Oakes (Anybodys): Susan Oakes plays Anybodys, the Tomboy tag-a-long to the Jets gang. She just wants to belong, but they don’t want anything to do with her. “West Side Story” (1961) was Oakes’ only film role and she appeared in small roles on three television shows, including “The Lucy Show” (1962). I found little information on Susan Oakes through my research, but she has been present at multiple “West Side Story” reunions.
Gina Trikonis (Graziella): Graziella was Riff’s girlfriend in “West Side Story.” Graziella is a featured dancer in several of the Jets ensemble numbers, and her character is a bit sassy. She has more lines than the other Jet girlfriends. Gina Trikonis also was the sister of actor Gus Trikonis, who played a Shark in the 1961 film. As a child, Trikonis studied dancing and replaced a dancer in the original 1957 Broadway “West Side Story” cast. She played Minnie, girlfriend to Baby John. During the filming of “West Side Story” she injured her lower back during the number “Cool,” but still continued to finish the number. Along with acting in “West Side Story” (1961), Trikonis was a dancer on “Shindig!” in 1964, was in the film “13 Frightened Girls” (1963) and an episode of “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1963). In the 1980s and 1990s, Gina Trikonis worked in wardrobe and costume design. She designed costumes for the show “Facts of Life” from 1983 to 1985 and worked in wardrobe for the TV shows “Step by Step,” “Full House,” “Family Matters” and “Freaks and Geeks.” She still attends “West Side Story” reunions and still dances to stay in shape, according to a 2012 interview.
Carole D’Andrea (Velma): In the 1961 film, Carole D’Andrea plays Velma, who is the girlfriend of Jet member, Ice. The character of Velma is also sassy, similar to Graziella, and is featured in dance numbers such as “Cool” and “The Dance at the Gym.” Carole D’Andrea originated the role of Velma in the original 1957 Broadway cast, and also played Anybodys. “West Side Story” was D’Andrea’s only film. Stephanie Powers was originally signed for the role of Velma in the 1961 film, because the producer couldn’t find D’Andrea for the film-she was touring in Asia. When she returned, D’Andrea replaced Powers, according to a 2012 interview. D’Andrea was married to actor Robert Morse from 1961 to 1981 and they had three children. A career that has spanned 50 years, D’Andrea is an acting and dancing teacher in Los Angeles, according to her website. She has also been named as one of Los Angeles’ top 30 acting coaches by The Actors Guide To Qualified Coaches: Los Angeles.
Yvonne Wilder (Consuelo): Yvonne Wilder plays Consuelo, who is the girlfriend of Shark member Pepe. Consuelo also works in the dress shop with Maria and performs in the number “I Feel Pretty.” The character is vivacious and gossipy. Wilder was in the original London cast of “West Side Story,” where she played Teresita and understudied Anita. Wilder and Rita Moreno where the only Puerto Rican born actors on the set. “West Side Story” was Wilder’s first of 38 film and TV appearances. Wilder had a reoccurring role on the TV shows “Operation Petticoat” (1977-78) and “Full House” (1988-91) as Uncle Jesse’s mom. Yvonne is also an artist and currently has art exhibited at the Santa Monica Art Institute.
Suzie Kaye (Rosalia): Suzie Kaye plays Rosalia, who Shark member Indio’s girlfriend, and works in the dress shop with Maria. She performs in “I Feel Pretty and the “Dance at the Gym.” Along with the 1961 film, Kaye was in 18 other films such as “Tammy and the Doctor” (1963) and “Clambake” (1967) with Elvis Presley. She dyed her hair from brown to blonde in the late 1960s, hoping it would get her more film roles, according to Drive-in Dream Girls by Tom Lisanti. In 1973, Kaye was a series regular on the soap opera “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” which was canceled. She passed away died in March 2008 at age 66.
Joanne Miya (Francisca): Joanna Miya plays Francisca, who is a Jet girlfriend and also works in the dress shop with Maria. She is more in the background than Jet girlfriends Consuelo or Rosalia. Her film career started in a small role as a dancer in the film, “The King and I” (1956), and she was in a total of nine TV and film appearances. She had a reoccurring role on the TV show “Arrest and Trial” from 1963 to 1964. Her real name is Nobuko Miyamoto, and she is the founder and artistic director of the Great Leap, which works to eliminate racial stereotypes in entertainment.
Maria Jimenez Henley (Teresita): Maria Henley had a small role as a Shark girlfriend, Teresita. She performs in the numbers “The Dance at the Gym” and “America.” She danced in films such as “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Henley has worked as stage director for multiple TV shows and films and was the Chair of the AD/SM/PA Council of the Directors Guild of America and chair of the Guild’s Latino Committee.