Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ti Kanis, George Chakiris!




"No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible." ~ George Chakiris

 

Happy Wednesday!
Today, I am immersing my self in celebration of a film that opened 50 years last month.


The film was released on October 18, 1961. The premier in Hollywood at Grauman's Chinese Theatre was one of those legendary nights that we don't see much of anymore. Yes, there are still movie premieres. But there was an elegance and style and a glamour that sadly, you don't see much of anymore. Well, 50 years later, that film is being celebrating in a BIG way!
Tonight, I am seeing the film the way it was meant to be seen. In it's original 70mm format AND I am choosing to see it at a movie theatre on 42nd Street. How appropriate to be seeing this film on the BIG SCREEN in the theatre district. It's a shame, this isn't happening at Radio City Music Hall and bring all the stars here for one special night! Are you listening TCM?  In 1983, when Judy Garland's A STAR IS BORN was restored and premiered at Radio City Music Hall, I was there, and it was a night I'll never forget! I sat in front of James Mason! Norman Maine was actually sitting behind me! How cool is that?

In honor of its 50th Anniversary, Fathom and Turner Classic Movies are bringing West Side Story back to the big screen for a one night event in movie theaters nationwide!
This extraordinary event includes an exciting new Turner Classic Movies original production followed by MGM’s 50th Anniversary restoration of West Side Story—the most acclaimed musical of all time (winner of 10 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture). This is an unprecedented opportunity to enjoy every sensational song and dazzling dance number on the big screen once again. I WILL be there tonight! But, how I wish I was going to be in Hollywood next week!
20th Century Fox is doing a 50th Anniversary celebration of West Side Story at Grauman's on Nov. 15, where it premiered 50 years ago.  Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris (pictured above) will now be placing their hand prints that same morning at 11:00am. Thanks to Harlan Boll, I had a nice long chat with George last night. Let me give you an overview of his career and I will share our conversation with you.
As I said to him last night, this film still holds up and is still, unfortunately, timely. 

  In 1961, George Chakiris' portrayal of Bernardo in West Side Story took the silver screen by storm, earning him an Academy Award. George told me he was doing West Side Story in the West End when he received a letter asking him to audition for the film. At the time, he was appearing as Riff.
He did a black and white screen test in a small studio outside of London. It wasn't long after that, that Hollywood, or should I say Jerome Robbins, came calling!

This time he was going to film a color test in Hollywood directed by none other than Jerome Robbins.
This time, he would be immortalized on film forever as Bernardo. I asked him if it was a difficult transition for him to go from Riff to Bernardo. His response was that he had been doing West Side Story for so long that he knew almost every word by heart so it was not a difficult transition. He said he also had a deep affinity for Bernardo. It paid off! He won an Oscar.
West Side Story is directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was adapted from William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Ramblyn, Rita Moreno, GEORGE CHAKIRIS and David Winters, and it was photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, A.S.C., in Super Panavision 70.
 When he left the cast to do the film, they initially gave him a seven week leave of absence. That seven weeks turned into a year!  They rehearsed for 2 months.
Started filming in January of 1961 and filmed for 7 months.The film's opening sequence was shot on the streets of New York City, mainly in the area where the Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts campus of Fordham University now stands. Veteran director Robert Wise was chosen as the director and producer because of his familiarity with urban New York dramas, such as Odds Against Tomorrow. 
Richard Beymer
Wise had never directed a musical before and when it was suggested that Jerome Robbins, who had directed the stage version, be brought in to handle all the music and dance sequences in the film, Wise agreed.
After about one-third of the movie had been shot, the Mirisch Company, which had become increasingly concerned that the production was over-budget, fired Robbins, who, according to Saul Chaplin in his autobiography, nearly suffered a nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the film.
The remaining dance numbers were handled by Robbins' assistants. However, because of his great creative contribution to the film, Wise agreed Robbins be given co-directing credit, even though Wise directed the majority of the film himself.
The film was released on October 18, 1961, through United Artists.
It received praise from critics and the public, and became the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States. The film won ten Academy Awards in its eleven nominated categories, including Best Picture, as well as a special award for Robbins.
West Side Story holds the distinction of having won more Academy Awards than any other musical film (unless one counts the Honorary Award given to Maurice Chevalier in 1959, the year that Gigi won its nine Oscars. The soundtrack album sold more copies than any soundtrack album before it, and more than the original cast album did.
The film opens in the streets of Manhattan in the late summer of 1957. There is a mounting tension set to music ("Prologue") between a white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff Lorton ( Russ Tamblyn), and a rival gang of Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks, led by Bernardo Nunez (George Chakiris).
   
The Jets harass the Sharks and vice versa, culminating in a free-for-all on the playground. They dance and eventually the Sharks grab one of the Jets, the youngest, named Baby John (Eliot Field), and begin to "bloody" him.

Soon, Lieutenant Schrank  (Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke (William Bramley) arrive and break up the melee.  Schrank orders the Sharks off the playground and the Jets "to make nice with them Puerto Ricans" or there'll be a price to pay.



Once Schrank and Krupke are gone, the Jets discuss challenging the Sharks to an all out rumble that will decide who gets control of the streets. They decide to deliver the challenge to the Sharks at a dance later that night, because it is neutral territory.

Then, of course, there was post production work to be done.
George said he owes everything to Jerry Robbins. It was Jerry that wanted George in the film. At this point, we discussed the GENIUSES that brought all this together.


Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and eventually Ernest Lehman, who did the screenplay. He felt that Ernest had actually improved on the original by fleshing out the characters a little more.
The film was originally intended to have two acts, it was finally decided that it would work better without an intermission, in order to increase the tension in the plot.

I asked him if had seen the recent Broadway revival which Arthur Laurents directed. There was much discussion at the time about Laurents decision to have the Jets speaking their parts in Spanish to make it more authentic.
From left to right: Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, Robert Griffith, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Once again the  critical responses were disparate. At the time, the reviews were positive overall, especially for Karen Olivo as Anita. Many critics also fell in love with newcomer Josefina Scaglione as Maria. While less enamored with Matt Cavenaugh's Tony, reviewers warmed to their on-stage chemistry.  I actually loved them both.  
James Youmans received praise for his gritty sets, as did Joey McKneely for his recreations of Jerome Robbins' choreography.

Although critics did not embrace all of Arthur Laurents' decisions, most notably the new ending, they did credit him with the success of  that production. Some critics completely buy into a darker West Side Story, while others think that the clean-cut Jets undermine Laurents' attempts at realism.

As for the much-hyped Spanish translations, they were deemed in most reviews to be an unnecessary gimmick.
It did not bother me when I saw the production. It didn't bother me at all. George said that by the time he saw the production, at the famed Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, that aspect was toned down.
 He felt, however, if people are not that familiar with the material and they are struggling to figure out what is going on, that it is a hindrance rather than an asset.


David Sheward in BACK STAGE, gave that production an A+, "
"It happened for me during "America." I forgot I was sitting in a Broadway theatre watching professional actors in a revival of West Side Story.

I was spying on a group of high-spirited girls kidding each other about living in New York after enduring the poverty of their native Puerto Rico.


They weren't executing Jerome Robbins' classic choreography, as re-created by Joey McKneely, on James Youmans' darkly evocative ghetto set; they were flouncing their skirts, jumping on stoops, and inhabiting a specific place and time.


This authenticity is only partially due to the Spanish translation of many of the Latino scenes and two of the songs ("I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That"), by Lin-Manuel Miranda of In the Heights fame. The scenes are so real that no English subtitles are required to convey their meaning."


John Lahr in the New Yorker gave it an A "From the musical’s first beats—which tone down the finger-snapping thrust of Bernstein’s signature prologue with pauses that allow us to take in the individual gang members—Laurents announces his intention to leave his fingerprints on the classic. They don’t smudge its beauty; in fact, his attempts to heighten the show’s realism only enhance it.
In his version, the gang members actually look like teen-agers; the Latina chorus girls are not Broadway beautiful; the costumes (by David C. Woolard) and set designs (by James Youmans) explore the subtle, shadowy ranges of a color palette that takes the show away from glitzy spectacle and toward a grittier, more muted stylization.

By eliminating blackouts between scenes, Laurents also adds to the story’s tension. The evening as a whole feels sculpted—no gesture, no word, no visual choice is arbitrary or wasted. Laurents’s most innovative touch is to have the Puerto Ricans sometimes speak and sing in Spanish. Fifty years on, in a multicultural America, this decision makes the production feel fresh; it also allows the show to dispense with some of Sondheim’s rookie mistakes."


I asked him what segment of "West Side Story", the movie, gave him the most satisfaction as a performer?

Without hesitation, he said The "America" number. In the stage version, only the women perform this number.



In the stage show, Anita and Rosalia sing the beginning of "America", not Anita and Bernardo; the boys are not in the number at all. This was one of many changes that Lehman made in the story.


I asked him if he would like to return to the stage. He said, as most actors will attest to, a resounding yes IF the project was right.

He wasn't necessarily looking for a starring role but any role that had substance to it. If any producers are out there reading this, please provide for his greyhounds to travel with him.


He is devoted to his dogs. As a matter of fact, he was out walking them last night when I first called him. He is NOT sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
He is achieving great satisfaction with his jewelry design.
We also talked about his album, George Chakiris– The Gershwin Songbook. 



He was surprised that I brought that up. He said, that, "Thank God, I'm not embarrassed by this when I hear it today and I am quite proud of that album." He was very impressed by the arrangements that Norman Stenfalt had created for him and was most impressed with a review that Sir Richard Attenborough had given to him at the time.

I asked him if he had a favorite track and he said "My One And Only" which is more of an uptempo.
Stenfalt made it into a ballad and gave it a take not normally associated with that song. I am thrilled that FINALLY George will be immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theatre next week.
And here's to the next 50 years! Thanks for the chat, George!



George Chakiris (born September 16, 1934) is an American-Greek dancer, singer and actor.

Chakiris was born in Norwood, Ohio, to Steven and Zoe (nee Anastasiadou) Chakiris, immigrants from Greece. Chakiris studied at the American School of Dance. 



Check out The George Chakiris collection at http://www.georgechakiris.com.


Living a life with passion for the creative arts drew George quite by chance to jewelry making as a hobby. What began as a hobby became a full time appreciation for design and construction and a new creative outlet, which became The George Chakiris Collections. 

I asked George how he got started with his jewelry designs. He said that several years ago he was doing a show once again in the West End.
The fact that he was separated from his prized greyhounds was killing him. When he returned home, he decided to start a hobby that would keep him closer to home and a sideline business was started!

He is flattered that there is interest in this sideline business and is hoping someone will come along who will handle the business end of that business.


 Recently unveiled in Japan, The George Chakiris collections are on display at Tokyo’s prestigious Mitsukoshi Department Store as well as online.




George Chakiris made his film debut at the age of 12 singing in the chorus of Song of Love (1947). 





Following his graduation from high school, he supported his night-time dancing, singing and dramatic lessons with a daytime job clerking in a Los Angeles department store. 


Later he started his acting/dancing career appearing in musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)--he is one of the ballet dancers escorting Marilyn Monroe in "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"--White Christmas (1954), The Girl Rush (1955), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956).

He can also be seen in the "Chop Suey" number in the musical film Flower Drum Song and the funeral dance in the MGM musical film Brigadoon.
 
In 1957, he made his debut as a dramatic actor in Under Fire (1957). 


 In 1958 he traveled to New York hoping for a Broadway "break." Hearing that Jerome Robbins was casting the London company of "West Side Story", he auditioned and was awarded the co-starring role of Riff.

He played the part for almost two years on the West End stage before acting, singing and dancing as Bernardo in the Robert Wise film version (West Side Story (1961)), a performance that earned him a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Since then, he starred in a succession of films, including Diamond Head (1963) with Charlton Heston, Bebo's Girl (1963) with Claudia Cardinale, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) with Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac and Gene Kelly, The Big Cube (1969) with Lana Turner, Why Not Stay for Breakfast? (1979), Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again (1982), and Pale Blood (1990). He is one of the most traveled stars in motion pictures, having been to such locations as Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Italy, England, Spain, and France. 


His nightclub career was launched to rave reviews at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and Harrah's Club in Lake Tahoe. In the 1970s and 1980s, his career focused on television and music. He appeared as guest star in several TV series such as "Hawaii Five-O" (1968) (Death is a Company Policy - 1972), "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" (1975) (Death in Disguise - 1978), "CHiPs" (1977) (Fox Trap - 1983), "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" (1983) (Lost and Found - 1984), "Murder, She Wrote" (1984) (Weave a Tangled Web - 1989), and he joined the cast of "Dallas" (1978) from 1985 to 1986.
He has released several records: "George Chakiris," "Memories Are Made of These," "The Gershwin Song Book," "West Side Story's Dynamic...". 
He has appeared in several plays and stage musicals: after "The King and I" in the US in 1995, he performed in Britain the role of Rochester in "Jane Eyre". (Details of this blog from Harlan Boll, George Chakiris, and Wikipedia)

I am looking forward to sitting in a packed darkened theatres enjoying one of my favorites once again. George and Harlan, Thank you so much for this interview and blog exclusive!


I have been fortunate enough to call among my friends several celebrities. The one thing that I've gleaned from them beyond their bodies of work is their humanness.


Thank you to all of the artists mentioned in this blog for the gifts you ALL have given to the world!

REMINDER:
Nov 15
6pm ARTS COUNCIL OF ROCKLAND, 185 North Main Street, Spring Valley, New York 10977
ONE SEAT LEFT BEYOND THE THREE F's
Join the Arts Council and critically acclaimed, multi-award winning performer/director Richard Skipper for this 'how to' workshop on building audiences and creating a following for performers, visual artists, writers and any other individual or group looking to expand their fan base and reach beyond their borders. Skipper, a career consultant and co-producer of the 2010 and 2011 Bistro Awards brings years of experience to this workshop.
Beyond the 3 F's (friends, family, fellow performers/artists) will focus on how to get you the attention that you need. Topics include how to use the Internet to your advantage in marketing; how to get your name "out there"; cold calling; creating a contract specific to your needs; how to create a press kit that shows you to your best possible advantage and more! Attendees are surveyed before the workshop to determine their needs. Richard customizes the workshop so that each participant gets their questions answered.

The workshop is free for members of the Arts Council and $25 for non-members. ONLY ONE SPACE LEFT!
Reservations can be made by calling 845-426-3660, e-mailing info@artscouncilofrockland.org or by visiting www.artscouncilofrockland.org.

The Arts Council strives to be a fragrance-free workplace. Attendees are asked to please refrain from wearing perfumes, colognes or other strong scents. This event is co-sponsored with Arts in Orange and made possible, in part, with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency and with a generous grant from KeyBank.

Thank you for joining me on these nostalgic journeys! I've added a new aspect to my blog.. I am now answering a question on video that YOU send to me. You can ask me ANYTHING and I will answer your question on video within my blog. Send your questions to
Richard@RichardSkipper.com




"Richard, for supporting the ARTS and calling attention to the STARS of yesterday. You are a STAR in your own right!! 
With admiration and friendship"
Arlene Dahl

Thank you to all who have encouraged me! Thanks to all who have tried to stifle my art. I have learned from ALL of you!
Here's to an INCREDIBLE day for ALL!


GO SEE WEST SIDE STORY TONIGHT!


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TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED WEEK!
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com





5 comments:

  1. Thanks for asking the question about his favorite track from the Gershwin album! It's a great collection and I've loved it for many years. -- Becque Olson

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  2. Now that I am directing 'Company', it should be noted that George Chakiris played Bobby when it came to Los Angeles back in the early 70s.
    Cheers,
    Stephan

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  3. I am amazed at how youthful Mr.Chakiris looks today,for a man who's 77 he appears much younger and in great shape..he could probably still play the part of Bernardo in a revival of West Side Story today...James

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  4. George Chakiris looks amazingly good, and is still quite handsome! I attended the more up to date Broadway revival of West Side Story here in Boston, which I enjoyed, but there were some things that I found somewhat troubling about it.

    Yet, I also attended the 50th-year Anniversary TCM West SIde Story movie Event here in Boston, and another showing of the film West Side Story at Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre afew days later, and loved every minute of both events!

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  5. Watching Westside Story now as recorded on TMC earlier today. George Chakiris was and I am sure still is an amazing dancer, actor and singer. Not to mention extremely attractive. I have not seen the movie in a long time but love it as much as the first time I experienced it. A wonderful story. Thank you George for a lovely evening.
    Janet from NC

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