Maria Jimenez Henley From “Shark” Dancer to DGA Award Winner

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez

Los Angeles native Maria Jimenez Henley was only a teenager when she was one of only two girls selected by choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins to be a Shark dancers in  West Side Story .  Her training under the tutelage of Eugene Loring and her full scholarship at the American School Of Dance in Hollywood, California paid off.

After completing the film, which took almost a year, Maria went on to New York to join Jerome Robbin’s company, Ballets USA. While in New York she also guest soloed in Matt Mattox’s Dance Company and assisted Lee Becker-Theodore on a special project with the Robert Joffrey Ballet Company.

After two years studying in New York, Maria returned to Los Angeles where she, and fellow West Side Story dancers Andre Tayir and Gina Trikonis went to England to perform in a Beatles television special for producer Jack Good. Good also produced the ABC TV show Shingdig, where Maria co-choreographed with Andre and danced as well. Shot live, this show had everyone from the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Neil Sedaka, The Everly Brothers, The Mamas & Papas, Jackie DeShannon, to the Righteous Brothers, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Byrds, The Turtles, The Kinks, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles . . . the list goes on and on.

In 1964, she married Don Henley, Pat and Debby Boone and the Boone Family’s manager. Maria became the choreographer for the Boone family’s acts and television specials. She also assisted such choreographers as Jaime Rogers, David Winters, Tony Basil and Donny McKayle. When McKayle went on to do all the Bill Cosby, Dick Van Dyke Specials, and the Lesley Uggum’s series, Maria was one of his principal dancers.

She danced in the films Bednobs and Broomsticks and Thoroughly Modern Milli for McKayle. She toured with McKayle’s company as a soloist. She co- choreographed (with Andre Tayir) the first rock and roll version of Othello called Catch My Soul directed by Jack Good, which premiered at the Ahmanson Theater. She and Andre continued to work together as co-choreographers for the Andy Williams, Jim Nabors, Danny Thomas and Tiny Tim specials as well as Laugh In and numerous television variety shows, films, and stage, working with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Tom Jones. Maria says, “Next to working with The Beatles, performing with Elvis in the 1968 Comeback Special for CBS was monumental.”

In 1987 Maria was asked to become a member of the Directors Guild Of America and she jumped at the chance. She has worked in television as a Stage Manager and Assistant Director on such shows as Punky BrewsterGood Morning Miss BlissSaved By The BellSaved By The Bell: New ClassCalifornia DreamsNight CourtGrowing PainsEvening ShadeThe HomecourtWingsUSA HighLos BeltransViva VegasOne World, and All About Us, to name just a few. To promote diversity in the DGA guild, she goes by Maria Jimenez Henley.

In April of 1993, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and received radiation every day for seven and a half weeks, never once getting sick or missing a day of work on her show Saved By The Bell. She has been in remission ever since.

In 1998-2000, she served as the Chairman of the Directors Guild AD/SM/PA Council and continues to serve on the council. She served for six years as co-chair of the DGA Latino Committee and co-chaired the Latino sub-committee for the Student Film Awards and the Mentor Outreach Committee. She takes great pride in being one of three Latinos nominated by her peers to serve two years (1998-2000) on the Directors Guild National Board.

On January 30, 2010 Maria received the highest DGA honor given in her category of Associate Director, Stage Manager, Production Associate.  Voted by her peers, Maria was awarded the Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award at the 62nd annual DGA Awards Dinner. It is a huge honor to be the first West Coast Latina to achieve this status and makes a statement for all women. Although still active in television, she volunteers on important causes such as Ryan Reach Foundation and Hope for Vision. She serves as Vice President on the board of WE WIN Ministries, Shirley Boone’s foundation that stands for WEmpower Women INeed. She also serves in the Ministry of Helps at the Clarence E. McClendon Ministries, Full Harvest International Church.

Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez spoke with Maria, who was gracious in setting up several interviews with the various West Side Story cast members featured in this series. A special thanks goes out to my friend and mentor Broadway star, Dan Guerrero, for making this happen and Robert Banas for the Book.

AC: At what point in life did you realize you were a dancer? Why did you commit to it?

MH: When I was six years old, my mother took me and my brother and sister to see The Red Shoes at the Edwards Drive-In. I told my mother then that that is what I wanted to be. Her answer was, “Si Dios Quiere” (if God wants). It wasn’t until I was thirteen when I was invited to go to see a friend take a ballet class at The American School of Dance in Hollywood that I was hit with the desire to become a dancer. It was as if I had walked into another world in Technicolor; the energy and excitement was intoxicating and over-whelming. My passion was released. The sleeping bear had awakened. I went home that night and begged my parents to let me take classes there. We were a lower middle class family and I had to apply for a quarter scholarship because my parents didn’t have the money for the classes. I prayed that night that my Lord would grant me this wish and I would dance for Him. I auditioned for Eugene Loring, the director of the school and a table of teachers. I was granted the quarter scholarship. That had to be God.

AC: What were the three steps leading to finally getting the part in the West Side Story movie?

MH: First, six months of auditions. I was a ‘nobody’ who wasn’t even in a union (Aftra, SAG, or Equity). To me, EVERY audition was a matter of life and death and I kept getting called back.  Second, I had to take three screen tests.  Third, in the eleventh hour on a Friday, I got the phone call saying I was to report to work at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios the following Monday morning at 10:00 a.m.

AC: How did you feel the day you landed the part and what was the reaction from family and friends? What scared you the most?

Maria Jimenez Henley (rt) at West Side Story rehearsal

MH: In the book I write about it in more detail, but in essence, that Friday I drove home in need of some TLC from my mother. Six months of auditioning and still maintaining my dance classes, — as I was on FULL scholarship, — was taking its toll on me. When the phone rang I just knew THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE PHONE CALL!!!! I was so nervous that I made my mother answer it. When she finished the conversation, never changing her expression, she hung up, looked up at me and told me I was to report for work the following Monday. I screamed and jumped and yelled in disbelief. When I saw the tears in my mother’s eyes, I knew it was real and not a dream. What happened moments later after the phone call, my destiny could have taken a different turn. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I guess you’ll have to read my chapter in the book to find out what happened.

AC: Best and worst of the Hollywood experience?

MH: The BEST part of this experience was that I had acquired a new familia. The West Side Story Family, having worked together for a year, had become very precious to me. Little did I know that some of these relationships would last for over five decades.  The WORST part? There was none.

AC: What was your reaction the first time you saw the feature film?

MH: When we wrapped the movie I decided to leave home for the first time and go to the Big Apple to study with all the giants in the dance world. It was there that I saw the premiere at the Winter Garden Theater. It was like reliving that year together all over again. To see everyone on that big screen brought back all kinds of remembrances. I cried, laughed, cheered along with the entire audience. But my heart broke when I didn’t see my name on the credits. I felt so rejected. I was told later that the studio only wanted three names for the Jet girls and three names for the Shark girls. I was the fourth girl in America, Dance hall and the Cha Cha and Patty Trible was the fourth girl in Cool. We both were left out.

AC: What are some things most people don’t know about the West Side Story production? I know Elvis was offered the main role and Stefanie Powers was fired.

MH: Without repeating all that I talk about in my chapter during that year of filming, I can say that Natalie Wood was even prettier in person then in her films. She was not very out-going or social to the cast in general. She seemed almost shy. She surrounded herself with an inner circle of people that she felt comfortable with. Having observed her for a year, she definitely was a movie star. She knew her craft, the camera lens, and her performance on camera was fantastic. She gave Richard Beymer such a difficult time because she just didn’t like him. You never saw that on screen.

AC: What was the first time you realized that you were famous? How did this effect your getting other jobs and the career path you ended up perusing?

MH: When I was finally cast to dance in the movie, I was considered famous amongst my peers and my family. I was still a teenager when I went to New York to study. The fact that I was from California and had been picked by Jerome Robbins to dance in West Side Story meant I was treated like royalty. I still had to audition for shows and study because nothing came free, but choreographers paid extra attention when they knew I had worked with Jerry. In some ways, it made me work harder because of the expectations people had about me. I had to keep proving myself. I remember Onna White, a wonderful choreographer who was casting dancers for one of her Broadway shows, after seeing me audition for her said, “You are fantastic, too short, and I don’t know what to do with you.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

AC: Any regrets? Anything you would have done differently? What advice do you have for young dancers?

MH: In my chapter, the third section Then & Now, I do talk about something that I wonder if I made the right choice. I hesitate calling it a regret because I am a firm believer that God has a plan for each and every one of us. If I had taken the road less traveled, would I be where I am today? One of the reasons I went to New York was to audition for Jerome Robbins Ballets USA Company. It was like auditioning for West Side all over again. Eddie Verso, who was already hired to join the company, encouraged me just to go out there and dance and not stress about it. He reminded me that Jerry already knew what I could do and he wasn’t just looking for ballerinas who looked like lily white swans. I took Eddie’s advice and did just that. And I got picked! I called my mother in California immediately to tell her the good news. I was dancing on cloud nine. We started rehearsals and all the dancers I had read about in Dance Magazine – I was now dancing along side of them. Then one day, Jerry made the announcement that we had to get our passports ready; the company was going to Speleto, Italy. I immediately got confused, and scared. Of what? I still am not sure. I chose not to go to Italy and again you can read about it in the book. All I can say to any young dancer who someday may face the same cross roads, “Do what is in your heart, in your gut, that will speak truth to you. You will know.” And it will be a choice you will have to live with.

AC: Whose idea was it to write this book? What is the best part of the book for you?

MH: Bobby Banas is the person who birth this book, this child. He had an epiphany one day four years ago, or there abouts, to write about the back stories from the point of view of the Jets and the Sharks. He is the one responsible for steering this ship. For me, there is no best part. I LOVE IT ALL. I love reading about my long time friends and finding things about them that I never knew. I can hear each voice telling his or her story and the voices are all different. We all talk about the same thing and each POV of the same experience is so different and interesting.

AC: What has the response been regarding the book?

MH: The response has been fantastic!!!!! The first book signing we did at the Samuel French Book Store in Hollywood in December of 2011 sold out and we had to scrape up copies from our own personal stash of books for them to sell. We have had two Barnes and Noble book signings since, and for the last one, people were lined up outside waiting to get their books signed. The Q&A’s we have had (including interviews and in one local Beverly Hills Cable T.V. show) we hear people sharing with us what this movie means to them. How it changed their lives. I am sadden by our dear friends who have departed and left the stage. Susie Kaye and Andre Tayir who were like a sister and a brother to me I miss so much. Those that are mentioned in the book who are no longer with us are remembered forever.

AC: Over all, how did West Side Story change your life? What do people need to know about the film’s place in American history?

MH: In my chapter I talk about when I first saw a production of West Side Story at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in 1958. I was 16 years old and I had never seen dancing like this before. I knew then that THAT kind of dancing was what I wanted to do with my life. In the book, I talk about how I went about reaching for the brass ring and getting it!! When we were making the movie, none of us thought it was going to be as great an icon as it has become. To me, it was not just a job but an achievement that I had reached. It was an important and necessary part of my journey, but at the time I didn’t see the foreshadowing. When Bobby and I joined Russ, George, Rita Moreno., Bert, Harvey, and Bob Wise for the 40th Anniversary of West Side Story (which was held at the Radio City Music Hall and one month after 9/11) the entire theater was packed. People came with their original programs of the 1960’s premiere. They each had stories that they had been in a production of West Side Story and/or their grandchild was aspiring to be Maria or Anita in a school production. I think after 9/11, people needed to latch onto something that made them happy, joyful, and hopeful. This film helped them to feel that.

The 50th Anniversary of West Side Story in 20122, has confirmed to me that this movie will go down as one of the greatest innovative theatrical achievements in American history. The Hollywood Bowl did a sold out tribute in the summer of 2011 with a LIVE Orchestra playing along side of the movie. They took out the sound track of the music but kept the vocals. The orchestra played along as if you were watching a live performance. The people screamed and applauded the visual credits that Saul Bass had created. My boys, who are film and music buffs, were blown away when this took place. On November 15th 2011 the final tribute premiere (that took place at the Grahams Chinese Theater in Hollywood and introduced the Blu Ray DVD) was an outstanding event. Once again reminding us all of how monumental this film was and is and will ever be.

AC: How do you feel about the dance competitions on TV? Good or bad for the art form?

Receiving the Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award from Director Jesus Trevino in 2010

MH: Being in the Directors Guild for the past twenty years and being an Assistant Director/Stage Manager in multi camera sit-com and variety, I personally don’t watch all the reality dance shows. For me it is too painful to watch the rejection and the tears that are spent when the contestants are told they didn’t get it. I do feel on So You Think You Can Dance that the dancers who come on are amazingly phenomenal. The level of competition is lethal. I just can’t watch it because it is too nerve wracking for me. My dancer friends watch and are glued to the tube. When I tell friends who are not dancers that I don’t watch all the “Idol” and dance shows, they think I am crazy. Too painful. Been there. Done that.

AC: In light of your life’s work, what would you like your legacy to be?

MH: That my Lord Jesus Christ was, and is, by my side every step of the way. Becoming a dancer, choreographer, actress, sweater designer, store owner, wife, mother of two fabulous sons, widow, Assist. Dir., Stage Manager, Ministry of Helps Leader at my church, The Clerence E. McClendon Church, on Shirley Boones Board of Directors of WE WIN MINISTRIES, and blessed with a 2 ½ year old grand-daughter named Olive Skinner Henley, and now an author, getting ready to put out my memoir, I CONSIDER MYSELF BLESSED AND HIGHLY FAVORED!

AC: Why should people buy the book and who would you recommend read it?

MH: PEOPLE OF ALL AGES SHOULD READ THIS BOOK. It should be available in schools, libraries, theater arts departments, high schools and colleges. The passion that resonates from the pages transcend to the reader. This book will now be in the MGM archives along with the movie. That’s pretty special.

Edited By, Susan Aceves