Saturday, July 18, 2009

Gloria Castillo: Hometown girl and movie star

Belen native made her way from Hub City to Hollywood

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.

Today's article is based on information gathered from contemporary newspaper articles and from interviews or correspondence with Leo Castillo, Leonard Castillo, Dr. R. Robert Castillo, Eva Glidewell, Frances Romero, Dylia Castillo, Pete V. Domenici and David Kadison.

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The author is vice president of the Valencia County Historical Society, past president of the Historical Society of New Mexico and a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, where he has taught for over twenty-five years.

Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author's alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

A beautiful young actress took her place on stage moments before the curtain rose and the play, "Late Love," began at the Pasadena Playhouse on July 22, 1954.

There was no need for Gloria Castillo to review her lines at this exciting moment in her acting career. At the age of 21, she had already starred in many plays and had always learned her lines quickly, usually in just one night.

Gloria also knew her lines because she had performed them to rave reviews at the Albuquerque Little Theatre (ALT). In fact, "Late Love's" success in New Mexico had led to the invitation for the ALT troupe to perform the three-act comedy on a much larger stage in Pasadena.

Who was this talented New Mexican, and how had she become interested in acting and the stage?

Gloria Castillo had been born in Belen on March 3, 1933, to Richard C. and Mary Davis Castillo. Her family proudly traced its roots to the first Spanish settlers of New Mexico.

Gloria's father had run several successful businesses in Belen, including a grocery store, a filling station, a motel and a Pontiac car dealership. The family had lived next to their store east of Kuhn's Hotel until 1942 when they had built a beautiful new home on North Main Street.

Richard Castillo was active in community affairs, having served as both the chairman of the Belen public school board and the chairman of the Valencia County Democratic Party.

Gloria had three older brothers, R. Robert, Leonard and Leo. A year separated each sibling, making them close in age and spirit. As the only girl and youngest child, Gloria was everyone's favorite.

Richard and Mary Castillo encouraged their four children in all their ambitions and goals. The children were taught to think in smart, creative, organized ways.

Mary, in particular, motivated, her children, emphasizing the importance of a good education and making them comfortable with people from all walks of life. Guests in the Castillo home included a chief justice of the New Mexico supreme court, Senator Clinton P. Anderson and the grande dame of New Mexico politics (and Mary's cousin), Concha Ortiz y Pino.

As a child, Gloria had enjoyed playing near her family's home and grocery store. Her best friends included Rosie Tabet and Helen Griego and her beautiful cousin, Eva Garcia.

Born actors and imaginative children, Gloria and her brother Leo performed plays in their backyard, often using the beds of their father's trucks as stages. Gloria later said that her first acting experience came at "about the tender age of three, in our backyard in my brother Leo's own drama school in the barn!"

Gloria's father often brought her to Belen's Central Theater (now the Hub Furniture store building) to watch newly-released movies. She had no favorite actors. She seemed to enjoy them all.

Gloria had gone to school at St. Vincent's Academy in Albuquerque for one year before returning to Belen, attending St. Mary's and graduating from Belen High School in 1950.

Gloria was popular and active in her teenage years at Belen High School. Always generous and often the only girl with a car Gloria taught several of her friends how to drive. Her school activities, as listed in the 1950 El Aguila yearbook, included three years as a cheerleader, two years in the drama club and membership in the school band, where she played the oboe.

Gloria had roles in two high school plays, "Willie's Weekend" in her junior year, and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" in her senior year. Everyone who watched her perform in these comedies recognized her acting potential.

Gloria also displayed musical talents. In addition to playing the oboe in school, her parents paid for private piano lessons with a teacher from Belen. No one was surprised that she majored in music at the University of New Mexico when she started college in the fall of 1950. She minored in education, planning to teach music to schoolchildren after graduation.

But Gloria was drawn to the stage at UNM and landed the lead role as Cecile in the university's rendition of "The Importance of Being Earnest." She earned high praise from the drama department's Gene Yell and from John Donald Robb, the Fine Arts college dean.

Popular both on and off the stage, Gloria dated several young men while in college, including a future general, Leo Marquez, and a future U.S. senator, Pete V. Domenici. Domenici remembers Gloria as a "delightful, vibrant" young woman who always "loved acting and learning."

Building on her acting success in college, Gloria auditioned at the Albuquerque Little Theatre and got the lead role in "Gigi," one of the most popular Broadway plays of the early 1950s. Directed by the ALT's founder, Kathryn Kennedy O'Connor, Gloria made the perfect Gigi in this French comedy set in the late 19th century.

And then there was "Late Love" at the Little Theatre, which was brought to Pasadena for a two-week run just weeks after Gloria's college graduation.

As the curtain rose, and the Pasadena audience fell silent on July 22, 1954, it is doubtful that Gloria was even nervous. Self-assured, she later recalled that she had a strong feeling that she would do well and, in performing well on this important night, it would change her life forever.

Gloria was right. Unbeknownst to her, a Hollywood producer and casting director sat in the audience to see her act in "Late Love." Paul Gregory and Mildred Gussie were so impressed by Gloria's acting abilities that they agreed that she had a future on the movie screen as well as on the stage.

Paul Gregory arranged for Gloria to meet director Charles Laughton to discuss a supporting role in a United Artist movie entitled "Night of the Hunter." Gloria seemed ideal for the role of Ruby, a 15-year-old girl, especially since Gloria always looked younger than her actual age.

Gloria clearly remembered her initial meeting with Gregory and Laughton. "At first, I held my breath. I was scared. But Mr. Laughton just discussed the role with me, and what I thought of it and the kind of girl I thought Ruby was. There was no reading.

"I recall that Mr. Laughton said I had the part but I was too happy, frightened and trembling to know what anyone said next."

After a brief visit home to Belen, Gloria reported to RKO studios in Culver City, Calif., to begin work on the filming of "Night of the Hunter." Suddenly, she was acting alongside such Hollywood stars as Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and the legendary Lillian Gish.

Observing Gloria at work with these famous actors, director Laughton told reporters that the 5-foot 2-inch, dark-eyed blonde woman from Belen was one of the finest natural actresses he had ever seen.

Always supportive, but also concerned about their daughter's safety in far-off California, Gloria's parents went so far as to hire an older woman named Sara Hearn to accompany Gloria to California and stay with her and her brother Leo in a little house while the movie was being shot.

Thrilled by her first movie-making experience, Gloria told reporters that she was "still on a cloud and I hope I never fall off." But she quickly added, "There's just one thing I really want to be always whatever happens and that's just myself."

Her Hollywood experience was, nevertheless, exhilarating. Gloria first saw her name on a billboard advertising "Night of the Hunter" as a coming attraction. She recalled that "A friend called and told me and I went to the theater early in the morning to see the poster. It was exciting."

After completing work on "Night of the Hunter," Gloria returned to Belen in time for the movie's opening night in Albuquerque at the KiMo Theatre on Tuesday, October 4, 1955.

Gloria's brother Leo remembers how proud his family was and how his father beamed when he saw his daughter's name on the marquee on Central Avenue in downtown Albuquerque.

The premiere was front-page news in the Belen News on September 30, 1955. "Night of the Hunter" soon showed to large crowds at the Oñate Theater.

Richard Castillo was so proud of Gloria that he gave his daughter a new Pontiac from his dealership on North Main Street. Unfortunately, the new car was stolen while the family attended mass one Sunday morning. Determined that Gloria be rewarded for her movie success, Richard simply gave her another car from his lot.

Gloria's next movie opportunity came in 1955 when she played the role of a young Navajo woman named Yashi in "The Vanishing American." Based on a novel by Zane Grey and set in the 1920s, the movie was shot in Gallup and St. George, Utah. Its cast included Jay Silverheels, best known for his role as Tonto in the Lone Ranger series.

But few other opportunities came Gloria's way in Hollywood. Instead, Gloria acted in several television series, including episodes of the "General Electric Hour," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Millionaire," "Gunsmoke," "Zorro" and "Disneyland" (in a show about New Mexico's Elfego Baca).

Gloria had hoped to land larger roles in such blockbuster movies as "The Ten Commandments," and perhaps "Gigi" when the Broadway hit was made into a movie in 1958. After all, Gloria had stolen the show when she appeared as Gigi at the Albuquerque Little Theatre.

But it was not to be. Instead another young actress named Audrey Hepburn, who had played the part on Broadway, got the leading role as Gigi in the movie version.

When Gloria's agent, Gus Demling, found work for Gloria in the movies, it was in two new genres: teenage stories and science fiction films. Both genres drew large movie crowds, especially among young drive-in fans of the late 1950s.

Although now in her mid-20s, Gloria still looked much younger and easily played the roles of troubled teenage girls in "Runaway Daughters" (1956) and "Reform School Girl" (1957). These roles must have been difficult for a young woman who had enjoyed a virtually perfect childhood in Belen.

In 1957, Gloria also played a teenage girl confronted by alien invaders at a lovers lane in "Invasion of the Saucer Men." The sci-fi thriller was released as a double-feature with "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," starring Michael Landon, two years before he first starred as Little Joe Cartwright in the Bonanza television series.

In 1958 Gloria played a conniving young woman in "Meteor Monster," a low-budget sci-fi film set in the old West.

Teenage and monster movies of the 1950s helped launch the careers of actors like Michael Landon, but did little for Gloria's professional progress. Gloria's acting career had clearly stalled.

What had caused this change in direction after such a promising start? Perhaps it was her youthful appearance or some poor advice by her agent. Or perhaps it was discrimination.

Gloria had faced discrimination before. At UNM she had rushed a largely Anglo sorority and had been rejected. Not discouraged, she had accepted membership in another, lesser-known sorority. By her senior year she had become a highly respected leader of her sorority, had landed the leading role in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and had been chosen UNM's homecoming queen.

With few movie opportunities, Gloria did what she had done so well at UNM: She made her own opportunity.

In 1958, Gloria had married a successful Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director named Ellison Kadison. The couple had started a family, with their oldest son, David, born on June 2, 1959, and their second son, Joshua, born on February 8, 1965.

By the mid 1960s, Gloria and Ellison decided to write, produce, direct and act in a movie of their own making. It was no easy endeavor; independent film making never is. The huge project required attention to every detail, from casting to financing the movie, originally called "Methuselah Jones." The multi-talented couple poured all of their energy and most of their finances into the project. It was finally released as "You've Got to Be Smart" in April 1967.

"You've Got to Be Smart" was a major gamble created to help launch Gloria's acting comeback. The romantic musical starred Gloria, cast as Connie Jackson, a young career woman. Veteran character actors Preston Foster and Mamie Van Doren co-starred, along with three little known young brothers, Fritz, Jeff and Mike Bantam.

Gloria and Ellison attempted to appeal to a wide audience: independent young women (with Gloria's lead role), children (with the Bantams), men (with the voluptuous Mamie Van Doren) and movie musical fans (in a decade of musical hits like "The Sound of Music").

The Kadisons were so enthusiastic about "You've Got To Be Smart" that they spoke of future movie projects to be set in New Mexico. A Western, tentatively called "The Princess and the Maverick," was to be shot in the summer of 1967, while "Memories of Today," described as an "adult drama of the go-go generation," was to follow within two years.

As Gloria told an Albuquerque reporter, "I can't see why we can't do movies in New Mexico as well as in Hollywood. We have dependable weather here better than Los Angeles with its smog and there isn't the problem with jet planes going over all the time."

Ellison even scheduled a meeting with Governor David Cargo to discuss the future of movie making in New Mexico.

All of these plans depended on the box office success of "You've Got To Be Smart." Without profits from their first independent film, there would be no money for Ellison and Gloria to make later movies set in New Mexico, L.A. or anywhere.

But "You've Got To Be Smart" enjoyed little success. Opening in Albuquerque at the KiMo Theatre, followed by showings in Belen, Santa Fe, Gallup and Los Alamos, the film received only faint praise in the press. An Albuquerque movie critic called it "a pleasant family musical without the pretence of greatness...and with little depth of acting," especially by the Bantams. Gloria was said to be at her best in the film's musical numbers, "featuring some excellent night scenes in Los Angeles."

Faced with this setback, Gloria may well have been discouraged and may have simply retired. After all, her husband was a successful screenwriter, producer and director, and she had two young sons to keep her busy in their Westlake, Calif., home.

Instead, as at UNM and at other times in her life, Gloria looked for new opportunities, if not in the movie business, perhaps somewhere else. Few predicted that her new venture would be in the fashion industry.

No one in the Castillo family recalls where Gloria got her idea to make a truly innovative style of women's skirts in the late 1960s. Perhaps seeing her husband's collection of long, colorful ties drew her attention and inspired her to sew them together as long, colorful skirts.

To make them more appealing, Gloria designed her skirts with elastic waistbands, meaning that one size fit all. As a writer, Ellison applied his talents by adding a short story to each skirt. He called their first skirt "The Peddler's Cloak."

The couple named their fashion label Chessa (Gloria's nickname) Davis (her mother's maiden name). The skirts soon enjoyed tremendous commercial success, especially with the help of Gloria's resourceful brother Leo.

Leo marketed the skirts in locations across the country, including in the Beverly Hills Hotel dress shop, I. Magnum, Saks Fifth Ave. and Bloomingdale's. Full-page ads appeared in newspapers like the New York Times and in fashion magazines like Vogue.

The Kadisons' business grew so quickly that they opened a factory in Tarzana, Calif., and hired workers to help fill all the orders they received. Gloria spent countless hours at the factory and became involved in every aspect of the business operation.

Gloria had grown up watching her father working hard to make his business ventures succeed in Belen. Now it was her turn to apply her talents and energy on a far larger stage, just as she had done earlier when she had taken her acting skills from a small stage in New Mexico to a larger stage in California.

Gloria and Ellison enjoyed personal, as well as professional, success by the early 1970s. Their son, David, recalls days of happiness, growing up in what he calls a "busy L.A. family." When not hurrying through their daily lives, the family enjoyed time together at the beach and, sometimes, skiing in the mountains of Switzerland.

David also remembers spending happy summers in Belen, visiting his relatives, driving on the mesa, attending early balloon fiestas and hunting with his maternal grandfather, Richard.

But then tragedy struck. Doctors discovered a malignant tumor in the back of Gloria's mouth. Her brother, Dr. R. Robert Castillo, and other physicians determined that Gloria suffered from an extremely rare form of cancer. Dr. Castillo says that he had never seen a similar case in his 45 years of practicing medicine.

Adding to the medical mystery, Gloria had enjoyed good health and there was no history of such a disease in the Castillo family. Doctors could only conclude that the tumor had been caused by something toxic in Gloria's surroundings. To this day, Dr. Castillo suspects that the cancer may have been caused by Gloria's frequent exposure to carcinogens used in the production of her skirts at her factory.

As was her nature, Gloria was not about to surrender to her illness without a fight. Following her brother's advice, she visited specialists and explored possible treatments in hospitals as far away as Frankfurt, Germany. Seeking spiritual guidance, she stayed for a while with the Handmaidens of the Precious Blood, a devout order of Catholic nuns living in a secluded convent in Jemez.

But nothing helped, and, after a brief period of remission, Gloria's condition continued to deteriorate. Often traveling from New Mexico to California, her devoted family members stayed by her side.

After months of suffering, Gloria finally died in a Los Angeles hospital on October 24, 1978. Only 45 years old, she was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery beside many great TV and movie stars.

Gloria's family was devastated. Each family member grieved in his or her own way. Her sons were 13 and 19 years old.

Her younger son, Joshua, was so distressed that he eventually left home, traveled across the nation and tried to express his emotions in music, a talent he had inherited from his mother. Today a well-known singer and composer, one of his most popular songs is entitled "Mama's Arms."

Going back to a tender age,

So full of confusion and rage,

Daddy says, "Boys, your Mama's gone."

There's a hand on your shoulder as...

Someone says, "Time heals all hurt.

Little man, you got to keep on keepin' on,"

But all you want is Mama's arms.

Gloria Castillo left an enduring legacy. Her talent, skills and determination are an inspiration to her brothers, her sons and all who knew her.

A beautiful photo of Gloria hangs in the very center of the main room of the Castillo home on North Main Street. Gloria remains in the very center of her family's heart.

* See Castillo, Page 8C

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