It’s hard to believe it was 60 years ago that I saw the original road show of West Side Story in the Loop at the Erlanger Theatre, one of the buildings later torn down to build the Daley Center. A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to be able to take one of my granddaughters to see the remake of the movie version of West Side Story at The Lake. It was wonderful. I loved every moment. She, on the other hand, was polite …

West Side Story is a masterpiece of musical theater. And why not: story by Shakespeare, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins and book by Arthur Laurents. It’s Romeo and Juliet set in mid-1950s gang warfare on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York.

I was young (so was Rita Moreno!), home from the University of Illinois for winter break (I’m guessing it was called something like Christmas Holiday back then). The music from West Side Story had played endlessly on 33 1/3 records from almost every room in Busey Hall. In the showers and hallways we sang a badly accented “I Want to Be in America.” We also wafted down the hallways singing “Maria.” Who wouldn’t want to be called “The most beautiful girl in the world?”

It was so cold in Urbana that winter that my long ponytail often froze: between showers, swimming class, and walking back and forth to class. Hats didn’t work with pony tails.

My boyfriend at the time, now deceased, took me to see West Side Story as my Christmas gift. He was living at home and a student at the University of Chicago (at that time, the men wore shirts and ties to class).

For this very special Christmas gift, I bought a new dress at Marshall Field: a white wool sheath with a jacket that had gold buttons down the front. I had seen it in the Tribune and my mother said yes, despite the fact that it cost $25!

Our tickets were in a box close to the stage and we held hands. It seems unbelievable now, but we had parked on the street not far from the theater. 

We felt safe. As we were fogging up the car windows after the show, a policeman came up and told us to move on. We called him Officer Kruppke, but not out loud; this was the era when it never occurred to young people to disrespect a policeman. At least not us.

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Mary Kay O'Grady

Mary Kay O'Grady is a former high school English teacher and later owned her own public relations business, The O'Grady Group. She has lived in Oak Park for almost fifteen years. She is currently the chairperson...