George Chakiris, center, in Academy Award winning role as Bernardo in West Side Story.
In 1961, George Chakiris won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in his role in the groundbreaking movie-musical West Side Story for the role of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Although Greek, his brown skin was close enough to play the head of the New York-Rican gang, the Jets. He made big news in the Cincinnati Enquirer upon winning his Oscar. Although he lived in New York City, he was born in Norwood, Ohio, and Cincinnati claimed him as their hometown hero – kind of the George Clooney of his day.
But he didn’t really remember much about Norwood, as his parents left with the family for Los Angeles when he was barely seven years old. His father had aspirations of acting, and wanted to escape a discouraging Greek father, who ran a successful confectionary business in Norwood. George’s father Stylianos “Steve” and his mother Ekatarina, father Aristotle, and siblings, ethnically Greek, had come to America from Turkey in 1916.
One of the first jobs Steve landed was at a Greek confectionary in Norwood called the Metropolitan. It was owned by two immigrant brothers from Sparta, Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis. Nearly 100 years later the Aglamesis ice cream is still being made and a hometown favorite. The brothers would open another ice cream parlor in the Oakley neighborhood, and eventually sell the Norwood Metropolitan store.
After leaving Cincinnati, and in Hollywood, California, the nineteen year old George was able to take dance classes at the American Academy of Dance. This led him to his first roles on screen. He danced alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The next year, George danced alongside another hometown fave actress Rosemary Clooney, in the number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” in White Christmas. Fans clamored to know who the handsome dancer over the shoulder of Miss Clooney was in that scene. Paramount was flooded with fan mail.
Although the Aglamesis taught George’s father, Steve Chakiris, how to make their incredibly creamy and delicious ice cream, his passion was to be on the silver screen. Steve had a great voice, taught himself how to play the mandolin, and loved the antics of Charlie Chaplin. His father would have none of it. The profession of actor was, in Aristotle Chakiris’ opinion, degrading and unthinkable. “No son of mine will do anything but dip chocolates, scoop ice cream and make sodas,” Aristotle might have said in a thick Greek accent above the shop at 1925 Sherman, where his grandson George would be born in 1933. It took two generations, but George fulfilled his father’s dreams of becoming a successful actor.
In the 1920s, with the family knowledge of ice cream and confectionary, Aristotle had opened the Grecian Garden, which was a soda fountain, beer garden, confectionary, and lunch stand. They served malted milk sundaes, ice cream sodas, sandwiches and beer. It became popular with Norwood residents and created a good living for the Chakiris family.
George became lifelong friends with his West Side Story Co-Star, fellow Norwood, Ohio, resident, Rita Moreno. They would return to Norwood in 2011, and then help dedicate a new costume at the Rosemary Clooney House Museum in Augusta, Kentucky, having a celebratory White Christmas dinner at the Beehive. George went on to have an illustrious career on stage and television. He never married, and now 83, designs jewelry for his own business. But thanks to the Aglamesis for teaching his father and grandfather the confectionary and ice cream business, he was able to fuel his passion for acting, singing and dancing.