Fifty years after "West Side Story" won 10 Oscars, including best picture, a newspaper in Riverside has told the story behind the story behind "West Side Story."
The story we know: The celebrated musical is an update of "Romeo and Juliet" set among white and Puerto Rican gangs on New York's west side.
The story behind the story known by musical theater aficionados: The show's creators were kick-started into writing the celebrated musical after reading a small Los Angeles Times article about a fight among Latinos gangs on San Bernardino's west side.
The story behind that story: Two young Hispanic men fought outside a dance at a community hall in 1955. One of them died.
On Sunday, the Riverside Press-Enterprise traced that 1955 killing, talking to men who were once part of that gang world. Now in their 70s, they were unaware of the connection between their gang, called the Junior Raiders, and a landmark musical.
“I’ll be darned,” said Freddy “Leo” Luque, 75, who as a teenager held the dying man after a brawl outside Johnson Community Hall.
The connection, said Manuel “Mad Dog” Delgado, “gives me chills.”
For years, the creative team of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents had been struggling with their musical about Catholics and Jews called "East Side Story."
Bernstein biographer Nigel Simeone told the Press-Enterprise "(i)f they hadn’t seen that newspaper story, I’m not even sure [the musical] would have gotten finished. It was more than a turning point. This was a mess that hadn’t been worked on in six years.
"It’s a seemingly insignificant moment that had a colossal impact.”
Here's that Times report that sparked the making of "West Side Story."
SAN BERNARDINO: Gang fight sparked ‘West Side Story’
BY BRIAN ROKOS The Press Enterprise STAFF WRITER
Fifty years ago, “West Side Story” won 10 Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. The modern-day retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” that debuted as a Broadway musical five years earlier is based in part on a fictional turf war between Puerto Rican and white street gangs on the upper west side of Manhattan.
But few know that the beloved musical that is a staple of famous theaters and high school stages likely never would have existed but for a real-life gang fight on the west side of … San Bernardino.
Nigel Simeone’s book “Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story,” which examines the musical’s development, describes how in the mid-1950s the creative team was stumped for a focus and had stalled in their work. Then by chance, they read a newspaper’s three-paragraph account of an Aug. 20, 1955, brawl outside Johnson Community Hall in San Bernardino.
Two Hispanic gangs, the Raiders and the Bullies, fought over some long-forgotten dispute. That light-bulb moment gave the project new life and inspired the romantic tragedy’s Latin accent.
“If they hadn’t seen that newspaper story, I’m not even sure (the musical) would have gotten finished,” Simeone said in an interview. “It was more than a turning point. This was a mess that hadn’t been worked on in six years. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment that had a colossal impact.”
The connection between a violent episode from the Raiders’ past to an influential musical that many of them have seen was jaw-dropping news to the 10 men in their 70s who gather at San Bernardino’s Mitla Café twice a month for breakfast. They are let in half an hour before the public, VIP treatment for men who in their teen years were banned from the restaurant because they were members of a gang — the Raiders.
“I’ll be darned,” said Freddy “Leo” Luque, 75, who as a teenager held a dying Robert “Webet” Garcia in his arms as another Raider, Rudy Lopez, also now 75, drove Garcia to his 11th Street home.
The connection, said Manuel “Mad Dog” Delgado, “gives me chills.”
Delgado, 71, a former Raider living in Las Vegas chronicled the fight as well as growing up on San Bernardino’s west side in his 2009 memoir “The Last Chicano: A Mexican American Experience.”
“To hear that this might have sparked this play and movie to come out is unbelievable,” he said.
Unbelievable … but true.
‘GOD BLESS US!’
“West Side Story” debuted on Broadway in the fall of 1957. But the project had actually begun eight years earlier.
Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins first came up with the idea of doing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a musical set in modern times. The project was called “East Side Story” and set on Manhattan’s lower east side amidst strife between rival groups with differing religious backgrounds — Jews and Catholics, according to published accounts.
Robbins and Bernstein brought in writer Arthur Laurents to work up a story. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim would join them later.) But a mix of conflicting work schedules, disagreements over the tone of the story and the style of the music and a lack of consensus among the artistic temperaments caused the project to grind to a halt.
According to their separate biographies, on Aug. 22, 1955, Bernstein and Laurents were both in Los Angeles, working on other jobs. They met poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Talk turned to “East Side Story.”
There, Simeone said, they noticed in the morning’s Los Angeles Times a brief story from San Bernardino headlined “Six Jailed in Fight Death.” Details jumped out and struck a Eureka! chord: a fight outside a teenage dance … youth gangs, which in the mid-1950s were first being seen as a social worry … Chicanos, reflecting the increasing influx of Hispanics into a largely Caucasian America.
Bernstein and Laurents contacted Robbins and “what if” discussions excitedly took place: What if the setting moved to the part of Manhattan where Puerto Rican immigrants were being met with hostility by entrenched whites? What if Romeo/Tony was white, and Juliet/Maria was Hispanic? What if the teen lovers met at a school dance?
Bernstein, in particular, was inspired at tapping into Latin music, Misha Berson wrote in “Something’s Coming, Something Good,” her book on the musical.
“I hear rhythms and pulses, and — most of all, I feel the form,” Bernstein wrote in his journal. In another entry, written on Sept. 5, 1955, he wrote: “Jerry loves our gang idea. Here we go, God bless us!”
In less than two years, “West Side Story” opened on Broadway and a hit was born. Simeone, the author, said there is no evidence that the show’s creative team ever learned more about what happened that night in San Bernardino that put them on the road to success beyond those three short newspaper paragraphs.
S.B. IN THE ’50S
The area in San Bernardino west of Mt. Vernon Avenue remains a working-class neighborhood that grew in the 1950s as people came for jobs in the Santa Fe rail yard and the citrus industry and later the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana. Generations of families have lived there, some still residing in the homes in which they grew up.
Delgado said that by the mid-’50s there were more than a dozen gangs, among them the Raiders, Gents, Jokers, Bullies, Earrings, Bottles, Crowns, Counts and Merrymen.
The teens enjoyed wearing stylish clothes with shirts pressed just-so. The Raiders bought jackets from Jimmy’s, a downtown clothing store, that were blue with a white stripe down the side and an emblem of the devil on the back.
Everyone had a nickname. There were Webet, Blinky, Chito, Puro, Peewee, Tato, Chevo, El Machine, Chop Chop and Pama. Luque said he didn’t learn many of his pals’ given names until teachers called on them in class.
Just as Maria was encouraged to “stick to your own kind” and not date white Tony in “West Side Story,” west side San Bernardino Latinas were discouraged from going out with white boys. “This made Mexican boys look bad,” Delgado said.
Battles were fought for territory and respect, not drugs. Scores were mostly settled with fists, not guns. If a fight really escalated, someone might pull out a knife or a bicycle chain, Luque said.
“Today, they shoot,” Delgado said.
“If one guy in one club had a problem with another guy in another club, they’d go and duke it out,” said Esther Estrada, 70, a former San Bernardino City Councilwoman whose parents moved to the west side when she was 2 and who still lives in her childhood home.
Luque, who became a leader of the Raiders, once became so dissatisfied with their fighting prowess that he ordered them to engage in fistfights with each other to learn to better defend themselves “in case we went to a party and something was going to happen.”
That wouldn’t save “Webet” Garcia.
A FATAL KICK
In “West Side Story,” the Jets and the Sharks show up at a dance that leads to the rumble where Tony stabs Bernardo to death. On Aug. 20, 1955, the Raiders and Bullies turned out at Johnson Hall, also for a dance that would lead to violence.
The Raiders considered Johnson Hall their turf. Eight blocks away, the Bullies ruled Kingman Street, where their saying was “Enter if you dare, leave if you can.”
Garcia, 20, who was due to report to the Army the next day, arrived at Johnson Hall with a chip on his shoulder and alcohol in his blood, Luque said. About 10:30 p.m., the San Bernardino Sun later reported, Garcia left the dance and went out front. The Raiders would later tell police that Garcia picked a fight with Rudy Sena.
None of the current Raiders can remember what touched off the ruckus — a dispute over turf or a girl, or Sena looking crossways at Garcia.
“I don’t know whether Webet was trying to prove himself before he went into the Army. He was a person who didn’t take crap from anybody — even his family,” Luque said.
Luque said both gangs decided that rather than have an all-out brawl, that only Garcia and Sena should go at it.
“It was going to be a fair fight,” Luque said.
The fight was a short one. Garcia kicked Sena, and then as Garcia charged again, Sena kicked him in the crotch, Luque said. When Garcia fell, Sena stomped on his chest, Luque said.
“That’s when we started rushing at each other,” he added.
But everyone separated when Garcia appeared unconscious.
By that time, Lopez, hearing the commotion, had run outside the hall. Lopez recalled he was the only Raider with a car — a blue 1941 Chevy — so he and Luque loaded Garcia into the backseat and took him home. They placed him on a bed and turned out the lights.
“We’re back in the front room when all of a sudden I hear all this screaming,” Luque said. “(His sisters) turned the light on and went to check on him. He had turned blue.”
An hour later, Garcia was dead.
Another Sun story said a preliminary San Bernardino County coroner’s report indicated that Garcia had a bruised heart. Fellow gang members wondered whether a teeter totter accident when they were children might have contributed to his death, Delgado wrote. When friends jumped off the board, a large ball struck Garcia in the chest, knocking his breath out.
After Garcia died, Luque, Sena, Lopez, Joe Espitia, Ramon Soto and Cruz Galvan were all booked into City Jail for investigation of murder, according to the Sun.
No one was ever prosecuted. A coroner’s jury ruled three days later that Sena had acted in self defense, the Sun reported.
Even before the inquest, Delgado wrote, Sena family members had packed their bags. They moved to San Jose, and no Raider has seen Sena in San Bernardino since.
Sena, 75, became an electrician and now lives in Ventura. He declined to be interviewed, saying that he didn’t want to discuss an incident that happened so long ago.
Luque, who promoted fighting with fists, learned the perils of guns first hand. His left eye was destroyed when someone hit him with the trigger guard on a gun. And a shotgun blast that Luque fired as a warning ricocheted and struck a man in the head, paralyzing him. Luque served 18 months in a California Youth Authority jail.
“I asked God for forgiveness,” he said.
Luque became a carpenter and retired six month ago. He keeps an Oakland Raiders emblem in the living room of his Highland home as a reminder of the old days. He has seen portions of “West Side Story” but has no interest in watching the entire movie — he doesn’t like musicals.
Luque regrets the fight that killed his friend.
“I’ve learned one thing, and this comes from being in construction, a mistake is not a mistake as long as you can fix it. When you can’t fix it, it is a mistake. The fight was a mistake because it took Robert,” he said.
Lopez worked in a lumber yard and lives in San Bernardino. He wears an Oakland Raiders watch and pendant, he said, because he is a fan of the football team, which played its first game 20 years after San Bernardino’s Raiders formed.
Lopez said he believed at the time that Sena should have gone to jail but now says “It’s over. It’s done.”
Delgado went on to lead a student strike at UC Berkeley, earn a master’s degree and become a college professor.
BACK WHERE IT STARTED
The Raiders disbanded as many married and got jobs, but the relationships endured over the years.
Recently, after breakfast at Mitla Café, the graying gang returned to Johnson Hall — many of them for the first time in decades — to be photographed. They noted that the patch of asphalt on the corner of Wilson and 9th streets where Garcia and Sena brawled is now covered by grass.
They wandered inside and saw that the dance hall had been remodeled, and they found children working in a computer lab.
Cris Carcano, 72, glanced back inside as he left. For him, the fight’s role in jump-starting “West Side Story” was difficult to fathom.
“Nobody’s going to believe me that it happened in San Bernardino first,” he said.
Also contributing to this report: Correspondent Christopher Smith.
Follow Brian Rokos on Twitter: @Brian_Rokos