Old West Orange High School Chiefs get together in April under sprawling oak trees at Mike Trahan's homestead. This Saturday, the woman who is the school's most famous graduate is returning to her hometown. And nobody better mess with her. Dolores Cantu is the only woman who has beat up John Travolta on the big screen. Cantu is a member of the Class of 1968. Her path in life has taken her around the globe with trips to "Fantasy Island," "Dallas," and "Falcon Crest." It's a path that was in her daydreams back in the 1960s when she worked at The Strand movie theater in downtown Orange. “I was Hispanic, I was poor and I barely finished high school. But I had a drive and I worked really, really hard,” she said in a phone interview this week from her Los Angeles home. Cantu wasn’t born in Orange County. She was born of Spanish ancestry in Refugio. She didn’t speak English until she was in the second grade. Her parents moved the family to West Orange when she was 13. She remembers being the only Hispanic at West Orange High School when she started there in 1964. Her heritage wasn’t the only thing that made her stand out. Classmates remember her as a beauty with all the right assets. She describes herself as a “talker,” a characteristic that hasn’t diminished through the decades. It’s a chipper voice full of enthusiasm.
She started a job at the age of 14. To this day, she appreciates the manager of the business and her mother for letting her work. “I found a home at The Strand,” she said about the old movie theater that was once on Front Street. She worked there for four years in almost every job. She was often behind the concession stand selling the Junior Mints and M&Ms, and worked her way up to running the popcorn machine. “I got $5 for eight hours of work. It took a long time to get $100,” she said. The theater had “kiddy shows” on Saturday mornings and midnight shows on Saturday mornings. Usually, she was there until after midnight. She loved getting to be around the movies. One time, her mother didn’t want her to watch the movie “The Carpetbaggers” starring George Peppard and Carroll Baker. “Because it had sex,” Cantu said. Of course 50 years ago, the screen sex was tame compared to what goes now. “Little did she know that the midnight shows had sex in them,” she said. During those teenage years at the theater, Cantu dreamed of being on the screen one day. But she didn’t go straight to that route from high school.
After graduation from West Orange High, she moved to Houston and got a job with Prudential Insurance. Someone noticed her looks and out-going personality and suggested she become an airline stewardess. In the 1960s, before men and women became known as “flight attendants,” the airlines bragged about the looks of the young, shapely women who worked as stewardesses. It was a considered a glamorous job. “I never thought I was pretty. I thought I had a great personality, full of life,” Cantu said. She got a job as a stewardess for Eastern Airlines and one of the first Hispanics to work in the position. Executives in the company noticed her and soon she was being chosen to appear in Eastern commercials. She became the ambassador for new routes and traveled for personal appearances to talk about the airline. Eastern chose her to represent the airline for the Miss USA-Miss Universe Pageant held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was given the Miss Hospitality Award. Judges at the pageant suggested she become an actress. Next stop for Cantu was New York City. “I was just fearless. I knew I wanted to do something,” she said. Work came for modeling and acting. She starred, speaking Spanish, in one of the first McDonald’s commercials in the Hispanic market in 1974. Six years later, she was back in a McDonald’s commercial as one of the first Hispanics featured advertising for the restaurants in an American market commercial.
Steady work came in commercials and bit roles on TV and the big screen. The roles got bigger until she became featured in series like “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest,” The Young and the Restless,” “The Tonight Show” and “Fantasy Island.” Besides her “Saturday Night Fever” spot where she bangs Travolta’s head onto the floor, her big-screen jobs include “Annie Hall” and “Force 5.” Her voice came through TVs during Saturday morning cartoon shows. After moving to Hollywood in 1978, she began working with Nosotros, a group dedicated to improving the Hispanic image.
But her life has included a switch in roles. She had the contacts and also a flair for flowers and entertaining. “Entertaining with Dolores” was a business she started with floral designs and party planning. Her show business contacts led her to working with a large list of celebrities and planning parties for film openings. The talkative side of Cantu never subsided. She often appeared on talk shows giving hints on flower arranging or entertaining. One of her most unusual appearances was going through breast reduction for cameras on Entertainment Tonight.
Cantu has embraced her age and celebrates the decades. And she went through another role change. Now she is a talent manager and owns Candu Management to bring new faces to light in the entertainment business.
On Saturday, she’ll be back in West Orange, chatting with classmates and people who remember wearing the purple and white of the West Orange Chiefs. Mike Trahan said West Orange High School operated from 1958 through 1977. Graduates from all those years are invited to the event. Last year, all 20 classes were represented.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-