Chicago actress follows dad’s footsteps in more ways than one

Actress Isabel Quintero is more like her late father, broadcaster Oscar Quintero, than even she realized.

Like him, Quintero — currently appearing in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s young adults series “a home what howls (or the house what was ravine)” — initially pursued a career in broadcasting, hosting a top-rated morning show in Miami.

It was only after she segued into acting that she learned her newsman/announcer father, who worked in Chicago and New York City radio, had also been an actor who helped found a theater company in his native Colombia. She also discovered he was a poet. More about that later.

Born in Chicago to immigrant parents, Quintero grew up in Glenview and graduated from Maine East High School in Park Ridge. She made her professional singing debut at age 7 singing at Chicago’s Casa de la Cultura Colombiana, a cultural organization her parents helped establish. She began performing in plays in grade school, at one point playing Baloo in “The Jungle Book.” In high school, she studied drama but never performed on stage. Instead she worked at her high school TV and radio stations.

Her projects included “Taking Place,” a talk show featuring interviews with members of the Maine East community, which she described as a combination of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Phil Donahue Show.”

“It was amazing, and we knew it,” she said. “That was the beginning.”

After high school, Quintero moved with her older sister to Florida, where she attended community college and began dabbling in theater. Transferring to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she hosted the morning show on the university-run radio station WPGU.

She returned to Florida to finish her degree at Florida Atlantic University, where she performed in a few musicals and sang with an a cappella group. Later, she took over mornings at a Miami Spanish-language station where, at one point, she says her ratings topped Howard Stern’s.

“It was pretty incredible,” recalled Quintero.

While the then-23-year-old realized she could make radio her career, she couldn’t help thinking: “That’s great, but what else is there?”

Returning to Chicago, Quintero studied improv at The Second City and served as a producer for Ramsey Lewis’ WNUA radio show while raising her daughter.

She returned to acting, adding voice-overs to her resume.

“Now that I have white hair, I play a lot of grandmothers and older women,” laughed the self-described character actor, who notes more plays now include roles for older women.

Over the last year, she participated in three workshops of plays by Latinas about their grandmothers. In Matthew Paul Olmos’ “a home what howls,” she plays characters who have lost their homes: an older woman named syera loma and a coyote (the animal, not a smuggler of immigrants).

Broadcaster/actress Isabel Quintero, right, appears alongside Leslie Sophia Pérez in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of “a home what howls (or the house what was ravine).” Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Olmos based the play on incidents that unfolded in Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine, which Mexican Americans called home until the 1950s when the city evicted hundreds of families to make way for low-income public housing. Instead of the promised housing, the city sold the land to baseball team owner Walter O’Malley, who built Dodger Stadium on the land.

“This show has a lot to say,” Quintero says. “The beautiful part is the hero of the story is a young Latina” fighting to save her family and the home they’ve made.

The subject continues to resonate.

“We’re seeing it happen right now, people being forced out of their homes in the Middle East, in Ukraine, here in our own city,” she said. “A play that touches on that sparks a conversation that opens our eyes to what’s happening.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Glenview, Isabel Quintero is an actress/broadcaster/musician whose 2015 album turned stage revue “La Osa Menor” features lyrics by her late father, Oscar Quintero, and music by guitarist/composer Gonzalo Córdova.

Besides the stage, Quintero has spent time in the recording studio. In 2015, she released her CD “La Osa Menor” (Spanish for Ursa Minor/The Little Bear) featuring compositions by her partner, guitarist/composer Gonzalo Córdova, and lyrics from her father, whose poems she discovered in a manila envelope he had hidden away.

“He was a man of many mysteries and talents,” said Quintero, of her father, who dubbed her “osito,” which is Spanish for teddy bear.

In 2019, she performed the album as part of Steppenwolf’s LookOut series. Last August, at Steppenwolf’s suggestion, she added anecdotes to create a 90-minute show.

Oscar Quintero didn’t live to see his daughter’s stage revue, but he heard her CD.

“He loved it,” she said.

• • •

a home what howls (or the house what was ravine)”

When: Through March 2

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1646 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Tickets: $5 for high school students; $15 for college students; $20 for adults

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