An Evening with Rita Moreno
The Palladium // Friday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m.
Rita Moreno belongs to an elite group of only 15 living performers who have won entertainment’s grand slam of the industry’s most prestigious awards: the Oscar, the Emmy, the Tony and the Grammy (acronym: EGOT). She is exclusive in this group of her peers for having also been awarded the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime contributions to American culture and a Peabody—which she was awarded just this year.
Moreno is also a New York Times bestselling author. While the folks in the “industry” figure out the proper acronym for Moreno’s awards, let us review some highlights of her stellar career that earned her these accolades.
Moreno was born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico. At age 5, she moved to New York City with her mother, where the precocious child soon began dance lessons. She made her Broadway debut at just 13 in “Skydrift,” starring Eli Wallach. Then, in true Hollywood tradition, a talent scout spotted her and arranged for the teen to meet MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a film contract.
Her Hollywood career advanced steadily, including early films with stars such as Richard Widmark, Esther Williams, Mario Lanza, Susan Hayward, Tyrone Power and Gary Cooper. She appeared in the delightful “Singin’ in the Rain” starring Gene Kelly and was featured as Tuptim in the classic “The King and I” with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. After her Academy Award for “West Side Story,” Moreno was acknowledged as a major big-screen talent.
Significant film appearances include “The Night of the Following Day” with Marlon Brando in 1967, with James Garner in “Marlowe,” as Alan Arkin’s girlfriend in “Popi” and in Mike Nichol’s production of “Carnal Knowledge.”
Moreno went on to appear in more than 40 feature films and countless TV shows, most recently the acclaimed reboot of “One Day at a Time” on Netflix.
Prior to that, Moreno appeared in guest-starring roles on primetime TV series such as “Getting On,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Grace and Frankie.”
Her Oscar came in 1962 when she starred as the Latina spitfire Anita in “West Side Story,” for which she also won the Golden Globe. The Tony win was for her 1975 comedic triumph as Googie Gomez in Broadway’s “The Ritz.” The Grammy was for her 1972 performance on “The Electric Company Album,” based on the long-running children’s television series. She won not one but two Emmys—the first for a 1977 variety appearance on “The Muppet Show” and the following year for a dramatic turn on “The Rockford Files.”
Over the decades, she collected dozens of other show business awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1995.
Moreno has guest-starred on a wide variety of television productions in the U.S. and abroad. She is proud to have been a featured artist for many years on “The Electric Company,” the highly regarded educational show for children. She starred in her own TV series based on the film “9 to 5.” Additionally, she played opposite Burt Reynolds in “B.L. Stryker.” In 2007, she starred in the CBS series “Cane,” and most recently she was one of the leads in the highly acclaimed HBO series “Oz.”
In addition to film, stage, television and concert commitments, Moreno fills her spare time by lecturing to various organizations and university audiences. She is also involved with a number of civic and charitable organizations and events.
Expect standards from the “American Songbook” and stories from Moreno’s stellar career at her performance at The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana. For tickets, visit thecenterpresents.org.
I’m giving away my age now, but my first memory of you was on the PBS show “The Electric Company.” Why was doing educational shows like that one important to you?
Wasn’t that [show] a genius thing? It was a service for the community—I mean, essentially, that’s what we were doing on these shows.
Your background as an immigrant from Puerto Rico who moved to NYC as a child gives you firsthand insight into the sacrifices and hardships that are made when trying to assimilate and live their “American Dream”. Please share with our readers how your life in America began.
I came from Puerto Rico when I was 5 years old because my mother felt that life was going to be a lot better there for us in NYC at the time. She divorced my father who was a philanderer, but she did something that was very interesting and very brave—she left me with my father, his new wife and my grandmother and grandfather, and she took a ship to NYC. She stayed with an aunt in the ghetto apartments and found work as a seamstress in a sweatshop. When she had made enough money, she took a ship, went back to Puerto Rico and brought me to NYC with her.
You were on Broadway by the time you were 13. From ages 5 to 13, you had to learn English to speak, let alone sing. How were you able to do it?
I learned very quickly that language was extremely important and that in order to express your feelings—particularly if you were unhappy—you have to learn the words. So, it was sink or swim, and I just chose to swim. You just do it, you know?
You worked with some incredible casts and productions, such as the “King and I” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” When you look back at that now, what are some of the thoughts you have about that time in your career?
“Singin’ in the Rain” is still one of my favorite movies ever. That and the movie that I’m in called “The Four Seasons” are two of my favorite movies. But regarding “Singin’ in the Rain,” I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the lead part. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something like that. And actually, what was wonderful about “Singin’ in the Rain” was that I was playing a nonspecific person of racial characteristics with Gene Kelly! So, that happened. I thought, “This is it, and everything is going to be fine,” and of course everything was not fine. I did a lot of little sexy spitfires, Indian maidens and everything but an “American” role.
That had to have had an impact on you throughout your career.
It had a huge impact! It limited me to what I could do. There is nothing more frustrating! And I remember saying to my agent a couple of times—I would read a script that they had—and would say, “Oh, I think I could do that part! Could you set me up for it?” and I asked them to audition me for it, and [my agents] would come back and say, “They don’t want to see you.” They didn’t even want to see me. The name was Rita Moreno, and it was just so frustrating and disappointing. I am so glad those days are over.
At what point do you feel that “those days” were over for you in that sense?
You know, they’ve never really been over, but right now, I’m doing several guest appearances for a show—a sitcom—called “Bless This Mess,” which is actually very funny. And I have a character who talks like this [Moreno says with a sweet Southern drawl]. Yep, that’s how I talk!
I love you on the reboot of “One Day at a Time”!
Isn’t it fun? Isn’t Lydia hilarious? She is a piece of work! [Laughing] I’m doing my mom’s accent, and I just love playing her [Lydia]—she is delicious!
You bring to the character of Lydia a certain truth. And that truth is that a woman—at any age—can be vivacious and she can be sexual and strong.
Thank you! I love that! That’s why I was interested in doing this character. When I was invited to play [Lydia] by Norman Lear—aside from the fact that I wanted very much to work with him—I said to him, “I’d love to do it, but she [Lydia] has to be a sexual being.” At the time, I was 70-something—I’m 87 now, and I’m still playing younger than my age. And I said to them [Lear and the producers], “You don’t go to pieces simply just because you can’t bear a child. You can be sexy till the day you die!” and they love the idea of that!
What is it about the character “Lydia” that you enjoy the most?
It’s so much fun, and what I love about her is she’s an equal opportunity flirter. She’ll flirt with a fence post!
Would you say that age is truly a state of mind?
Absolutely, and you know it’s interesting, young people just think I’m the bee’s knees. For one thing, I’ve kept up and know the jargon. A lot of young people think I’m very cool, and I still wear leather, but I’m very careful not to wear the kind of clothing that is supposed to make me look young—that’s just embarrassing! I do not wear short things, and I do not wear things with my boobs hanging out. It just doesn’t feel right, but other than that, I will wear any damn thing I please, and I do! In fact, when I was on the “Jimmy Kimmel Show” a few months ago, I came on wearing leather, and everybody just loved it!
A lot of people at your point in their careers say, “I’ve been there, I did it and I’m done.” Why have you kept at it for more than seven decades?
You know what? They don’t love what they do, but I love what I do! I love to perform. I love to make people laugh. I love to be funny. I love to make people cry. I love to affect people. And if I’m able to do that, then I think that’s a real skill and a gift.