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Interview: Oscar Winner Rita Moreno on Her Life in America
CHICAGO – The former Rosa Dolores Alverio, better known to audiences as Rita Moreno, has had a glorious and tempestuous journey through life and show business. One of her most notable roles is as Anita, the fiery friend of Maria in the film version of “West Side Story,” in which Moreno stops the show with the song “America.”
Moreno is also famous in show business lore for having swept the quartet of major awards, winning the Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story), the Tony (for “The Ritz”), the Grammy (for “The Electric Company” soundtrack) and the Emmy (twice, for Variety and Drama). Her other bling includes the Golden Globe (also for West Side Story) and two presidential citations.
Not bad for a little girl who moved from Puerto Rico to New York City when she was five years old. After getting her early training in dance, Moreno cut her teeth as a child actor on Broadway and dubbing the kid’s parts of English language films into Spanish. She moved to Hollywood and had small parts in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The King and I” before hitting it big with West Side Story.
Photo Credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
She has worked steadily since then on Broadway, film, TV and cabaret, but a certain generation also remembers her on PBS’s “The Electric Company,” where her catchphrase “Hey you guys!” began the theme to each program.
HollywoodChicago caught up with the legend, as Rita Moreno was in Chicago to participate in a West Side Story Reunion at the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville, Ill., along with co-stars George Chakiris (Bernardo) and Russ Tamblyn (Riff). She talked about her entire life and career, including the honor of getting all those awards.
HollywoodChicago.com: As one of the few actual Puerto Ricans in the cast of West Side Story, how did you help the others, especially Natalie Wood, seem more authentic?
Rita Moreno: It was really Natalie that came to me during the rehearsal period and asked if I would tape record her dialog with the accent. I told her I would be thrilled to do it. And so she came to the dressing room with a reel-to-reel recorder and I started reading the stuff. After awhile she got bored and left, and I don’t know if she ever used it.
HC: When you first came to America in the late 1930s, what overwhelmed you the most?
RM: It was freezing cold. [laughs] We came from this beautiful green bougainvillean tropical island in the middle of February. What can I tell you. It was a shock. I kept saying to my Mom what happened to the bougainvillea? Where are the palm trees? It all looked so gray. To have come from where we came from to a city. I would have said that about any gray city, it wasn’t just a question of New York.
It was a very difficult transition because we also didn’t speak English. My mother was absolutely remarkable. She was then 21 years old, and got jobs as a seamstress in sweatshops, which is what you did then. Particularly if you were a Puerto Rican woman, you always knew how to sew. The sweatshops were filled with Puerto Rican women. She would have three jobs at once, and I would help her with some of them. One was ‘piecework,’ that’s what they called it, and she was making crepe paper roses for Woolworth’s.
HC: How old were you when you did that?
RM: I must have been six years old. I was a little girl. And probably one of the most traumatic experiences at the time was going to school and not knowing a word of English. This was in the day before anybody cared. The classes had 40 kids, one harassed teacher, so the fact that I didn’t speak English was my problem, not the school’s. It was clear to me that it was either sink or swim. And thanks to my mother’s character I opted to swim. Upstream, but I swam.
HC: Now one of your first show business jobs was dubbing American films into Spanish language? How weird was that job and what classic film do you remember doing a dubbing for?
RM: Yes I did do that, and do you know who was the director? Ricardo Montalbán’s brother Carlos. Way before Ricardo became a name. Carlos Montalbán, Isn’t that a crazy coincidence?
We did all kind of films. I did all the little girl stuff like Peggy Ann Garner in ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ and Margaret O’Brien in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ I remember they had a special singer to dub Judy Garland’s singing voice, which I never understood. Can you imagine taking Judy Garland’s voice away from her? [Puts on a thick accent] ‘Clang, clang clang went the trolley…’ [laughs]
HC: What was the hardest part of being typecast or only chosen for exotic roles in your early career?
RM: It was very difficult. It was demeaning. It is important that people understand that there were many indignities that I went through simply because I’m Latina. When did it stop? I don’t think it has. But here and there I get to do wonderful roles that don’t necessarily require an accent.
I certainly don’t object playing an Hispanic person. What depressed me, dismayed me and what I hated was playing stereotypical characters. And I also played American Indians and Eastern Indians – her name was Shantini when I did ‘Father Knows Best.’ And I always went to work with such a sense of unhappiness. First, when I wasn’t working I’d be unhappy, then when I got a job I would be happy for about two hours. But then I would say ‘wait a minute, am I going to be in dark-skinned make-up again, am I going to be wearing buckskins again? Am I going to have to speak in an accent again?’ And the answer was usually, ‘Yep.’
HC: Have you overcome that to a degree?
RM: I think for the most part it’s over, it’s nice to play a character without a specific nationality. For me, that is really wonderful. But in real life, we don’t deal that way with people. If a black man would walk in right now and give me a script, I wouldn’t make a comment that he is a black man. In films, you do. Even now, the casting lists say ‘Hispanic’ next to a name. And I say, why? Since it has nothing to do, very often, with the fact that this character is Hispanic. Why are we designating roles that way? So it still definitely exists.
Photo Credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: Describe your Oscar moment. Do you remember who presented it to you and what was your reaction as you went to receive it?
RM: I will never forget who presented it to me, it was Rock Hudson. And I have the pictures at home to prove it. It was unbelievable, because I was so sure that Judy Garland, who was up for ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ was going to get it. She was certainly a sentimental favorite. And I had flown in all the way from Manila in the Philippines for this event. I really thought I wouldn’t get it but if there was the tiniest chance that I was going to be rewarded this magnificent honor, I want to be there.
I was astonished. I remember thinking once my name was called that I must not run down the aisle, because that was undignified. I was saying to myself all the way to the stage, ‘don’t you dare run, You maintain your dignity.’ And I didn’t run.
George Chakiris and I practiced ‘Loser’s Speeches.’ One of mine was, ‘well of course she slept with everyone in the movie.’ [laughs] We laughed so hard.
HC: How did you get involved in ‘The Electric Company’?
RM: I was asked. At the time I was watching ‘Sesame Street’ with my daughter, who then was three years old. And when the Children’s Television Workshop called, I thought it was perfect. The trouble was I kept getting advised not to do a children’s show, because in those days they kept saying it is the Pinky Lee syndrome. Remember Pinky Lee got stuck doing kid’s shows for the rest of his life? I just said, I don’t care I’m going to do it, I’m going to teach kids to read.
HC: You recently were presented with a medal from President Barack Obama. What was that experience like?
RM: I got the National Endowment of the Arts Medal of Merit from President Barack Obama himself. He had just come from seven hours at the summit looking fresh as a daisy. I mean, did they give him a chance to go the bathroom at least? [laughs] He looked great.
Here’s the entertaining part. I practiced my handshake all morning and putting my head down so he could put the medal on. When the president got up to me, I looked at him and went [like a teenage girl] ‘Oooooh!’ [laughs], and grabbed him. Look it up on YouTube. It wasn’t planned, you don’t plan like that when it comes to the president. But I worked so hard for him, and I know I’m not alone. He was so close so I impulsively grabbed him. He was just fine about it. He laughed and hugged me back and whispered in my ear…’it’s okay, Michelle doesn’t mind.’
HC: You of course are one of only a few to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Tony and Emmy. Which is the hardest one to wear as a necklace when you go out on the town and why?
RM: [Laughs] My grandsons actually wear my presidential citation medals. They walk around the house. The latest one is beautiful, but very heavy, and my littlest grandson has to hang his head because it’s so heavy. [laughs] I call the Oscar ‘my little gold man.’
HC: In all seriousness, which one are you most proud of?
RM: The Oscar. I have two Emmys, but the Oscar was the first one, it’s the top of the line.
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