Photo by Richard Frasier
Star of stage and screen--and winner of just about every performance award--Rita Moreno talks about her life as a performing artist. [28:06]
Music/singing from West Side Story:
Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you're all white in America
That was Rita Moreno as Anita leading the gang in America from the film West Side Story. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists, to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Rita Moreno won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance. In fact, sheâs one of a handful of performers to have won all the prestigious show business awards. Aside from the Oscar and Golden Globe, sheâs also gotten a Tony (for Googie Gomez in the Broadway hit, The Ritz) two Emmys: one for The Rockford Files and the other for The Muppet Show and a Grammy for The Electric Company Album.
Born Rosita Dolores Alverio in Puerto Rico, Rita Moreno moved to New York City when she was five years old. She had her Broadway debut at 13 and by the time she was 17 signed a contract with MGM. This was Hollywood's golden era when musicals ruled supreme on the MGM lot. And as her many awards prove, Rita Moreno could sing, dance and act with the best of them.
This year, she received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an artist by the federal government. I spoke with her when she came to Washington for the award ceremony. Here's our conversation.
Jo Reed: First of all, Rita Moreno, congratulations.
Rita Moreno: Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
Rita Moreno: I did. I always knew I wanted to be a performer. I started as a Spanish dancer, and when I was still in Puerto Rico before I came to this wonderful country, I used to dance for Grandpa, to records. Remember records? And when I came to the United States, a friend of my mother's, who was a Spanish dancer, saw me bopping around in the living room, and she said, "You know, Rosita really seems to have a talent for movement. Is it all right if I take her to my dance teacher and see what happens?" My mother said, "Sure. Great." And that started the ball rolling. I was five.
Jo Reed: How did you move from dancing to acting?
Rita Moreno: From dancing to acting, I think, was the most natural thing in the world. I went to dance school for a very long time, and the most natural thing in the world seemed to be, for a lively, energetic little girl like myself, seemed to be to go on to acting. I think I was always an actress. You could say I was a little hambone. I did do some radio shows. I did a few amateur hours on the radio. There was no television as we know it then, although I did one of the very, very, very early television shows, where you had to wear very, very, very dark makeup because the lights were so hot, and brown lipstick, because remember, this was black and white. And I just loved riding on the subway back home with this orange face and chocolate-brown lips, and just loving that everybody was looking at me as though I was some freak, which indeed I must've looked like one. But that was the very, very early days of television. I did a tap-dance and a song called Shine. <sings> "Shine away your bluesies. Shine, start with your shoesies." Had a little newsboy cap on, and knickerbocker pants, and you had literally about four feet by four feet of space in which to move, because the camera was stationary, and there was only one camera. So if they wanted a shot of you head to toe, they set the camera back enough so that you were head to toe, and that was it. That was the shot.
Jo Reed: How did you get to Hollywood?
Rita Moreno: Hollywood came because of a talent scout, an actual talent scout, who saw me at a dance school recital. Apparently, they used to frequent those kind of things, I suppose the way sports talent scouts do the same thing--they go to the Little League games and all that and saw me and thought I had some promise, came backstage, and gave my mother his business card. And of course it's a name I'll never forget. Dougley Wilkinson was the talent scout for MGM Studios. And MGM was the studio of my dreams, because they are the ones who made the great musicals. They had Gene Kelly there, for God's sake. They had Anne Miller. They had Janie Powell. And he said, "I don't think the time is right for Rosita yet, but when I think it is, I will call you." And sure enough, about six months to a year later, he did call. He called now and then just to stay in touch with us. And about a year later, he said, "Louis B. Mayer is coming to New York, and I would like you to meet him." And oh, can you imagine the excitement in my household, the apartment? Oh, my God. My mother was running all over the house, saying, "What are we gonna wear? What are we gonna wear?" And my mother sewed. She used to sew all my clothing. So that took at least a week to decide what I was going to wear. And then the other dilemma was to find the hotel Waldorf-Astoria. We'd never seen it, we'd never heard of it. That was for rich people. We were people who lived in the ghetto. What is a Waldorf-Astoria? And when we got there, what is a penthouse suite? A penthouse S-W-E-E-T? Had no idea. And finally, he found us in the lobby and took us upstairs, and I met the great man. And in those days, I suppose this is what happened, at least sometimes. He says, "She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor." Well, I was trying desperately to look like Elizabeth Taylor. I tailored my eyebrows to look like hers. I used a waist cincher, so at that time, it's a wonder that my back and my spine had survived those waist cinchers. I look at those pictures, and it's infinitesimal. I could've put my two little hands around my waist. And I got a contract, a stock contract, to go to MGM in Hollywood. It was so exciting. Oh, man! I mean, imagine, a little Puerto Rican girl who had run into all kinds of prejudice the moment I hit the bricks in New York City, all of that stuff that happens to a lot of people who come from another country, who don't speak the language initially. And here she was, little Rosa Dolores Alverio on her way to Hollywood. We took the train. Really, it was just my mother and myself. It's amazing. Itâs amazing when I look back now at my 78 years and say, "Wow!" And look where I am today, receiving this astonishing honor from the president I voted for. Wow!
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you walked into MGM?
Rita Moreno: Iâll never forget the day I walked into MGM. I had already been assigned a movie, and I went to see Mr. Mayer, Mr. L.B. Mayer, for a five-minute visit, and, "Welcome to the studio, dah-ling." And then I was introduced to the producer of the film I was going to be in. It was called Toast of New Orleans which starred a very, very hot young tenor of the day named Mario Lanza, who was todayâs equivalent of Andrea Bocelli. And--
Jo Reed: And Kathyrn Grayson was in that one.
Rita Moreno: And Kathyrn Grayson was in it. David Niven was in it. J. Carrol Naish, a wonderful character actor. And it was a musical, and the producer, Joe Pasternak, who was the second biggest producer at MGM at the time-- the number one was Arthur Freed, was very sweet. He said, "Come on, kid." He put his arm around my shoulders. He says, "I'll show you around the lot." The MGM lot. And I met some astonishing people that day. Let's see. Who did I meet? Yes, I met Anne Miller. I thought I would wet my knickers. I met Clark Gable, and I didn't think I'd wet them; I did. I almost died. And he was still looking very handsome and gorgeous. I met Eva Gardner. I met Esther Williams with whom I did a film later on, a musical film. It's difficult to describe the joy and the excitement that I felt in being at the studio of my dreams. It was just amazing.
Jo Reed: Early on, you actually got to do a film with one of the great stars at MGM, one of the great, great musicals, Singin' in the Rain,with Gene Kelly. You were Zelda.
Rita Moreno: Singin' in the Rain. Oh, my gosh. Actually, Singin' in the Rain came after my option had been dropped at MGM, and for some reason that I'll never understand, but shall be eternally grateful for, Gene Kelly wanted me for the part of Zelda Zanders, the one who gives away the secret that Debbie Reynolds is singing for Jean Hagen. And, by the way, it's still one of my favorite movies. I watch it all the time. My grandchildren love it. I think it's one of the great musical classics that MGM ever made. And it was simply thrilling to work with him. He was marvelous. I was on the set every single day to watch the filming. I did that anyway. The moment I became a starlet at MGM, I would just visit set after--I spent my days doing that. Because people often asked, "Well, what did you do when you weren't working?"which was really quite often. I said, "Well, I just visited." I visited and listened and tried to learn. And it was so amazing to be in the same space. And I'm often asked, "Well, did you take photographs?" I didn't dare. I wish I had been enterprising like Roddy McDowell, who just brought his little camera wherever he went, and I would've had quite a roster of historic photographs. But I was there, and so were they.
Jo Reed: So what happened? Why did MGM drop the contract?
Rita Moreno: Really, simply, because they didn't know what to do with me. The name was Rosita Moreno. It became Moreno when my mother remarried. And they gave me a name change, and they really didn't know what to do with me. They really saw me as a little Spanish girl. The fact that I don't have looks that are that all Caribbean didn't mean anything. The name was Hispanic, and that's all they needed to just be at sea about what to do about this young contract player. Ricardo Montalban fared well, but he was a guy, and a guy could be sexy and a leading man, but you know a young Hispanic woman being a leading lady, it was way out of their ken. They couldn't even imagine such a thing. So my option was dropped simply because there were no films for me. There were plenty of films for me if I didnât have to have a label attached to me, but that was show business in those times, and I suffered greatly from that for many, many, many years.
Jo Reed: Yet, ironically, the part of Zelda in Singing in the Rain--
Rita Moreno: --was the most American part. That was Gene Kelly, though. That's what's so interesting. Gene Kelly thought that way. He thought out of the box. And if there had been another musical where a featured role was in the offing in his film, I probably might've gotten it, just simply because he thought that I had talent, and I don't think it occurred to Gene to think of me as a Latina. But he was in the minority.
Jo Reed: Let's fast-forward a little bit.
Rita Moreno: Oh, yeah, because I am 78. We could be here for about five hours.
Jo Reed: Well, glorious film, another of the great musicals, The King and I.
Rita Moreno: Oh, wasn't that a super, wonderful movie?
Jo Reed: Wonderful.
Rita Moreno: Yeah, and--
Jo Reed: Beautiful music.
Rita Moreno: And I just saw it again recently at home, and I marveled, really, at how extraordinary Yul was. But by the time he made the film of The King and I, he had played the king forever on the stage, so he had refined that role to the nth degree. He was really perfect in it.
Jo Reed: And you were absolutely lovely as Tuptim.
Rita Moreno: Oh, thank you.
Jo Reed: That was, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the first time you worked with Jerome Robbins.
Rita Moreno: Yes. I did his only two films. I did The King and I, and I filmed West Side Story, of course, with Jerry, which was an extraordinary experience.
Jo Reed: How was working with Jerome Robbins?
Rita Moreno: It was frightening. I'm sure people have heard about how ferocious he could be on the set, and how temperamental he could be, and how mean he could be. That's the hard part. The mean part is the hard part. He had a real problem. He had a real disorder, I think. He was a very sadistic person, and people like that can smell a victim a mile away. It's astonishing how they spot you in a room full of people. For some very bizarre reason that I still don't understand to this day, he was never mean to me. He was very hard on me, but I was grateful for that, because I didn't have the dancing experience that any of the other dancers, the boys and girls had, in West Side Story. I was a Spanish dancer a long time ago, and by the time I got to West Side Story, I hadn't danced in years. So they really had to beat that performance out of me, with respect to dancing and the skills and technique. I worked my butt off to try to catch up with the other kids, and to try to live up to Jerry's demands and expectations. Which is what always happens with people who are as severe and tough as Jerry, you'll kill yourself for him. You will kill yourself to please him. All the dancers were like that, even the ones he was terrible to and mean to. And he was a genius, and if I had my druthers right now, and if he were living, I would kill to work with him again. To work with a genius is something very, very special. Really, really special. I think at the time that I did Carnal Knowledge with Mike Nichols, I think he was brilliant. I don't know that he's a genius, but it's absolutely worth whatever you can do. You really turn yourself inside out to please people like that.
Jo Reed: Did you have to audition for the role of Anita?
Rita Moreno: Oh, I certainly did. Now, what happened is that I was asked to audition for the role of Anita in West Side Story because I had worked with Jerome Robbins in The King and I, and he liked my work, obviously. In fact, before he left the set of The King and I to go back to New York, he said, "I'm going to do a musical next year called West Side Story. It's based on Romeo and Juliet, and I think you'd be marvelous for the part of Maria, which is the Juliet part." He said, "Would you be willing to come to New York and audition for it?" And I said, "Oh, of course. Sure." And when the time came about a year later, I got cold feet. I'd done too many movies at that point, and movies, you can do it again, do it again, until you get it right. You have the director standing right there next to the camera. I just got scared. And I didn't go. When I saw the play a couple of years later, I thought, "Oh, boy, what I missed." Anyway, it became a film. Robert Wise was co-directing with Jerry Robbins, and I was one of the first people who Jerry mentioned to Robert Wise said, "We've got to see her because I think she'd be good for Anita." At that point, now, I no longer looked like a Maria. And I auditioned. I auditioned the singing, which was fine. I auditioned for the acting, which went very, very, very well. And then Jerry came to me after that audition and said, "Now, you know you have to audition for the dancing, because if you can't cut it, you don't get it." And he said, "I want to tell you that I really would like to have you for this part, but that's up to you." Well, first of all, I said, "When do I have to audition?" At that point, I had not danced for years. For years. And he said, "Oh, you have about a month, month and a half. We have so many people to see." I ran to the local dancing school, and took lessons from nine in the morning till ten at night. I damn near killed myself. Really, itâs like asking somebody to suddenly play, I don't know, 20 sets of tennis every single day. You don't have the stamina, you don't have the technique, you have nothing except the will. And I really, really worked like a beast. I worked so hard that one day one of the dance teachers--it was about the nine o'clock class at night-- after the class said, "Moreno, come over here," after all the students were leaving. And she said, "I don't want you back in my class." And I said, "Oh! Why? Why?" And she said, "Because, dear, you work so hard that you turn a funny shade of purple, and I'm afraid that something bad is going to happen to you, and if it does, I don't want it to happen in my class."And she was right. I remember going to the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror, and actually I was beet red to the point of purple, and I was so overheated that I had a fever. In fact, my skin was bright red, but I had huge goose bumps. I was cold at the same time, the way you do when you have a fever. It's really a testament to my enormous stamina that I survived those classes. And then finally, I, you know, got to audition, and the rest is, as they say, history: an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Jo Reed: Did you know that it was going to be the hit that it was?
Rita Moreno: Not at all. George Chakiris and I were very friendly and close. We were just so concerned that they were going to show the film on a reserved-seat basis when it first opened, and that the tickets were going to cost, I think it was $5.00. And we were shocked. Shocked! Nobody's going to pay that! And this is this movie with no fancy costumes. Remember, there were no spangly costumes. This was not Easter Parade, right? People were singing in funny operatic voices, for the most part. Who was going to come see this? We needed all the help we could get, we thought. And then it opened, and my God, it just ran and ran and ran forever. I remember being in Japan and being asked to appear at one of the theaters where the film had been playing for five years. Five years! And I was asked to go onstage and hand a prize to the person who had seen the movie the most times. And it was a young girl who was just hysterical, crying with happiness, and what was the gift? A free ticket to see West Side Story for, I donât know, the 45th time. Show business is crazy. Life is bizarre. And she cried. She cried with happiness.
Jo Reed: Well, as you say, you did get an Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe, and--
Rita Moreno: Not too shabby.
Jo Reed: Not too shabby at all. What was the impact on your career?
Rita Moreno: Good question, because it was as though I never had won the Oscar. It's interesting. Very often what happens, or what's happened in the past, to featured players who win these featured actor or actress statuettes, is that their agents will outprice them. They will get cocky and say, "Okay, Samantha Jones used to get, I donât know, $5,000 a week for a movie. We now will want $25,000 a week." And the studios will say, "Forget it. She's not that valuable, and she's not going to bring that much to the movie." And that's how that worked for a lot of young people who had gotten Best Featured. In my case, it was that I had played the definitive Hispanic role, and after West Side Story, I was offered only--really, almost exclusively--gang movies and B movies. It was just astonishing. It was just so depressing and so sad for me. It was just really so demeaning. That's all I was offered. It took, I think, seven years before I did a film that had any meaning. And I just did what I had to do. I did nightclubs as a dancer, and I did a lot of guest-starring in television series. There were loads of them then, too, and a lot of westerns, and of course I was playing the senorita again, and it gets so wearying, and itâs very depressing. It was very sad for me. I had a bad time.
Jo Reed: You moved to London.
Rita Moreno: I did. In fact, I moved to London right after I had won the Oscar, when I saw that nothing was going to happen. I was living with a girlfriend, and she was an Anglophile, and she said, "Why don't we just go to London? To England?" And I said, "All right, let's do it." We took a ship and settled in London for about a year, where I did do one play, She Loves Me, for Hal Prince. And again, it was a wonderful role, and had nothing to do with being Hispanic, which was just great for me. I remained there a year and went back to New York, and did another play, Lorraine Hansbury's last play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, which unhappily failed, but was a wonderful experience.
Jo Reed: Now you got the Tony Award for the role of Googie Gomez in the play, The Ritz. It had been twenty years since you'd been on Broadway. How was it returning after all that time.
Rita Moreno: It was marvelous. It was just wonderful. It was great. I loved it. And, as you said, I got the Tony for that, which was just the most wonderful experience, to come back to New York and Rex Reed called me the "Queen of Comedy" on Broadway. It was just delicious. And the part, by the way, was based on a role that I invented. Terrence McNally had seen me do something at a friend's house. James Coco and I were on Broadway together doing The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, and James Coco and Terrence McNally were pals, and Jimmy said to me, "Rita, at the party, do this crazy imitation of that Hispanic woman who has no talent. Do it for Terrence." And I did. I said, <sings> "I had a dream, a dream about you, baby, it's gonna come true, baby?" And Terrence fell off his chair. And he says, "Do some more." So I remember doing the-- see, she makes me laugh. I invented her but she makes me laugh. I did the Player King's speech from Hamlet: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue." And he said, "More, more, more," so I did, "From the shores of Gitchee Gumee..." I laugh. Whenever I do her, I laugh. She makes me laugh.
Jo Reed: Well, the name "Googie Gomez," how do you not love it?
Rita Moreno: Isn't it marvelous? It is. And she's just funny. And I remember when I was doing the play, half the cast was always in my dressing room, saying, "Okay, do The Star Spangled Banner like Googie Gomez," or "Do this like Googie Gomez." It broke people up.
Jo Reed: You've done a lot of work on television. How'd you end up on The Electric Company?
Rita Moreno: That happened because there was no work. That was one of the reasons, and I was a huge fan of Childrenâs Television Workshop's Sesame Street. My daughter and I, was a little girl at the time, would watch it together every day, and I just thought it was such a brilliant concept. Still do. And when they called and my agent told me about the offer, I was very excited. And he said, "Not so fast." He said, "Remember that this has happened to other actors before, and they've never worked again outside of children's shows." And I said, "No, I really have to do this, and if that's what happens, that's what happens." There's always theater. There are other things. And I'm so glad I did it. It was one of the best experiences of my life, really. I'm very proud of my participation in it, and of course working with Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman was just sheer bliss. My God! What fun! We were doing vaudeville. Vaudeville doesn't exist anymore, but that's what we were doing, and at the same time, helping to facilitate children's reading skills. And we were funny.
Jo Reed: Among the work you've done on television, and God knows it's been considerable, almost the other end of the spectrum was Oz.
Rita Moreno: Oh, I know, but do you know, I have now, finally, I have a reel of scenes from things I have done that many people have asked when I'm offered an award, they say, "Is there something we can show of your past works?" So we finally put a reel together, and I have to tell you, I'm impressed, because you know we have Pandora from The Electric Company, with the big golden curls. Then we have Singin' in the Rain. Then we have Carnal Knowledge. Then we have The King and I. Then we have Oz. The breadth is really quite--I was impressed, I have to tell you. I come from an era, and I think this is part of the reason, where you couldn't just be a singer or a dancer. You did it all. You were a singer, you danced, you took dance lessons, you acted, you did everything. That's how it worked in those days. You did everything. You couldnât just say, "Oh, well, I can sing, but I can't do that dance." June Allison. They have June Allison dancing in MGM musicals. They had Van Johnson dancing in MGM musicals. These people weren't dancers, but they tailored dances for these people, and that's where I come from. And I think I am a dinosaur in that respect. But the most wonderful thing is that my work has really used up everything little bit of anything that is original and that's mine.
Jo Reed: That was Rita Moreno, winner of every prestigious show business award and recipient of the National Medal of Arts. You've been listening to Art Works.
Excerpts from West Side Story used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
The Arts Work podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, I talk to playwright, and 2010 Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Rajiv Joseph. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking out the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional Credit: Excerpts from âAmerica,â featured on the soundtrack to West Side Story (1961), composed and written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, used by permission of Universal Music Publishing Group (62.50%) and Warner Chappell (37.50%), ASCAP.