By Christopher A. Pape
Mention of Rita Moreno’s name brings smiles of joy to the faces of her fans and heaps of praise from the Puerto Rican and Latino communities. After all, Ms. Moreno, now 80, known as La Pionera, the pioneer, was the first Puerto Rican to be recognized as a Hollywood starlet; and the only Hispanic to have won an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar.
New York Resident sat down with the legend in her beautifully appointed suite in the Waldorf=Astoria Towers, to discuss her life, how she made it and what brings happiness to her life. She was nothing but gracious.
New York Resident (NYR): Can you tell us how you made it; what was the beginning of your career like?
Rita Moreno (RM): I was sixteen years old and a talent scout discovered me. He subsequently brought me to Louie B. Mayer, who was staying at the Waldforf=Astoria. My mother and I were brought to the penthouse (we didn’t even know what a penthouse was). And we came up and met him. Six months later I was on my way to MGM Studios in Hollywood.
NYR: We have been trying to interview iconic New Yorkers. You are one of them and you’ve been in some great Broadway plays. Do you like doing Broadway and theater?
RM: I love theater. I even won a Tony for my performance in The Ritz. And I just performed my one-woman show, Life Without Makeup in Berkeley, CA at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I loved every minute of it. It’s been immensely successful, but the biggest problem is that it conflicts with my television show, Happily Divorced. I hope to bring it to New York eventually.
NYR: Tell us about West Side Story. How did it influence your life?
RM: It influenced my life enormously because it gave me worldwide celebrity. The funny thing is that I didn’t do a film after West Side Story for seven years.
NYR: I understand you were disappointed that it didn’t give you more roles.
RM: Well it did, but it solidified this image of a Latina character; a spitfire kind of character. I was offered more jobs, but only gangland type jobs and certainly no musicals. It was very disappointing.
NYR: You are a native born Puerto Rican and there are many of your countrymen in the city. Do you give back to the Puerto Rican community?
RM: Absolutely. I am one of the prides of the community. I am the first. They call me La Pionera, the pioneer. Of course, I’m in touch with them. I’ve done talks to inner city kids; and I’m constantly in touch with my community. I think that it’s very important to remain engaged.
NYR: You’re one of only ten people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Oscar. Do you feel like you are a role model to a younger generation?
RM: I’ve become one, especially to Black and Latino kids. Apparently, a lot of Black kids have been told a lot about me by their parents. They consider me one of theirs – I’m so pleased about that.
NYR: Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony have a new show called ¡Q›Viva! The Chosen. Does upcoming Latino and Latina talent give you a sense of pride? What do you think about it?
RM: It’s not just pride. I think that it’s about time. The idea is a fabulous one. What they’ve done is found Latino talent from all over the world. In fact, I’m not sure there are any contestants that are from the United States. They’re from Argentina, Columbia – all over. Some jugglers, some are dancers. It’s quite amazing.
NYR: You used to be a New Yorker, but I’m not sure where you call home now? And how do you like?
RM: Berkley and I love it. I lived in L.A. for a number a years and I’m not a big fan of that city. But I do have a pied-à-terre, in the city. It’s right across the street from Lincoln Center – literally – on 65th and Broadway. I love it there – it’s a great section of the city. You have everything – boutiques, bookstores and views.
NYR: What’s your favorite restaurant or thing to do in the city?
RM: Rosa Mexicano. My daughter and I go there and we make fools of ourselves! Every time we go there we say the same damn thing: “oh god we ate too much! When are we going to learn”? Also, every time I come, we go to the theater every night. I just saw Priscilla Queen of the Desert and just loved it! It is endearing, charming, funny and sweet. All of those things that I didn’t expect, it was. I thought it was only going to be campy. It’s just fabulous.
NYR: How is it different being a grandmother versus a mother?
RM: It’s different in the sense, you’ve been through it. I helped my daughter through the ropes of being a mother. You know, I remember telling her, when she was pregnant, that you are going to give birth to a little stranger who can’t speak English. He doesn’t know who you are and you can’t say I’m your mommy! Being a mother is scary. It’s very scary. I was the least prepared and I really tried. But my two grandsons are the two loves of my life. I am a hands-on grandmother. My late husband and I built a room for them in my house because they come over so much and stay here. Actually, I get very angry when I hear when people say that the best part of being a grandparent is that you get to give them back. I’d love not to give them back!
NYR: You look absolutely fabulous. What’s your secret – do you work out?
RM: I do. I try to stay fit.
NYR: Lastly, you’ve worked with them all. Who was your favorite?
RM: I loved working with Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge; he was marvelous to work with. And I love Jimmy Garner. We did our first screen test together at 20th Century Fox. He was really a hunk; he was gorgeous and the worst actor you ever saw in your life. He was mainly just beautiful at that time. Fox did not sign him – we did a scene from The Bridges of Toko Ri. It was like Maverick making love to Medea. I was trying to look very white, because Grace Kelly was an idol to me. I put on this white makeup, so much so, that my teeth looked yellow and my eyes looked red.