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The Hartford Courant

Grandma Diva

The Accent's On Versatility For Rita Moreno, Still In Top Form At Age 73

OWEN McNALLY; Special To The Courant

6 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

No one, not even Rita Moreno -- a then-young, gifted and beautiful actress, singer and dancer who started out in Hollywood more than a half-century ago -- is immune to the devastating psychic scars that racism can inflict.

Moreno, who won an Academy Award in 1962 for her best-supporting-actress role in the classic ``West Side Story,'' prefers to dwell on the triumphs of her career rather than the racist obstacles she confronted as a Latina performer.

In fact, Moreno, a show-biz maven who has also garnered Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Golden Globe awards, would rather talk about the future than the past, particularly about her upcoming singing performance in Hartford Saturday night at a black-tie benefit for Hartford Hospital's Life Star emergency helicopter service.

But as a core psychological factor in her life, Moreno, now 73, is willing to recall racist obstacles she had to overcome right from early childhood, when she moved with her single mom from Puerto Rico to New York City's Spanish Harlem.

``It was tough growing up in Spanish Harlem. Without the gang part of it, it was like `West Side Story' in the sense that we Puerto Ricans were very maligned. It wasn't anything for people to call you a spic, a pierced ear or a garlic mouth,'' Moreno says by phone from her hilltop mansion in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her husband of 38 years, retired cardiologist Leonard Gordon.

``When you're treated in such a terrible way when you're young, you begin to feel that you are inferior. One of two things happens: Either you become extremely angry and you become a delinquent, or you submit.

``I was somewhere in the middle. I didn't submit, but I didn't get angry because I began to believe that maybe there really was something wrong with me,'' she says.

Before ``West Side Story'' catapulted her to international renown, Moreno, an aspiring Latina actress, had to cope with a string of demeaning stereotypical roles in B-movies, inevitably typecast as a simmering Spanish spitfire or a sultry, barefoot Indian maiden.

``Every damn time somebody would come along and say, `OK, you've got a little Indian maiden role in this movie. OK?' Of course, I was in no position to say `no' because that's how I made my living. I just longed to speak a role without using an accent,'' Moreno says.

``If people keep telling you that you're inferior, you begin to believe it. I felt I was homely. I thought if I looked pretty, it was only because I was clever at putting on makeup.

``I wound up in psychotherapy for almost seven years, until I was about 28, primarily because of all that. Group therapy got me out of that.''

Ironically, the once typecast performer has become a surpassingly versatile actress, singer, dancer and comedian. She has portrayed a whole stock company's worth of dramatic characters, ranging from a reformed hooker to a nun, and an array of ethnic roles, including an Irish teacher, an Italian widow, an English lady, a Southern belle and a Greek diva.

Along with racism, Moreno also endured poverty, a broken home and a dysfunctional string of stepfathers as her mother married five times.

Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio Dec. 11, 1931, in Humacao, a small town in Puerto Rico. When she arrived in Hollywood as a pretty 17-year-old ingenue, her name was quickly tailored to Rita Moreno. She picked Moreno from her Mexican stepfather's surname. MGM selected Rita as her new first name.

``We came to America, just my mother and me, when I was about 3. My parents were divorced, and my father still lived in Puerto Rico,'' she says.

Moreno's youthful run-up to fame and fortune sounds like something out of a 1930s Warner Bros. biopic, including such details as a hawk-eyed talent scout and a momentous meeting at a ritzy site with a Tinsel Town mogul. There's even a tabloid tinge, including the notorious train-wreck of a romance with studly superstar Marlon Brando. The Brando blowout was followed in 1961 by a near tragic overdose of sleeping pills, from which a resilient Rita rebounded. Increasingly, she gained self-awareness of her worth as an individual and as a multitalented star of stage, screen and television.

As in the classic biopics, Moreno's talent was there from the beginning. Dance lessons began at age 5. Mom worked two jobs to pay for them.

At a dance recital, a well-connected scout picked out the talented teen from a herd of hoofers. Eventually he set up a pivotal meeting with legendary MGM kingpin Louis B. Mayer.

``I was beside myself with excitement,'' Moreno says. ``My mother and I were taken to meet the great man at New York's fancy Waldorf Astoria, which, although I lived in the city, I had never even heard of. I had never even been to a hotel,'' she says.

Today, Moreno is still performing. Awards still roll in, to be placed on the groaning shelves of her trophy room. Last June, President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Nonetheless, she's reluctant to make any long-term engagements on the East Coast because she just can't bear to be away from her two grandsons, ages 4 and 6.

``My husband and I built our house in the hills and have devoted a whole room downstairs for the kids, packed with toys, for whenever my daughter brings them over for one of their frequent visits. The thought of being away from them for an extended period makes me shudder,'' she says.

For her Hartford performance, Moreno, with a backup trio, will sing cabaret-style material, mixing standards, jazz and Broadway tunes both in English and Spanish.

Does the high-energy grandmother diva ever consider retirement?

``Hell, no! Are you crazy?'' she says. ``Why would anyone leave something you adore and love and that gives you such enormous pleasure?''


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