The Redford Theater in Detroit has a great history of rolling out the red carpet whenever a movie star visits the theater. In the past, I’ve attended unforgettable VIP events when Tippi Hedren and Karolyn Grimes were there and I’ve seen how they rolled out the red carpet for Pam Grier and Shirley Jones for screenings of Foxy Brown and The Music Man. When Rita Moreno came to town over the weekend for screenings of West Side Story, the reception was exactly what I have come to expect from the Redford.
Before the movie on Saturday night, I had the honor of attending a VIP event with about 200 other fans where we were treated to desserts and a special discussion and Q&A session with Rita Moreno. To be in the same room as Rita Moreno is an electrifying experience. At 82, Moreno remains incredibly vibrant, hilarious, and so full of energy that you can’t help but pick a little bit of it. As I was standing in line for dessert, I was standing just inches away from her and I saw multiple people come up to her in awe of how amazing she looks. She must have heard it a few more times after that because when she came out on stage, she came out jokingly asking, “I look good?”
If you ever have the chance to listen to Rita Moreno talk about her life and career, you really need to listen to what she has to say. She’s a remarkable storyteller and has so many insights about what it was like to be an immigrant and to be a Hispanic performer in show business. Early in her career, the only roles open to her were horrifyingly stereotypical roles as Native and Hispanic women; all roles she despises. She very un-affectionately refers to those as her “dusty maiden” roles and denounced them harmful, degrading, and humiliating. Over the years, she’s heard the suggestion that she simply should have done something else if she didn’t like the stereotyped roles she was being offered, to which she explained that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When she was cast in Singin’ in the Rain, she had hoped that would open doors for her to get away from the stereotypical roles, but unfortunately, it did not. She later spent years in psychoanalysis, due in no small part to years of having those offensive images forced upon her.
When it came to talking about people she worked with, she really didn’t hold back. Of West Side Story director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, she described him as a man with a lot of self-loathing issues, which seemed to channel their way into the way he worked with people. But she also called him a genius and said that she wishes he was still alive so she could work with him again. Rita worked with James Garner on The Rockford Files and also had the distinction of being his screen partner for his first ever screen test. According to her, the screen test was a complete disaster for both of them. They were asked to do a scene Grace Kelly and William Holden had done together, so Rita was stuck wearing an awful wig and make-up that she said made her eyes look red and her teeth look yellow. As for Garner, she called him, “A beautiful man and a crappy actor…at first.” She explained that he needed to find his niche and that scene was definitely not it. Once he found his stride, though, he was wonderful and the two remained friends for a long time.
She also spoke with great fondness of her time working on The Electric Company and her appearance on The Muppet Show. She encouraged us all to look up her performance of “Fever” with Animal playing drums:
For the movie, it was a packed house; very close to sold out. The crowd was absolutely crazy for Rita, it was hard to get anywhere near her. As a special treat, before the movie started again after intermission, we were treated to an appearance by dancers from the Casali School of Dance, who did a performance of the song “America” while Rita watched from the audience. The dancers were amazing and Rita was so gracious. When she got on stage to take a picture with them after the performance, she couldn’t resist breaking out a couple of dance steps of her own.
Rita remains a very busy woman. Lately, she’s appeared on the TV Land sitcom Happily Divorced with Fran Drescher, which she said she really misses working on, lent her voice to the movie Rio 2, and just recently finished a movie for the Hallmark Channel. She is now working on a Spanish language album with Emilio Estefan.