Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season opener is a star showcase for and about one of Berkeley’s most notable residents. Stage and screen legend Rita Moreno, who turns 80 this December, has been part of the Berkeley Rep family for years, having played Maria Callas in 2004’s Master Class and Amanda Wingfield in a 2006 production of The Glass Menagerie. The world premiere solo show that opens this month, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, was written by artistic director Tony Taccone based on months of long interviews with its star and subject about her life.
Life Without Makeup was originally scheduled to close Berkeley Rep’s last season in May, but it was rescheduled to give Moreno a chance to recover from knee replacement surgery. As originally scheduled, the show would have been Taccone’s playwriting debut, but as it stands that honor went to Ghost Light, his collaboration with Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone based on the latter’s memories of his father, the late San Francisco mayor. Ghost Light opened in June at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and comes to Berkeley Rep in January.
If you’re going to be regaled with stories from a life in show business, you could do a whole lot worse than Moreno. Born Rosa Dolores Alverío in Puerto Rico, Moreno has been an entertainer ever since she came to New York at age five. She made her Broadway debut at 13, broke into pictures at 17 as part of the old Hollywood studio system, and appeared in classic pictures such as Singin’ in the Rain, The King & I, West Side Story and Carnal Knowledge. She helped teach my generation to read on The Electric Company, costarred in the TV series of 9 to 5 and HBO’s Oz, and is now playing Fran Drescher’s mom on the new sitcom Happily Divorced.
Moreno is one of only a dozen people to have won the four major entertainment awards: Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony. She won an Academy Award as Anita in the 1961 movie of West Side Story and went on to win a 1972 Grammy for The Electric Company Album, a 1975 Tony for the play The Ritz and her first Emmy in 1977 for singing alongside Animal on The Muppet Show. (If you haven’t seen it, rent or YouTube it.) She was honored by the last two presidents with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009. But it wasn’t all awards and accolades, by any means. Moreno talks about the frequent frustrations of being offered only stereotyped senorita roles and the tenacity and self-belief it took to stick through long dry spells.
We met at her elegant Berkeley hills home during a week off from filming the TV show.
What’s it like doing a show about you?
It’s strange. I’ve gotten over the strangeness of it finally. It took me a long time. It’s like a very extended interview when you’re working on it. That’s the thing I just hated the thought of. Tony Taccone pursued me and badgered me for years! I’d gotten to know him and I used to regale him with stories about my life. Right after Master Class was over, he said, "You’ve got to do your life story. It’s really interesting, and you span a certain period of time that most people don’t anymore in your business, the old Hollywood days." And I kept putting him off, saying, "Oh god, it’s so dull!" Finally, I think about a year and a half ago, he said, "You know, you’re 78. You’ve got to tell me if you’re going to do this or not." And I began to think, "You know, he’s right. If I’m going to do it at all, I should do it now." So I went in really rather reluctantly. I wasn’t thrilled to be talking about my life, knowing I would have to talk about things that were hurtful in my life. You know, a little Puerto Rican girl in Hollywood does not have it good. There was a little bit of crying, for sure, because things that I thought had already been settled and finished were not. And then I really began to enjoy it. I love telling stories; I always have.
What was the process like working with Tony as a writer?
Actually it was marvelous. We worked for a year and a half. We met for three hours at a time. He has hours and hours and hours of hours of my life in his computer. And I think he’s written a really marvelous play. The funny thing is that after our first workshop, which we did in front of an audience of about 10 people, I said to Tony, "This is quite a story!" Because for the first time I saw it as a story as opposed to just me. I think it’s going to be a very interesting journey for the audience. People think of me as this person who has all of these awards, and it goes way, way beyond that, and profoundly way below that. We tap some very poignant moments and some hilarious ones, because as Tony says, failures can be very funny.
When did you start performing?
I was five. I used to dance for Grandpa in Puerto Rico, to records. Then when I came to this country, my mother had a friend who was a Spanish dancer, Irene Lopez. She saw me bopping around the apartment and said to my mom, "I think Rosita has some dancing talent. Could I take her to my dance teacher?" And the teacher, Paco Cansino, took me on as a student. He was like royalty for me, because he was Rita Hayworth’s uncle. So that’s what started it all.
How did you go from that to performing publicly?
I made my first public appearance with my dance teacher in a Greenwich Village nightclub. I was playing castanets, which I still play. Then I did a lot of bar mitzvahs, weddings, all kinds of things. In those days you learned to do everything. I learned to sing, dance, I could do tap, I took ballet lessons, Spanish dance lessons. So by the time I went to Hollywood I could do all of that stuff.
I did that on my own. I didn’t have a teacher. I did a few Broadway plays when I was a kid. And really I didn’t go back to Broadway until I was much older, many years after the Oscar and all that.
What was the first film that you did?
It was a film called So Young, So Bad. It was all about reform school girls, and it was really done on a dime. I ended up getting bad colds because the superintendant of the home where these girls have been incarcerated hoses them down with a fire hose. Those were the days when the union wasn’t really strong, SAG, and we all got really terrible colds. No one had blankets there for us or anything. It was just, "OK, get yourself cleaned up and we’ll go on to the next scene." I played Dolores, the little girl who finally hangs herself. She’s the tragedy of the reform school. I was about 16 when I did that.
So that was before you came to MGM.
Oh yeah. MGM happened because a talent scout actually saw me in a dance school recital. I was doing a Spanish dance with castanets, and he went backstage, found my mother, gave her his card and said, "I think your daughter has talent, and I would like to stay in touch with you. I work with MGM." That was the studio of your dreams at that time if you did musical stuff. He said, "I’ll let you know when the time comes." About eight months later he called again and said, "L.B. Mayer’s in town. I’d like you to meet him." And I went to meet the great wizard from MGM and was signed on the spot. I was trying very hard to look like Elizabeth Taylor, the tiny wasp waist she used to have, and was all trussed up, and he signed me, saying, "You know what? She looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor," which made me happy beyond belief. Then I went a few months later under contract to MGM and did a few films there. It was pretty thrilling to be at the studio of my dreams. I visited every single set whenever I could, which was all the time because I didn’t work that much.
What was it like being part of the studio system at the time?
It was thrilling because you felt so protected by the mantle of this huge entity. It was like Big Daddy was taking care of you. You always have to remember, I was a little Puerto Rican girl. There was nobody like me there. I was assigned a film with the tenor of the day, Mario Lanza, Toast of New Orleans. I had a great time and waited for my next movie. I really thought I was going to be a big movie star. Then I had to start dealing with the reality of how I was perceived there at the studio. I was this little Spanish girl, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I did a remake of The Pagan Love Song with Esther Williams, which was a swimming musical. And then I did Singin’ in the Rain. That was it. After Singin’ in the Rain my contract was dropped, and I thought the whole world had landed on my head. And then I started to do some television, working a lot as the senorita in Western series. Everything required an accent. It was very frustrating and demeaning. I had no role models. I didn’t have a mentor. My mom, that was it. I had to hold myself up on my own, because I didn’t want to make her feel bad. So I kept a lot of things from her, the insults and indignities where people would sort of look through me when I said hello to them at MGM. I couldn’t understand what was wrong.
At any point did you think of doing something else other than show business?
No, never. I don’t think show people ever do that, do you? I was determined, because I knew I had talent. I didn’t know necessarily how to show it. I wasn’t skilled. I’d never had an acting lesson in my life. But I always just knew in the core of me that if I would fall into the right hands, that I could be a really, really good actress. And I didn’t get that chance for a looong time. The King and I really started it, and then West Side Story. Darryl Zanuck saw me on the cover of Life magazine and asked about me—"Does she speak English?"—and signed me to Fox. And I actually played an American person in a movie there, a girl named Sandy, in a film called The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. I actually played someone without an accent, and I thought, "Oh, at last! It’s going to be okay." Because there’s nothing about me that looks really exotic. Then I went into The King and I, and it was back to [accents]. I really had to struggle with that for a big part of my life. There’s nothing wrong with playing a Hispanic person. It’s just there’s a lot wrong with playing a stereotype—the Conchita, Lolita, "you no love me no more" kind of roles. They’re very humiliating, and you say to yourself, "Why am I still doing this?" Then West Side Story came along because of The King and I. Jerome Robbins was doing all of the musical numbers for The King and I, and when West Side Story came along he remembered me, and I was asked to come in and audition.
Where did you really get to break out of a designated "type"?
Well, I did a lot of summer stock, I did regional theatre, which was just grand because I actually got to play people not branded with any particular nationality. I even played a guy—Scapino, this little tiny Italian man, because I’m so small, with a little bitty mustache and an ice cream suit and a panama hat. So by the time West Side Story came along, I had some pretty good acting experience.
West Side Story seemed to work out for you pretty well, winning an Oscar and all.
Oh, that was extraordinary! I really couldn’t believe it, and that’s what I said. My speech is embarrassing. I said, "I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I leave you with that." I was so young and so innocent. I thought surely that Judy Garland would get it for Judgment at Nuremberg. She was in the hospital, there were cameras in the hospital—I thought, "I don’t stand a chance. But on the chance that there’s a chance, I want to be there." I was doing a really grade Z movie about World War II in Manila at the time, and I flew in to attend the Oscars. And it turned out that West Side Story got everything. Until Titanic came along, we had the record.
Did getting the Oscar translate to better parts or anything?
No. Same gang things. It was just astonishing. And at that point I thought, "You know what? I’ve won the accolade in my business. I really don’t want to do any more gang movies. I don’t want to speak with an accent anymore." And boy, I showed them. I didn’t do a film for seven years. But that was okay with me. That’s when I did a lot of theatre. I’m glad I did that. I thought, "I can’t bear to do an inferior version of West Side Story without the music even." And it took a long time. You really have to persevere. Ultimately somewhere inside of yourself you have to believe that you have it.
I should thank you for helping teach me to read.
That was one of the best experiences of my life, The Electric Company. It was a great show, hip, cool and very funny. And like Sesame Street, the best part of The Electric Company is that we never talked down to the children, ever. Thanks to [Children’s Television Workshop cofounder] Joan Ganz Cooney, who just said, "Let’s entertain them, let’s make them laugh and then sneak the lesson in." And [it worked for] a lot of children, and my husband’s Jewish aunt who had never read in English till then.
What made you decide that was something you wanted to do?
Because I really felt it was a service. I felt it was something I wanted to give to the children of America, many of whom were really suffering because they didn’t learn how to read. I’m sure that’s why Morgan Freeman did it and why Bill Cosby did it, because it was going to do a great national service. It was just a great, bold and audacious experiment that the Children’s Television Workshop took on. I can’t tell you how many colleagues and friends said, "Don’t do it! You’ll never play an adult again." Because that’s what happened at that time when adults would do children’s TV, but it didn’t happen. I just knew it wouldn’t.
How long have you been in Berkeley?
Oh, now it’s been about 16, 17 years. My daughter was up here with her husband and asked us to visit, and I just fell in love with it. We were still in L.A., my husband and I, and we really were not liking it. So when we came up here, we just fell in love. We asked our daughter to start looking for homes, which she loves doing, and we found one in six months. And it’s been wonderful. I wouldn’t leave here now.
What do you think it would be like if you were starting out today?
Oh my god, it would be so different now. With respect to Latinos, it’s still not easy. Ricardo Montalban said something so wise once. He said, "The door is ajar. It’s not open." It’s more open now than when Ricardo said that, but it’s still semi-open. But because of people like Jennifer Lopez and Jimmy Smits and Andy Garcia doing all kinds of roles, the door is more open. I’m doing a series with Fran Drescher called Happily Divorced, and I’m playing her Jewish New York mother, and I tawk just like huh—which is so much fun.
And last time at Berkeley Rep you were playing a Southern woman.
I loved that production. Amanda Wingfield—she’s such a wonderful monster. She’s pitiful and she’s funny and you want to kill her at the same time. Such a self-absorbed woman. I love playing those kinds of roles.
You’ve had an interesting variety of parts at Berkeley, between Master Class and Glass Menagerie and this play.
Right! It’s a gamut, isn’t it? And that’s wonderful. At this age, to still be working, number one, and to be doing things like this and to be offered a television series—because I really thought that was never going to happen again. I’m seeing myself as sort of the Betty White of this year.