Rita Moreno: Hurricane Rita

She's never played gay, but that doesn't stop stage and screen legend Rita Moreno from talking all things gay as she tours with her one-woman cabaret act.




When did you first become aware of your gay fan base?
My huge gay following started with The Ritz on Broadway [in 1975]. No question that’s when they began to know me. On my closing night in the show, after I’d played Googie Gomez for about a year and a half, an enormous amount of gay people came to pay homage. At the curtain call, about 50 to 60 young men and women literally came up on the stage, all holding bouquets, and laid them at my feet! It was astonishing. I didn’t know what to do with that many flowers, so I put them in the tanks and in the bowls of the toilets in my apartment because I couldn’t bear the thought of such beautiful tributes dying. We couldn’t use our own bathrooms for about a week! We had to use the neighbor’s bathroom.

Did you catch the 2007 Broadway revival of The Ritz with Rosie Perez in your role?
No. Rosie invited me, but I was working on the series Cane. It’s very much a period piece now. But have you seen the movie version? Because remember, I am the original Googie. I actually coughed up the character one day when we were in rehearsals of West Side Story. Gypsies do two things on their two-minute breaks: They light a cigarette and they do crazy bits. One day I said, “OK, here’s this Puerto Rican character who can’t sing or dance auditioning for the bus-and-truck of Gypsy.” We all laughed. Many years later, Terrence McNally saw me do this crazy character at someone’s party, and he flipped. I did [in a thick Puerto Rican accent] “I had a dream, a dream about ju, baby,” and Terrence fell off his chair. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. A year later he wrote a play called The Tubs, which later became called The Ritz, and he wrote a wonderful part in it based on the character that I had invented. A lot of people don’t know that. In fact, when I told Rosie she was surprised.

I’ll bet Mr. McNally isn’t wild about you sharing that story.
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ve heard him say anything about it, but that’s how it happened. It was one of the great joys of my life, and, of course, I got the Tony Award for it.

Did you visit any baths for research?
No. In fact, Bette Midler came to the show one night and thought that it was based on her, and I said, “Not at all!”

Have you worked with many closeted actors over the years?
Oh, I still know certain ones, and it pains me because they suffer terribly. There’s always this terrible secret between them and the rest of the world, and it makes me very sad. In fact, one of my happiest experiences was in 1979 when I did an RSVP gay cruise — the first gay cruise with entertainment. What my husband, Lenny, and I loved most about the experience was that there were no secrets on that ship. On a gay cruise, it’s all out in the open; everyone is relaxed and having a terrific time. People were what they were, and that was so unusual at the time. They had a big reception onboard before the ship even left port with wonderful music, champagne, and big purple balloons, which became their symbol. I’m wandering around, and I’m a very gregarious person, so I’m not shy about saying hello to people I don’t know. I remember asking one guy, “So do you cruise often?” — not knowing what I had really said. And he said, “Darling, all the time.” [Laughs] And I remember they had a big bowl on the purser’s desk, and I said to Lenny, “Oh, isn’t this sweet of them? They’re offering chocolate mints.” I stuck my hand in and picked up a handful of Trojans! Later, when I did my show, half of the audience showed up in white ties, winged collars, and nothing else except a towel, because of The Ritz. It was really delicious. And I remember running up the back steps to get to the showroom, and there was a guy coming down the steps. He took one look at my earrings and shrieked! I said, “No, you cannot have my earrings. Get out of my way.”

Tags: Theater