Rita Moreno: Hurricane Rita

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com February 04 2009 12:00 AM ET

Marking her first Los Angeles stage appearance in 25 years, Rita Moreno will bring her acclaimed one-woman cabaret act Little Tributes to the Conga Room for a single night on February 19. One of a very short list of performers to win an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy, the Puerto Rico-born, New York-bred spitfire has also won generations of fans with her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story, plus her work on PBS’s The Electric Company and HBO’s Oz. Still sassy at 77, Moreno told Advocate.com why she’s been cruising with the gay community since her role as a bathhouse betty in The Ritz.

Advocate.com: You most recently performed Little Tributes at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room. Did gay fans come out to show their support?
Rita Moreno: They did, and it was great to see them again. I played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in London, so I do a big chunk from that in the show, and of course gay people just love it — gay men, especially, but I get a lot of gay women at my show too.

What will you be wearing at the Conga Room?
Something you will want on your body but can’t have. [Laughs] For starters, I wear spectacular shoes. I get on top of the piano a lot, so the shoes are on full display. And I have some beautiful gowns. I’ve stopped wearing separates now, so I have a burnt-orange silk velvet cowl-neck dress that goes down to the floor, and that one’s a big hit with the gay crowd. Oh, they go mad! Another is a Diane von Furstenberg black-and-white print that fits like a sausage skin — they all do, actually. But gay men and women seem to particularly love that I go bare-armed, which at 77 is a bit of a feat.

Do you have a multitude of gay stylists?
Oh, no, it’s all me, a team of one. I am a multitude. Glamour is my middle name, and you barely see it anymore — especially in cabaret. So I go out there dressed to fuckin’ kill, my dear.

Your show celebrates some unexpected and underappreciated musical gems from Broadway classics. Likewise, is there a lower-profile role on your résumé that’s worthy of more attention?
Yes, as a matter of fact. I played Vince D’Onofrio’s mother in Law and Order: Criminal Intent in three episodes and died in the final one. It was a marvelous part. She's dying of cancer, and she’s schizophrenic, so I look like the wrath of God in it. After the first day of makeup, I said, “Do not bring a mirror to me. I do not want to see myself.”

Have you ever played a lesbian role?
No. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Not even your guest spot as Coach Stone on The Nanny?
[Laughs] Oh, you remember that one, huh? She could’ve been. She was more dykey than anything else. That woman was a guy!

If you were cast as a lesbian, whom would you pick to play your on-screen lover?
What a wonderful question. Who would I really love to schtupp? I’d have to say Angelina Jolie. But if I were to pick a Latina, then I would say Eva Longoria. She’s just hotness.

I sort of hoped you’d say Chita Rivera. How do you feel about the persistent rumors of your feud stemming from the fact that, even though she earned a Tony for playing Anita in West Side Story, you got to play Anita on film?
Oh, it’s gotten very old and boring at this point. Chita performed at the Rrazz Room recently, and of course I went to see her, and we laughed and carried on a lot. And she came to see my show at Feinstein’s in New York, which was really delicious because she has the most raucous, dirty laugh you’ve ever heard. In fact, in my show I tell a wonderful Chita Rivera–Rita Moreno story, which I’m not going to give away now because it’s too good.

Growing up in New York, what was your earliest exposure to gay people?
One of my best friends in grammar school was a gay boy. Well, I knew he was gay, but he did not. His name was Eddie Lopez, and we used to have the time of our lives. We drove everybody in our families crazy because we couldn’t stop jumping around, singing songs, and just laughing. He was such a campy Cuban kid with skin the color of milk, curly blond hair, light blue eyes, and a pretty little face. For me, it was never anything complicated. It was the most natural thing. He was just a terrific person.

RITA MORENO AND TREAT WILLIAMS IN THE RITZ X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM   

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.”