Rita Moreno puts on the Ritz

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday March 11, 2014
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Local show-biz legend Marc Huestis will celebrate the life and legacy of Hollywood legend Rita Moreno at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, March 15. The event will benefit Let's Kick ASS (AIDS Survivor Syndrome), a support and networking organization for long-term HIV survivors.

It will be a day of legends at the beautiful, historic cinema palace. At 1 p.m., comedy legend Marga Gomez will host the sing-along West Side Story. Moreno, who won an Oscar for her sizzling performance as Anita, will introduce the film.

That's only the beginning. That same evening at 8 p.m., drag legend D'arcy Drollinger will host an extravaganza which includes an onstage Q&A with Moreno, an autograph signing, career clips, a tappy tribute by Matthew Martin, plus a screening of the rarely screened 1976 comedy classic The Ritz. That film offered Moreno one of her most famous roles: Googie Gomez, a less-than-talented singer who performs at a gay bathhouse. Moreno was reprising her Tony Award-winning Broadway role when she filmed the daring (at the time) screwball comedy. Moreno is, in fact, one of the most honored actresses in history, having also won an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe. In 2009, President Barack Obama bestowed the National Medal of Arts on her. In January this year, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actor's Guild.

"It was really exciting, really different from winning an acting award," Moreno said of the SAG honor, speaking from her Bay Area home. "With the SAG award, you know about it in advance. But it's still thrilling. People I admired, like Oprah, were coming over to me. I was told that I had one minute to give my acceptance speech, but I'm Puerto Rican, I can't say hello in one minute!"

During the SAG speech, she famously dropped the F-bomb. "I'm sorry about that word," she said at the time. "No, I'm not!" The audience roared with laughter and approval. "It was not planned," she told the B.A.R. "When you do those things, they come from within, you're so wired!"

Moreno has a lot of affection for Googie Gomez. "Googie thinks she's God's gift to show biz," she said. "I invented her." She recalled being told by The Ritz playwright Terrence McNally that he was planning to write a show centered on the zany Puerto Rican bombshell she would play off the cuff at parties and in her kitchen. She recalls the early days of the show's Broadway run.

"It was very bold at the time," she said. "The show struggled for quite some time, because it was about a gay Turkish bathhouse." At a time when LGBTs were largely invisible in popular culture, gay audiences embraced The Ritz. "On closing night during the final curtain call, there was a huge line of gay guys lined up with roses, laying them at my feet."

Rita Moreno, dancing as Anita
in West Side Story

It was indeed a different world then. "There was a gay actor cast," she recalled. "He couldn't cut it, so they had to fire him. He was replaced by F. Murray Abraham. My theory is that he'd been in the closet for so long he didn't know how to play a gay role."

The actress is delighted by the changes in society since then. She's a big supporter of marriage equality.

Of her many roles, her favorite is Anita in West Side Story. "It's my legacy, I'm so proud to have been a part of it. I saw it in New York recently at a screening. Did a Q&A. It holds up very well. Some of the dialogue is dated, but if it were ever done with real language it would be another movie. It's unique. The 'America' number is filled with so much verve and joy."

Moreno, who made her film debut in 1950, is now 82. Still beautiful, she shows no signs of slowing down. Her IMDB page lists an impressive 144 credits; she's recently had recurring roles on HBO's Oz and TV Land's just-cancelled Happily Divorced. She's about to begin work on Old Soul, a TV production written by Amy Poehler. There will no doubt be more to come from this extraordinary performer.


Putting on the Ritz, with Rita Moreno live in person: 1 p.m., Sing Along West Side Story, introduced by Moreno. 8 p.m., Gala hosted by D'arcy Drollinger, with a performance by Matthew Martin, onstage Q&A with Moreno, and an autograph signing at 6:30 p.m. Screening of the film The Ritz. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., SF. Ticket info: http://www.ticketfly.com/purchase/event/483763