Remembering Rita Moreno
Decades ago, she snuck into Summerfest with the author and his family. On Saturday she receives the SAG lifetime achievement award.
On January 18 in a lavish Screen Actors Guild ceremony from Los Angeles telecast live on TNT and TBS, the fabulous Rita Moreno, winner of Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards, will receive SAG’s lifetime achievement award to go with her presidential medal of freedom and other accolades.
She need not worry that anyone in that august hall will yell out “Hey Youu Guuys!” — her famous phrase from public TV’s “The Electric Company” that virtually became a national playground password in the 1970s.
But 40 years ago at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, I confess constantly looking over my shoulder in terror of hearing “Hey Youu Guuys!” Or worse, “That’s Carmela! Let’s get her autograph!” (Carmela was the famous character she played when doing the yell)
Crowded with me that July afternoon into our big blue family van were my wife, two babysitters and our three youngest children, along with Rita Moreno hidden under a floppy white hat and her daughter, Fernanda, then 7. We were sneaking them incognito into the Summerfest grounds. She was in town for a Melody Top show and wanted to absorb some Milwaukee gemutlichkeit and family activity for her daughter away from public scrutiny.
Moreno by 1974 had long emerged from her Latin spitfire pigeonhole to widespread recognition. There were a few forays in the early years that gave her hope MGM would reward her rounded talents – smart-alecky Zelda in “Singing in the Rain,” exotic Tuptim in “King and I.” But spitfire imaging ruled and tabloid coverage in the 1950s was all about cheesecake, while her private life was dominated by a long affair and suicide attempt over Marlon Brando she only now talks about.
Mainly Hollywood saw her, in her own words in our interview of 40 years ago, as “Lolita-Conchita, barefoot smoldering child of nature whose looks can destroy men, nostrils flaring and eyes flashing.”
Hollywood should have rethought that stereotype when she wiped away the other leads as Anita in the movie version of “West Side Story” (1961). But all she was offered at first were roles as provocative gypsy or Mexican or Asian women or tropical island temptresses, so she fled to London and New York – and gained immense reputation as a dramatic actress, a musical actress and touring box office draw (all of which has continued into modern TV series such as “Oz” embracing her value as character actress). Even movies eventually recognized her value – remember the floozy dealing with jaded Jack Nicholson in “Carnal Knowledge” (1971)? So did Broadway, which gained her that Tony.
The Emmys brought her a new generation of popularity due to “The Electric Company.” In repeat showings throughout the 1970s and though aimed at elementary and middle school kids, it was Rita’s presence, even more than such fellow actors as the then largely unknown Morgan Freeman, that drew tons of adult viewers to the vaudevillian antics and “Sesame Street” inspired humor.
Milwaukee had seen glimpses of Moreno’s range in two stage turns in “The Owl and the Pussycat” in the late 1960s and then at the Melody Top theater where she shone despite the indifferent productions that surrounded her (including “The Bells Are Ringing” in 1976).
In 1974 it was (amazingly) her first outing as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” for Melody Top that had brought her to town, with her young daughter in tow. She told me her dream was to do the musical in repertory, Adelaide one night, Sarah Brown (the Salvation Army goody two-shoes heroine) the next. By that point, she was indeed the actress to bring it off.
This was the first time I met her. During the interview, our mutual concerns as parents evaporated the natural wariness that Moreno clearly felt in the presence of the press or, I suspect, in the presence of any man (after years of warding them off). When she lamented the lack of fun for her daughter and the pressures of the public eye, we concocted the idea of sneaking her into Summerfest with my family. I pledged no publicity and swore my family to secrecy. She was eager to see Summerfest, then more a family event than a pop music festival — and we were off into the thicket of the very young people who would have screamed for Carmela whenever they spotted her.
We got away with it for several hours. Her daughter enjoyed hanging out anonymously rather than being stuck in a motel near Melody Top. Moreno seemed to have a good time at the family events, though clearly less impressed by the then dominant Midway. She also was envious of the quality of our young babysitters (then in middle school and today still impressive Milwaukeeans). “I wish I could find young people that reliable in New York!” she told my wife.
Things were going smoothly until she spotted some children across the bleachers pointing at her and whispering. We scooted out before cries of “Hey You Guuys!” could blow us away.
I doubt if the Moreno of today, honored by SAG, with so many lustrous events and acting appearances over four decades, has any memory of that Milwaukee excursion, though my family and I remember it well. I plucked out my interview from that summer nearly 40 years ago and remain struck by how prescient were her attitudes about the course of her career.
“I’m a very put-together person now,” she told me, reflecting on her cooperative victim role in the Hollywood press agentry of the 1950s. “I know myself and my crazinesses and they are mild ones. I do think contentment with my private life has a lot to do with it. But I joy in acting. I don’t want to sound immodest but I know I’m good now and constantly learning and enjoying. I can’t wait until I’m 50. What an actress I’ll be then!”
And she was. And still is at age 82.
In the 1970s the author was film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal.