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Rita Moreno discusses her role in West Side Story ; part 1

BROADCAST: Jun. 13, 1962 | DURATION: 00:22:01


Rita Moreno talks about her own Puerto Rican ethnicity and how it relates to her role as Anita in West Side Story.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Boys and girls have gathered around, singing of the, of the joys of 2 different lands, really, on the difficulties, too. Satirical song, the Puerto Rican kids are singing it. The leader is Anita, Anita is played in the film by Rita Moreno, our guest this morning. Academy Award winner, but more than that someone very vital, as an actress and as a participant, and as a dancer, too. Rita, yo- your feelings on hearing the recording, of the song from "West Side Story," your feelings in listening to it.

Rita Moreno Yeah? What, wh- you want to know my feelings?

Studs Terkel Yes, as you hear it right now.

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel The song.

Rita Moreno Oh it's -- I've a [laughter] Well it brings back all kinds of lovely memories about the filming of course. And I'm terribly sorry it's over. God, I got such joy out of doing that. And of course what's funny is that, in the film, I am the person who wants to stay in America, and I would love America. And of course my sentiments, if I were in Anita's position, and I certainly was once, would be just the opposite. Or not so much not staying in America, but changing things. I want to stay in America, it's a wonderful country, but I'd sure like to see some changes.

Studs Terkel You're now talking as Anita, or as Rita?

Rita Moreno I -- as Rita-- [laughter]

Studs Terkel You're talking

Rita Moreno as yourself. No, 'cause Anita feels differently.

Studs Terkel Yes. Now Ani- for the moment Anita. Here's--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel Anita.

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel You are Anita. What are Anita's feelings? What [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno Anita thinks that there, well there's no question in Ani- in Anita's mind that everything about America is grand, in the sense that she thinks in these terms: beautiful dresses, a luxurious apartment some day with smoke mirrors and at least 60 pair of shoes. That's the way, well as many people who have financial poverty think. They think in terms of material wealth. She thinks in terms of anything that's beautiful that will make her more attractive because really Anita feels that unless she's wearing a lovely expensive dress, not lovely but expensive--

Studs Terkel Yeah, yes.

Rita Moreno That she won't be liked.

Studs Terkel [Of course?] Would you say someone who is financially in a tough spot, strapped, but also someone financially stra--

Rita Moreno Not only just financially.

Studs Terkel No, but from another world, too, perhaps.

Rita Moreno A world that it--

Studs Terkel A vision.

Rita Moreno Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel A vision of this--

Rita Moreno But [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno My point is that, I know I went through this. And it's been a big struggle for me most of my life, un- until up till very recently. If I put on a beautiful dress, I won't look Latin and poor. And it, that isn't what it means really, what it means is I won't be disliked. To be Latin is to be disliked, as to be Negro is to be disliked is to be ugly, to be Jewish is the same thing.

Studs Terkel You're speaking now of a shame of heritage of any minority group [unintelligible] culture.

Rita Moreno Yes, well it's it's been, you know, kind of poured on our heads, so if you're Latin you're dirty, and you're diseased, and you're dumb. And very often you are dirty and quite often you are diseased. I was most of my childhood and I wasn't very smart either. But unfortunately it wasn't due to -- fortunately it wasn't due to me, it was due to outside forces. I didn't know terribly much because I wasn't taught well. I don't want to sound like a victim now.

Studs Terkel No no. Was your early--

Rita Moreno I hate that.

Studs Terkel Life like Anita's to some extent? Your early life, yes.

Rita Moreno Yes it was very much like it. You might say that the performance in "West Side" is a very personal and subjective one, and I'm terribly glad that I got to do it, because I put a lot of my guts and blood into it [laughter].

Studs Terkel Well apparently this comes through, and is quite evident aside from the award to those who see it, that you are Anita on that screen.

Rita Moreno In that sense I am.

Studs Terkel Now the the lyrics of the song were changed somewhat, too, of the part we just heard.

Rita Moreno Yes, in in the play they were, as I said Anita takes the side that takes the part of America, and Bernardo her boyfriend doesn't. He's the leader of the Sharks, the gang. Anita's viewpoint is, anything about America's grand, we won't even think about the bad things. We'll make believe they don't exist. There are great great things. And there's nothing she wants more than to be accepted by everyone as a quote white girl unquote. That will make her decent and clean and lovable.

Studs Terkel And yet, among the Puerto Ricans we know, from different documentaries and talking to different people, the tremendous pride really deep down.

Rita Moreno Well of course there is, but you see when people are constantly telling you, or even when you go to school, constantly reminding you that you are ignorant, or that you're poorly dressed, you can't help but the psyche is a very delicate little thing. Are you going to say well maybe there's some basis in fact, because it's told to you so often, you know, it's -- is it, if you're in a hospital and you have lousy food, and you have to stay in that hospital for 6 months, about the third month the foods can start to taste pretty good. And about the sixth month you think that Romanov's stinks, and that this food is the only good food. Well that's what happens to one.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] you're conditioned to actually believing something--

Rita Moreno Sure.

Studs Terkel You are not. And yet--

Rita Moreno And yet there there is the other side, which is which is what makes these kids so angry, which is what makes them form gangs, which is what makes them so hostile to anybody or any kind of criticism. They become so delicate and vulnerable to any kind of criticism, because they know instinctively I'm good, I should be proud of what I am--

Studs Terkel You know some of the--

Rita Moreno Why aren't I?

Studs Terkel You know some of the gangs here in Chicago [are not the same because?] the Puerto Rican population isn't too big here. But there's some Mexican, or Italian, or Greek, or Negro, or other minority groups have interesting names. The gangs do. These -- here are the Sharks. Names like Nobles and Barons.

Rita Moreno Yes, isn't that interesting? The Viceroys in New York--

Studs Terkel Viceroys, yeah.

Rita Moreno Which is a notorious gang. That's right.

Studs Terkel But they become the na- the names of nobility.

Rita Moreno That's right.

Studs Terkel They have their own society.

Rita Moreno Well that's no accident. It makes perfect sense--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Rita Moreno If you stop to think for a moment. Sure.

Studs Terkel Yet if we may perhaps hear this one -- Here's a documentary, it's a recording. A man is in a Puerto Rican restaurant in New York, a tavern where Puerto Ricans hang out--

Rita Moreno Uh-huh.

Studs Terkel And the jukebox is playing.

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel And it's a song and he's translating it. I'd like to he- hear your reactions to this.

Rita Moreno Okay.

Studs Terkel After we hear this. [pause in recording?] As we listen to this record, Rita Moreno your reactions to it. In contrast to what we heard earlier from "West Side Story." Now here was the man's overwhelming pride in his hometown, with all the material poverty there.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Is this basically truthful of the feeling of--

Rita Moreno Oh yes, yes. Well you know, there are always counter feelings about things as I said, which is what causes such awful conflict in one. But you know what really, what really impresses me? It's a social commentary on what's happening in New York, the fact that they're writing songs like this, those are protest songs.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Rita Moreno They're just as much protest even though they have the the Latin beat, as anything else you can think of as a spiritual. It's very moving. And of course that line about the frozen chick is [laughter]

Studs Terkel Yeah, very funny, wouldn't--

Rita Moreno It was wonderful.

Studs Terkel It's probably more than just a man's pride in his hometown, he's saying something else here, too, despite all the advances [in mechanical?], yeah--

Rita Moreno He's saying you say silly people, so you have frozen products. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno So you have fancy dresses, so what? What I feel in my heart is what's important.

Studs Terkel You yourself, you you were very young when you left Puerto Rico.

Rita Moreno I was about 5.

Studs Terkel Five. So you have no memories of--

Rita Moreno I do.

Studs Terkel You do.

Rita Moreno You know -- I have. You know what I have? I have sensory memories of Puerto Rico. I remember walking through sugar cane fields. We didn't wear shoes, and you know when I left Mr. Hilton hadn't arrived [laughter] and for candy, we would go into the sugar cane fields and just tear off a hunk of it and suck on it all day, which is delicious by the way. And then, for a real treat, we'd walk by the bread factory and stand at the door and just smell. It was wonderful. And then, oh yeah. I have memories of picking guavas, off -- I don't know if they grow on trees or bushes I really don't remember. And then I also had a marvelous gift for knowing the names of all the herbs. So to show off my mother would take me through the countryside with friends and she'd pick off herbs and she'd say what's this, Rosita. That was my name, Rosa, and I'm so sorry I don't have it anymore now. And I would tell her. And we'd do this for a day's entertainment. And, oh, we didn't have stoves. We had what looked like a huge, very thick wooden table with round indentations in which we put twigs, and if we were lucky, charcoal. And also, oh yes, before I came to America my mother sent me to a nursery school, and we learned to sing the following song: "Good morning to you, [laughter] good morning to you. Good morning dear teacher, good morning to you." And that was the only English I knew when--

Studs Terkel That was it.

Rita Moreno I came to America. [laughter]

Studs Terkel So the memories, then, are a very [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno They're lovely, they're lovely. But at the same time I remember at the time, it didn't move me of course, but when I think of it now it's so ludicrous. I remember, very often, seeing people carrying tiny white little coffins from their homes. Babies, I remember going to see a woman whose baby was dying of constipation. Can you imagine that? And even then. But it happened in Puerto Rico.

Studs Terkel [Memory of?] little white coffins.

Rita Moreno Tiny coffins--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno Little infants dying constantly, for the most littlest reasons, you know, things that no baby should die of.

Studs Terkel And so the -- to get away, to find a job, [re?] the big migration to to--

Rita Moreno Well you know what my mother did. My mother left me with my father. She went to New York not knowing a word of English. She was very young, she gave birth to me when she was about 16. She got herself a job in a sewing factory where they made shirts for men. She, no one ever taught her to sew, she just learned. She was then I guess about 18 or something. And she worked for a year I didn't see her for a year, in this factory doing what they call piecework, which is probably some of the hardest work you can do, you get paid a certain amount of pennies per piece that you sew--

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] sweatshop work.

Rita Moreno Yes. Really. And a year later she came back to Puerto Rico. I didn't even know her. I was so young I had forgotten her. She took me, oh I remember she had a trunk full of toys for me, 'cause she knew I wouldn't recognize her. She brought me, she had made enough money in that year, just enough, to bring both of us back to New York City by boat. Very few people used planes then. And we had, I think it was supposed to have taken about 4 days to get to New York and it took us 8, 'cause there were violent storms, and we couldn't spend any time in our cabin which was way down at the bottom of the ship where you always get sick anyway. So we spent all our time up on deck. And I remember there was a crazy woman who was quite frightened because of the storm, and she had a baby in her arms and for about 4 days she was walking up and down the deck with the baby in her arms, singing songs at the top of her lungs. [laughter] It was kind of comical, too. Loud, loud lullabies, and rumbas-- [laughter]

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Rita Moreno To this baby in her arms. [laughter] And that's how we arrived in New York. And we stayed with an aunt of mine, she was called the black sheep aunt, in a 2 room apartment. And my mother and I in one room and my aunt in another, and a kitchen. No bath.

Studs Terkel So then the role of Anita that you do required no case history writing on your part.

Rita Moreno Not at all. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Your own case history--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel As a small child, a memory case history, really.

Rita Moreno In fact I had fun in the picture, the designer who designed the sets, who is marvelously talented, asked me if I had any suggestions for the interior of some of the rooms, like Maria's room, Natalie Wood, or mine. And of course I was thrilled to pieces, because I knew exactly how it should be furnished. And I said to him, well why don't you get those little tiny blown glass figures that are done in colors, in pinks, bright pinks and blues and white, and he just loved that. And also do you remember those dolls, that were made of of cloth, and they had very fancy Marie Antoinette dresses on? You put them on a bed. Remember--

Studs Terkel Yeah, on the bed.

Rita Moreno You spread their skirts--

Studs Terkel Yeah that's right, and they're they are--

Rita Moreno And would put them on the pillow. And he loved that but he couldn't find one. That was a long time ago.

Studs Terkel This was all a part of the period part of the--

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel time also--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel part of the [particular?] culture.

Rita Moreno Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel Of the new people moving in--

Rita Moreno Mhm, yeah.

Studs Terkel Coming to the -- Before I I want to come back to you and and Anita, and and your childhood, and how you became the [actress?]. The role you're playing now. Sally Bowles in "I Am a Camera." Rather interesting choice. You chose this, didn't you?

Rita Moreno Yeah I did.

Studs Terkel Here's Isherwood's book that deals with pre-Hitler Berlin, [unintelligible] Van Druten. Why did you choose this? I don't think of you as Sally Bowles, and yet you did it.

Rita Moreno No, nobody does. I suppose it seems unlikely in terms of the way I look, for one thing. I do look Latin and kind of exotic. And then also in terms of what I just did in "West Side Story." But the principal idea was to do something that wasn't easy. To do something that would be -- that would take effort and some -- and would, something that would make me tap my creative processes [laughter] if that's what you can call them. And it's also what my drama coach in L.A. said, stretch your muscles, your acting muscles. Don't do something that's easy. What's the point? And I think if you're really interested in acting, or developing yourself as an actor, it's necessary--

Studs Terkel [You say?] your drama coach, was it -- would it be Benno Schneider by any chance?

Rita Moreno No, no, this is Jeff Corey.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Rita Moreno So we worked on, I worked on it--

Studs Terkel A very good actor, by the way.

Rita Moreno Yes, yes--

Studs Terkel He was, he was excellent.

Rita Moreno He was, he teaches now.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Rita Moreno And we only had time to work on it for I think an hour and a half 'cause I was doing another show at the time. I really wanted to spend time on it, and you know you only get 7 days in summer stock to learn a whole script which is, still to me incredible. I can't believe--

Studs Terkel I know.

Rita Moreno That anybody can learn that--

Studs Terkel I know.

Rita Moreno Much dialogue but you do. But the principal idea was to do something that was very different from anything I'd done. And this certainly is, it's quite different and it's great fun. And there are things I don't do well in it still, and that I may not till I try it again in another theater or in Chicago or something.

Studs Terkel But here's Sally, wholly so different from Anita.

Rita Moreno Yeah. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Sally Bowles' whole background.

Rita Moreno Sally is from England, from Lancashire, from the family of an upper middle class family, and hates it, and she's a complete kook. She's, she tries very hard to be different, quite deliberately. She's very superficial. She's very charming. She's terribly selfish and thoughtless, and that's what many times makes her appealing and interesting. She's not completely adorable, which is important.

Studs Terkel This role, and human, strangely enough, in her own way.

Rita Moreno Oh she is. There's something so terribly pure about her. Sally couldn't lie. She does, when it doesn't mean anything.

Studs Terkel And we see here within a framework, a very cynical framework--

Rita Moreno Oh, it's an interesting one.

Studs Terkel A terrifying framework.

Rita Moreno That's right. It's just when the riots were beginning in Germany.

Studs Terkel You'll be playing at -- we should -- I want I want to make this clear. You're at the Edgewater Beach Playhouse.

Rita Moreno Right.

Studs Terkel You'll be there--

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel Until--

Rita Moreno Until the twenty-fourth.

Studs Terkel Until the twenty-fourth.

Rita Moreno Yeah.

Studs Terkel Rita Moreno as Sally Bowles. Now we may return to, back tho- so they will see you, the audiences who have seen you in "West Side Story" as Anita, see you in a wholly different gown, shall we say.

Rita Moreno [laughter] Terribly, yeah.

Studs Terkel Back to to Anita, and back to Rita Moreno, Rosita Moreno.

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel Well now it's Rosita Moreno.

Rita Moreno It's really Rosa--

Studs Terkel Rosa.

Rita Moreno Dolores Alverio de Marcano. Now isn't that pretty?

Studs Terkel It's beautiful.

Rita Moreno I was such a fool to change it.

Studs Terkel That's your full name.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel It would take up the whole marquee, but that's the--

Rita Moreno It could, well just--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno Rosa Alverio, Rosa Moreno.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You and theater. Always as a small girl was this always a feeling on your part to be--

Rita Moreno An actress?

Studs Terkel A performer, yes.

Rita Moreno Yes, yes very much so. You know, I suppose you've noticed, and I suppose this is not the most profound thing in the world, but it's worth mentioning, that some of our finest entertainers, or let's even say some of our most ambitious performers, are members of minorities. It's like really it's comparable to the bullfighter in the Latin countries. They have less chance there to become well known people in many fields. So a young boy who wants to be respected and loved becomes a bullfighter.

Studs Terkel So is is this often the case generally that the bull--

Rita Moreno I really think so.

Studs Terkel The bullfighter comes from a poor background.

Rita Moreno Terribly, usually they're just destitute.

Studs Terkel So it's the young Negro in the prize ring, for example.

Rita Moreno Yes.

Studs Terkel It's quick, as a chance there.

Rita Moreno And the young man who becomes a singer, and whose name might be Tacaloni, or something Italian. But really, I th- I do think, I know everyone says this, but I think there is a basis to that. I really do.

Studs Terkel The the, you mean--

Rita Moreno I mean I don't think it's an accident.

Studs Terkel You know there is a way in which the talent itself, whether it be that of a singer or a dancer or an actor--

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Or a prizefighter--

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel That talent is the core, the key, whereas it would be difficult the other obstacles, say, in other fields.

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Because he is of a minority group.

Rita Moreno Mhm. That's right. I really think that there's something quite deliberate about that choice, whether you're aware of it or not.

Studs Terkel So, back to you again. When you were very -- always the yen, then, to be a performer?

Rita Moreno Oh, since I was a tiny little girl, yeah.

Studs Terkel What was your--

Rita Moreno I did love to dance.

Studs Terkel What was your outlet? Dancing.

Rita Moreno Before I became neurotic. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Before you become neurotic. You were a dancer?

Rita Moreno I loved it when I was even a tiny little girl, my mother would play records and I'd get up and dance.

Studs Terkel Did you study with someone? I mean for dance [unintelligible]

Rita Moreno I did in New York. Finally when I was about 6 and a half or 7, my mother took me to a Spanish dance teacher, and I studied with him and within about a year or 2 I was dancing at benefits and, you know, where they always exploit little kids. [laughter]

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Rita Moreno You can get them for nothing.

Studs Terkel Benefits where they always exploit little kids--

Rita Moreno Well, they always--

Studs Terkel That's a good, that's a good phrase.

Rita Moreno Well it's true. They always have -- They don't, they want -- somebody's having a a bar mitzvah, I entertained at tons of bar mitzvahs, you know. And a lot of weddings of all kinds. And they don't pay you, or they pay you $5. So they get kids 'cause who else is going to do this? And they keeping telling you it's for the -- good, it's good for the experience, kid, you know? You need experience.

Studs Terkel This was your training ground.

Rita Moreno [laughter] Yes.

Studs Terkel Did you work in musicals, too, before "West Side Story"?

Rita Moreno No, I never -- oh wait a minute, in films I did. I did 3 musicals. I did one at MGM with Lanza, and then I did an awful turkey called "The Vagabond King." And then "The King and I," which was nice, and "West Side," which I think is the best.

Studs Terkel You yourself recently have been working some films in different [unintelligible] that you're working in a Philippine film?

Rita Moreno Yeah it's an American film made in Manila.

Studs Terkel Oh, made in the Philippines.

Rita Moreno Yeah, with Van Heflin, yeah.

Studs Terkel Do you find, is there something happening, other countries here? We, we're so accustomed to think of the film industry as something wholly American. We know there are tremendous films that are--

Rita Moreno Mhm.

Studs Terkel Have been made, great films in different lands. Now, in Asia. Now you've been where? In Manila? But this is an American film.

Rita Moreno I was in Manila. I was in Bangkok. The rest of the countries I visited on my own: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. I loved Japan. I love them all. I like the Orient. The people are different there.

Studs Terkel In what way?

Rita Moreno They are different in a very special sense. They are warm. They are not suspicious. They are very generous, in terms of themselves, I don't mean anything materially. They are just delightful, and they are so happy to see you. Of course one always has to take into consideration the fact that one is in the movies, and one has been seen. But even aside from that they are lovely people. When you come back to America there seems to be such an air of hostility and suspicion. It's so different, and you're so welcome in the Orient. God I love those people, and they're simpler too. They don't stop to sit and analyze and dissect things, you know. There's just, they say, oh is that it's raining. Well I guess it's raining, okay. Nobody says, do you wonder why? It's just raining. So. [laughter]

Studs Terkel When were you last in Puerto Rico?

Rita Moreno I was in Puerto Rico last when I was 5.

Studs Terkel Well that's the last of -- you haven't been there since--

Rita Moreno Yeah. I'm dying to go back.

Studs Terkel Oh I see. You haven't been there since.

Rita Moreno I was supposed to go 2 years ago to do some summer stock, and I was involved in a car accident. And thereby hangs another tale. [laughter] And I couldn't go, so.

Studs Terkel I was wondering what changes you would have, well [unintelligible] a great many--

Rita Moreno Oh I would have seen some fant- I would see -- I may go this year. I'm really terribly anxious to go. Oh you know what? After I got the Oscar, when I went back to Manila to finish the film, I got 2 wires: 1 from the Senate in Puerto Rico, and 1 from the mayor of San Juan. And from the Senate I also got a typed leaflet with the minutes of the meeting where it was decided that I was adorable and darling and a Puerto Rican. [laughter]

Studs Terkel A great pride.

Rita Moreno I was so proud. I wanted to die. Really that meant much more to me than any award in the world. It really did.

Studs Terkel Here again the pride, the pride [unintelligible]--

Rita Moreno I started to cry and carry on, I really was thrilled. I still have to answer them, and thank them, but I want it to be such a special letter, you know? I want to have the time to write it.

Studs Terkel You know what? I think it would be appropriate in listening just as you say this, recounting what happened after you won the award. Perhaps this [paper shuffling] this song, this song might bring back a memory to you too, perhaps. [pause in recording] This song, what is your -- you've heard this before.

Rita Moreno Oh I heard it so many times, not only in Puerto Rico, but of course in New York whenever we went to Latin functions. But you know what that really brought back to mind.