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Right on, Rita! 

Rita Moreno talks about movies, kids and much more ahead of her appearance at the Loft Film Fest

click to enlarge rita-_credit_mark_hill.jpg

Legendary actress and singer Rita Moreno will be appearing at this year's Loft Film Fest for an exclusive screening of West Side Story, the film that made her a star and won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The Tucson Weekly got a chance to talk with Moreno about West Side Story, her new Latin album, Una Vez Más (released Sept. 25) and, of course, her involvement in the legendary children's program, The Electric Company.

So, you are coming to town to accept the Lofty Lifetime Achievement Award at a screening of West Side Story. Have you ever been to Tucson before?

Yes, I have. I love it. Absolutely...Tuck-son. I'm looking forward to being in Tuck-son. That's how I used to pronounce it. I will be telling some West Side Story anecdotes, including a great one about how I couldn't stay aloft on George Chakiris' (who played her lover, Bernardo) shoulders during our dances. They were so narrow and they sloped. I just started slipping off of him in slow motion.

I was a little kid when I first saw the movie, and I didn't even know what racism was. I couldn't figure out why Tony and Maria got so much flack for dancing together and singing to one another. I saw it when I was seven or eight years old, so watching all those cool dudes die in street fights kind of traumatized me a bit. It's a heartbreaking movie. It's also quite timeless ... it's Romeo and Juliet for heaven's sake. The message is universal. Oh, man what a movie. There are parts of it where the language is a little dated, but there is nothing dated about the music and the choreography.

I was a big fan of The Electric Company on PBS, the greatest children's programming ... ever. When I first saw West Side Story I recognized you from that show and said something like, "Look Mom ... that's Pandora! (Rita's "Naughty Girl" character from the children's show)."

My favorite character! Pandora! I used to chase the crew around the set with a pie in my hand as Pandora. I would show the crew my ruffled panties all of the time. I used to moon them with my ruffled panties. She was so much fun to play. Everybody loved Pandora. I always made a point of putting band aids on her shins, and having one of her socks always getting swallowed up by her shoes. If the crew saw that Pandora was on that day's shot list, they knew they were in trouble. She was such a little brat!

You, of course, performed with the mighty Morgan Freeman (whose staple character was Easy Reader) on The Electric Company.

Oh, he and I have such a great friendship that goes back a long time. When the Screen Actor's Guild asked me "Who do you want to present your Lifetime Achievement Award?" (Moreno received the award last year) I said "I don't know if he will do it, but Morgan Freeman." And he did it. You have to YouTube my acceptance speech. Oprah said it was the best one ever. They told me to keep it at two minutes, but I said "I'm Puerto Rican ...I don't do anything in two minutes." It ended up being about five. (Note from Grimm: I did YouTube the speech afterwards ... it's adorable, and it clocks in at 4:18).

On your new Latino album, Una Vez Más, your first all-Spanish (language) album, you sing "Somewhere" from West Side Story with a Spanish lyric.

That was the only song in the entire roster of West Side Story that didn't have a professionally recorded Spanish lyric. Emilio Estafan, who produced the album, is so proud of the arrangement and that new Spanish lyric. They Latin-ized it.

You sound like you are in your 30s on that album.

When the album was done, we had no one set to release it. Emilio took two of the tracks to Sony and said "I want to play you a new artist of mine." He played the tracks and they said "Who is that girl?" So he says to them, "That girl is Rita Moreno, and she is 83 years old!" So that's when they decided to release the album. What a year this has been for this old lady.

I just watched a recent interview with you, and you look half your age at the most. It's crazy!

Your lips to God's ears! I'm going to be 84 in December. In fact, four days after the Kennedy Center Honors (for which Moreno will be a recipient this year) I turn 84. WHAT!? God almighty, what an amazing life I've had.

Back on the subject of children's programming, you are in a new show on the Sprout network, the animated Nina's World where you play the grandmother, Abuelita.

What's great about Nina's World is that it's not noisy, it's not wacky, nobody talks in funny little voices, and it's very authentic. The Sprout network is wonderful. They are seriously diverse in the way the show is produced. The cast includes East Indian actors, Chinese actors ... and there's a little deaf boy, a character named Nikko. Talk about taking diversity to a new plain. He lip reads like a champion, he signs fabulously, and he—never having heard a sound in his life—this boy speaks so clearly that they use him for the voice of this little boy in the show. Also, it seems that in the past many animated characters have only had four fingers. Don't know why that is the case, but now, because of this little deaf boy, they had to add five digits to all of the characters so that they could sign. That wasn't too easy on the animators.

I'm happy another generation of children gets to benefit from your TV presence. Speaking of diversity, I just want to throw out one more kudos to The Electric Company for ethnic diversity. And for the great use of musical genres like soul, rock and blues. I used to love your Phyllis and the Pharaohs numbers, where you were a soul group with Morgan Freeman as a back-up singer. What was that song? "What is Love?"

No, it was "Phantom of Love"... we were teaching the "fuh" sound with that one. (Singing in her awesome Phyllis voice) "Oh uh-oh darlin', what did I do so wrong? Last night I kissed you, and today you're gone. Oh you're the phantom, phantom ...WOOH! ... phantom of luh-ove!"

I can't believe you just sang "Phantom of Love" to me.

I did just sing "Phantom of Love" to you.

The exclusive screening of West Side Story with Rita Moreno happens on Friday, Oct. 23 at The Loft Cinemas. Go to loftfilmfest.org for all of the details.

More by Bob Grimm

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