Who got the best birthday present ever? I DID. Yep, me. Little ‘ol me from one of my two step mothers, Robin. Those who know me well (and Robin certainly does), know that my favorite actress is none other than the vivacious, talented, and wonderful Rita Moreno.
Robin’s gifts are special. She puts tremendous thought into every gift, and this was no exception. When I opened the gift, and this book slipped from the packaging, I smiled sentimentally. Yep, She knows me. She knows me well. Rita Moreno’s memoir. While I already have this book in audio form (narrated by Rita herself), what I did not have was a hard-bound copy. YEAY! Now I have a beautiful copy to display in our living room amongst a few of my favorite things. (You’re singing it now, aren’t you? Admit it!)
I thumbed through the pages, peeked at the photos, and flipped back to the beginning wherein a note was tucked inside on Robin’s personal stationary.
A friend of mine who knows Rita personally gave me this book to give to you.
You will see it’s an autographed copy with a very funny dedication – that’s why it was an “extra” copy.
With much love,
Glancing at the treasured autograph of one of my most beloved women ever, I see that Rita had accidentally autographed the book to herself and even added an “Oops” to the inscription — thus, the extra copy. I will treasure this forever.
I am honored to have been in the physical presence of Ms. Moreno twice in my life, but I also “brushed elbows” metaphorically once before when I was a teenager. I sent her a letter when I was 16 — crushed that because my grades had slipped and my parents (and rightfully so) did not allow me to participate in the summer production of West Side Story. I mentioned this sadness in my letter to Rita, and I told her how much I loved and admired her work. She wrote back. She actually wrote back in her own hand and included a personal message to me about how important it is to do well in school and commented on how her own daughter balanced schoolwork and acting at the same time. This stuck with me my entire life.
I met her twice as an adult.The first time was at Berkeley Reparatory Theatre (with Robin, of course) when Rita performed the role of Amanda in a production of The Glass Menagerie. Amanda is often portrayed as cookie-cutter and one-dimensional –simply scary and unfair. Rita’s Amanda was filled with depth, and her character’s love for her daughter (albeit stifling) was clear, and I respected her portrayal of the role. After the performance, Rita was milling around the stage and my step mother nudged me saying, “you may never have this chance again.” I mustered up my courage, approached the stage, and held out my hand to introduce myself. Ms. Moreno shook my hand and greeted me, and she also urged me to be sure to wash my hands as she was getting over a cold. Cold shmold, I was just thrilled to meet the woman whose tenacity and talent inspired me all these years. I remarked to my step mother later that I hadn’t yet washed my hands. If I catch a cold, I catch a cold. How many people get to say they caught Rita Moreno’s cold.
The second time was again with Robin in the East Bay area of California at a special screening of West Side Story that she opened with a speech about her life (she is hilariously funny and clever, by the way) and I mentioned her sweet response to my letter at the age of 16, and I asked her who inspired her as a child the way she inspired me. She answered that sadly there weren’t many – if at all – Latina actresses at the time. If she were to pick one actress, it would be Elizabeth Taylor. I was thrilled as I had portrayed one of Taylor’s most iconic roles several years prior as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Rita inspired me as a child/teen.adult, and she was inspired by an actress whose most famous role I had played onstage. I realized then that Rita and I shared another connection as we had both portrayed complex women in a Tennessee Williams play. Someday, I hope to play the role of Amanda as brilliantly as Rita had.
She touched on an important fact — that there were so few Latina actresses when she was young. I am not Latina, but she inspired ME, and I know that she has inspired countless Latina and non throughout the years. She’s a trailblazer and she has remained my favorite actress of all time. Soon, I’ll write another blog post about her life and her career. She’s a fascinating woman!