Chita Rivera recently turned 90 and is reflecting. “I always thought we should have two lifetimes: one to try it, and the second to know what’s coming,” he said.
But no one would ever mistake Rivera’s life for rehearsal. Three-time Tony Award winner, A Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and the first Latina Kennedy Center HonoreeRivera is a theater legend, starring in original productions of “Chicago,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” just to name a few.
And as she recently took the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center with musical director Seth Rudetsky, Rivera can still bring the fire as Anita on “West Side Story,” the role that made her a star.
Rivera doesn’t move like she used to, but in her soul (she writes in her new book, “Cheetah: A Memoir”), she remains a dancer.
Rocca asked, “How would you describe the dancer’s mentality?”
“Oh, ha ha! Oh, my God! Do as you’re told!” he replied.
And whatever you do, don’t complain.
“That’s definitely a theme in your book,” Rocca said. “It’s not 100 percent; it’s 200 percent.”
“Yes, I was taught that way from the beginning,” she replied.
Rivera’s story begins in Washington, DC, where she was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Montestuco Florentina Carnemacral del Fuente. His Puerto Rican father died when he was seven. His mother was left to raise five children.
In her book, Rivera describes herself as two people: Chita and Dolores. “Cheetah said, ‘Hello, how are you? It’s great to be here.’ Dolores is like, ‘What do you want?’ It’s a dark side. I believe Dolores is responsible for my career. She’s brave. She’s brave.”
It was decidedly Dolores, who, as a small child, jumped from one piece of living room furniture to another. “I missed once, and I went through the coffee table,” Rivera said. “And my mom said, ‘That’s it, you’re out of here. You’re going to a ballet school.'”
At age 16, Rivera was admitted to the elite School of American Ballet in New York. But while Rivera studied classical dance by day, by night he explored a different side of himself dancing at Manhattan’s Palladium nightclub. It was there, he said, “I discovered rhythm. I discovered rhythm. I discovered my heartbeat. I was getting attracted to my sex appeal. And the rhythm was hot.”
He soon abandoned ballet for Broadway, such as “Guys and Dolls”, “Can-Can” and “Seventh Heaven”. By 1956, he was appearing on the “Mr. Wonderful” show starring Sammy Davis, Jr. “I fell in love with him,” she said.
“What drew you to him?” asked Roka.
“His sensitivity. His talent. Oh, my God, his humor.”
Davis told her not to kid herself, she had the talent to be a star, which she soon proved in “West Side Story,” dancing, acting and singing.
Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence perform “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” from the original cast album of “West Side Story”:
West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast): Act II: A Boy Like That – I Have A Love by Chita Rivera – Topic on YouTube
She met fellow dancer Tony Mordent on “West Side Story.” They married, and soon she was expecting. She continued to dance on “West Side Story” six months into her pregnancy. “Yes,” he laughed. “My gynecologist had a heart attack when she finally saw the show. But I kept in shape.”
Photo by Leo Caribbean
A photograph by actor and choreographer Leo Kharibian, which captures Rivera’s energy in the role hanging in a Manhattan saloon owned by another man in Rivera’s life, the late restaurateur Joe Allen, who famously decorated his Broadway hangout with posters of flop shows, is 1981’s “Bye Bye Birdie.” including its sequel “Bring Back Birdie” which closed after four performances (“a bomb,” he suggested).
“What’s your advice to anyone who’s faced with failure, in any case,” Rocca asked.
“Leave it, leave it behind,” he replied.
The 1984 musical “The Rink” paired Rivera with Liza Minnelli.
Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli perform “The Apple Don’t Fall” from “The Rink” at the 1984 “Gala of Stars”:
The Rink with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera Cheetah Rivera Special Great Performances on PBS by Great Performances PBS on YouTube
Minnelli, struggling with alcohol and prescription pills at the time, was forgetting lines and missing performances. “It was very awkward, knowing he had complications,” Rivera said. “I felt so bad for him sometimes.”
Just two years later, Rivera would face an even bigger challenge than working with Liza. In 1986, he had 12 pins and two plates in his left leg in a car accident. Rivera is not only healthy; She went on to a Tony by dancing the title role in “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.”
Chita Rivera performs “Where You Are” from “Kiss of the Spider-Woman”:
Tony Awards – Kiss of the Spider Woman by kyleorlando on YouTube
Rocca asked, “Do you think starting your life as a dancer helped you survive stardom?”
“I believe that being a dancer has given me the ability to fight, and endure, and cope,” Rivera replied. “If I come back, I want to come back as a dancer. That will be my second life.”
Read an excerpt: “Cheetah: A Memoir” by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco
Photo Gallery: Chita Rivera
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Story produced by Jay Karnis. Editor: Joseph Frandino.