By Andrea Plaid
Rita Moreno was the first drag king I ever saw.
In her role at Otto, the screaming, sadistic film director, on the Electric Company, Moreno taught Generation Xers how to read and, more subtly, how over-the-top masculinity can be. (**TRIGGER WARNING**)
She recounts the reasons in a 2008 interview with the Miami Herald why she joined the PBS show that garnered her a 1972 Grammy for the cast album–her castmates were Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman (yes, that’s him on the clip, and she talks about them fondly here)–back in the day:
Moreno and her husband had Fernanda, who loved to watch Sesame Street as a kid. Which is why Moreno said yes in 1971 when the Children’s Television Workshop asked her to be a regular on a new show, The Electric Company.
But anyone who watched the show growing up probably remembers Moreno best, especially for her opening yell: ”Hey, you guys!” ‘Any number of people said, `Don’t do it. It’ll look like you need the work, and you’ll never do movies or television again except for children’s projects.’ But I had a little daughter who loved Sesame Street so I said, ‘The heck with it. I’ll take my chances.’ The concept was so wonderful. It was so hip.”
What wasn’t so wonderful, Moreno says in the same interview, were the roles film studios offered to her pre- and post-Oscar win for her role as Anita in West Side Story.
“Before West Side Story I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After West Side Story, it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.”
But Puerto Rican-born Moreno says that her Oscar win allowed her to turn down those roles. Yet some people would argue that Anita–of whose accent Moreno stated is a “put-on”–further cements the stereotype of the sexy, hot-tempered Latina.
Even with that complicated legacy, Moreno still gives major love to Latin@ performers: she appeared on the Salma Hayek-helmed show Ugly Betty and gave the show’s star, America Ferrera, a picture of herself winning the Oscar and signed, “Just hold on to your vision, Don’t let anyone distract you.” She also appeared in the short-lived but acclaimed show, Cane, as the matriarch of lead star Jimmy Smits’ family.
Keeping with her love for the next generation, she begged Jim Hensen to appeared on The Muppet Show–and won an Emmy for her guess stint it 1977. She also provided the voice of villian Carmen Sandiego for Fox’s Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego in the mid-1990s.
Moreno, who started performing at the age of 13, got more accolades during her career, including a 1961 Golden Globe for West Side Story, 2000 Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress, the 2001 Special Recognition Award from the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 2011 National Medal of Arts. The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors not only bestowed her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, they renamed their Award for Excellence for her. And she also won a Tony in 1975 for her role in The Ritz. So–along with her Grammy, Emmy, and Oscar–she is the only Latin@ and a handful of people overall to win all four awards.
And she wins the awards for aging: when Racialicious guest contributor Chris MacDonald-Dennis post a recent picture of her on his Facebook page, I nearly passed out from her beauty. As actor Tyne Daly says about aging in Hollywood:
“It is important to look old so that the young will not be afraid of dying. People don’t like old women. We don’t honor age in our society, and we certainly don’t honor it in Hollywood.”
I would love to see Otto as an old man. And I will hope that he’s mellowed the fuck out.