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The San Francisco Chronicle
A Day In The Life Of . . . Rita Moreno / From Theater To Charity To Grandkids, Moreno Packs It In
May 2, 2004
This is the second in a continuing series in the Living section in which we shadow prominent Northern Californians as they go through their day-to-day routines..
She's won an Oscar, two Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy. Yet she's still out there, working hard at 72, and not because she needs the money, mind you. She's Rita Moreno, who made her show business bones as Anita in the iconic 1961 musical "West Side Story," following up famously on PBS' children's show "The Electric Company." More recently she's had roles on HBO's "Oz" and CBS' "The Guardian." Far from content to rest on her laurels, Moreno has (almost) given up the Big Apple to make California her home. Berkeley may not be as much of an entertainment hotspot as Times Square, but the East Bay still has enough action to keep Moreno busy, as we learned on a recent Saturday.
9:05 a.m. Arrive at Moreno's home high in the Berkeley hills to find her husband, retired internist and cardiologist Dr. Lenny Gordon, wheeling luggage out to the car. Moreno will be rehearsing a play this morning and singing at a benefit dinner tonight and he -- part husband, part assistant, part roadie -- is making sure her makeup and clothing are organized and ready to go.
Inside, Moreno curls up on a couch in a nook off the kitchen, wearing headphones and listening to a CD, her eyes glued to a booklet. It's a full five minutes before she even looks up, so I stare at the kitchen, where blue Post-it Notes are stuck on the cabinets, with words like "wok," "pots," "elec. mixers" and "bamboo trays." I'd been told they moved in only two weeks ago; now I believe it. I snoop in the living room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows and stunning views of the Berkeley flatlands and San Francisco Bay. "Hi!" she finally says, breaking the ice. "I'm trying to learn an opera in Italian; it's not easy. The only joy is listening to Callas."
She's playing the late opera star Maria Callas in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of "Master Class," set to open later this month .
Moreno won't have to sing in the role, but she speaks the lyrics to a song. Although fluent in Spanish, she doesn't know Italian, and is trying to get pronunciation, cadence and the meaning of the words down. She changes the disc, and the CD player suddenly stops working. "Lenny? Lenny!," she calls out. "Do you have batteries for this? They sure died fast."
We only have a few minutes before heading to rehearsal, so she gives me a tour.
The house, by Bay Area architect Regan Bice, is done in what Moreno calls "contemporary Mexican" style, rectangular and modern, with high ceilings and rooms that open onto each other. There's a courtyard in front, a small deck off the dining room and a patio with a hot tub off the master bathroom.
The courtyard will contain a Balinese day bed with jeweled cushions, weeping trees, pipes that will burble with running water, and a patch of lawn to be shaded by trees whose branches will be pleached (braided) together. It will be a great place for her two grandkids to play, and the ideal spot to renew her wedding vows with Gordon, to whom she has been married for a mere 38 years.
Her daughter, jewelry designer Fernanda Fisher, lives a few minutes away, and her little boys come over for breakfast five days a week. The TV nook has "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio" videos and children's books; like any doting grandma, Moreno can't stop talking about the kids. They are the reason she and her husband moved to Berkeley four years ago, she says. They still keep an apartment in New York City, because Moreno continues to work on the East Coast. Berkeley's "not elegant in the way that Bel Air could be," she acknowledges. "That's precisely why I love it. I love the people here. I love New York. One-on-one, they're spectacular people. In crowds, not so good."
Their hilltop home, built in the area devastated by the 1991 firestorm, is the first they've built from the ground up, and they're delighted with it. The living room shelves are filled with trophies. "The lady unpacking our boxes almost fainted when she saw this," Moreno says matter-of-factly, pointing to her Academy Award (for her "West Side Story" role.) We pass an enormous Japanese Noh mask staring from a hallway wall, and head to the bedroom, which is painted the color of smoke, from floor to ceiling. The reason for this will become apparent at night, she says, promising that we can see for ourselves later on.
9:35 a.m. It's time to go, and Gordon makes two surprising announcements. First, he says, the batteries are not dead; Rita has put the CD in upside down, which is why it won't play. Second, he informs me that I will be driving her to rehearsal, because he's heading to the benefit dinner venue to oversee the lighting and sound system setup.
I immediately die of embarrassment. My Toyota Corolla is 14 years old; it hasn't been washed for a few weeks; it has no air conditioning and the paint has worn off the hub caps. It runs fine and is clean inside, but still, I apologize profusely, certain that she is going to raise an eyebrow and refuse to get in.
She graciously doesn't say anything about my clunker as she gets in. I tell her that only last year I gave chef Wolfgang Puck and famed San Francisco socialite Denise Hale a ride down Nob Hill in the very same car. ("As long as it drives, dah-ling," Hale said. Puck sat in the back seat and laughed.) She gives me an odd look. "Who's Denise Hale?" she asks.
9:40 a.m. As we wind down the perilously steep roads, I mention that my research shows she's very busy with public appearances -- narrating "Tales of 1,001 Arabian Nights" with the Kalamazoo Symphony, speaking at the Cleveland Public Library in connection with Hispanic Heritage Month, becoming a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's "Heart of Diabetes Program" (her mother and sister-in-law died from diabetes) in addition to acting on TV, singing at benefits and helping with the grandkids.
Shouldn't she be taking it easy at 72?
She likes to be busy, she says, and talks about her plans for the courtyard garden. That reminds me that she wants to renew her vows there. I ask how she and her husband have stayed together for so long. "It's hard work, and perseverance," she says. "You have to ask yourself, even if it sounds clinical, am I really better off without this person? We're all pains in the ass. I make him crazy, he makes me crazy. But there are meetings of the minds on family and politics."
10:05 a.m. We walk into the rehearsal hall on Center Street for the four-hour rehearsal. Director Moises Kaufman and actors Donna Lynne Champlin and Michael Wiles are already there. This is only the fifth time the group has gotten together, so Kaufman doesn't want me and The Chronicle's photographer to stay the whole time, fearing we might inhibit the creative process.
They begin reading a scene in which a young opera student is being taught by Callas, who comes across as imperious and impatient. I'm struck by the way a director can make a tiny suggestion regarding movements the actors make, or where they stand, and it dramatically changes the way the audience will perceive the dialogue and action.
Moreno is having trouble figuring out when to stand and when to sit down after Callas lectures Sophie. She has been sitting down for a while on a hard wooden chair when the script calls for her to shout, "I asked for a cushion!," potentially causing audiences to wonder why she waited so long.
Kaufman comes over to demonstrate an idea. "Maybe you can stand as you talk, and then you put your ass down," he says, bending his knees and just lightly touching his rear to the chair, "and that's when you say, 'I asked for a cushion!' " He bolts upright, waving his arms dramatically, as if it is unthinkable to sit in a chair that has no pad.
Moreno tries it again. Now, she's a diva having an outburst. It's terribly funny -- and everyone busts out laughing.
The group immerses itself in all things Callas. There's a collage of pictures on the wall; they watch a video of an interview of Callas from decades past. She's regal and poised as she talks about her craft, with crisp diction and long, perfect fingernails. The beautiful exterior belies the insecurity inside: She grew up a poor, heavyset Greek girl and always felt ashamed of her humble beginnings. Callas talks a lot about the rigors of formal operatic training and the importance of perfecting fundamentals. Kaufman pauses the video. "The more profoundly this character believes that, the more we see she is teaching this way because she's on a mission, not because she's a diva."
I leave for a few hours. When I return, Moreno is in the midst of a dramatic monologue, the second run-through of the day. Here, she is playing Callas with her lover, Aristotle Onassis, as they have a heated conversation. Onassis is coarse; Callas reveals the way she tries to overcome her inner shame by seeking and earning acclaim night after night on stage.
To say it is moving is an understatement. It is powerful, and emotionally exhausting -- and I'm only watching, not performing it.
2:15 p.m. Rehearsal's over, and Moreno is drained. She calls her husband to see how the preparations for her singing engagement are going; he reports that things are slowly coming together. She and Kaufman find their way to Jazz Cafe, a basement restaurant where they order salad and merlot. "I need this, to come down," Moreno says, sipping her wine.
I ask her what she brings to the role of Callas.
"My age helps immensely," she says. "It's also my temperament. ... I feel I really understand her. I am Maria, in my way. More than anything else, when she talks about being a fat, greasy Greek -- I wasn't fat, I was little, petite, but I was Puerto Rican. I lived that in New York City. I left Puerto Rico (as a child), where it was wonderful to be me, and came to New York, where it wasn't, and people called me 'spic,' " she said.
I ask her why "West Side Story" had such an effect on audiences when it opened in the early '60s, why she thinks there have been so few movies touching on white-Latino relations since, and what she thinks of the success of fellow Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez, and recent movies like "Real Women Have Curves."
Moreno says no one had ever seen a musical like "West Side Story," where costumes didn't have sequins and spangles and the actors weren't "beautiful people." It was about gangs -- people fearing each other. "When was the last time you saw a musical about people at war with each other?" she asks. "When was the last time you saw a story being driven forward by dances and songs?"
Rather than make a movie with song and dance numbers that had little to do with the plot, "Jerome Robbins choreographed for characters," she said. "Then there's the story of ill-fated love. It's universal. And then, there's a Latino thing."
When they were shooting it, she says, she really didn't believe anyone would come to see it. It was to be shown with reserved seating, at $5 a ticket -- a huge sum back then. "As it turned out, the star of the movie was the movie itself."
Why has there been nothing similar since? "Because they can't equal it, my dear!"
I press her to talk about J-Lo. "J-Lo? I think Salma Hayek is a wonderful woman," Moreno says. "J-Lo is a remarkable woman. She has accomplished a lot, and so has Ricky Martin. They've had to overcome a great deal -- not as much as I did -- but it's become OK to be Latino. Salma Hayek is a bantam cock. She's a woman who was determined" to make the film "Frida," depicting the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. "She brought this project to life through sheer commitment, belief and stubbornness."
Kaufman brings up the now-canceled "Oz," and tells her he was sad that it's no longer on the air. It was never nominated for an Emmy, which she describes as "a scandal -- and you can quote me on that. These guys gave an Emmy-worthy performance every week."
3:45 p.m. She hasn't eaten a bite of her salad, still too emotionally wound up from rehearsal. We drive to her house to pick up a jacket, and then switch cars (The Chronicle photographer becomes our chauffeur in his new Chevy Malibu) and we head to Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland for the benefit. She eats a Golden Delicious apple and some string mozzarella cheese, her second helping of each today -- and the only things she's eaten since waking at 8.
The radio is on, so I ask her what she likes to listen to. "I like all the old people, and Prince, and Steely Dan," she says. "I was in a Prince video. I got a call one day, four or five years ago. My agent, in absolute wonder, said, 'Prince wants you to be in a video.' His wife has written a song, sort of a Cinderella story, and they wanted me to be the wicked stepmother." Oddly enough, she's never seen it.
4:35 p.m. Moreno is greeted by her husband at the Rotunda, and he escorts her to the stage for rehearsal. Her voice is getting hoarse, yet she manages to run through the entire set, stopping every now and then to give direction to the pianist (she's worked with the bass player and the percussionist before, but not the pianist), who picks it up in a flash. She also needs to look at the sheet music because she has forgotten the words. The morning's rehearsal is taking a toll; she's clearly exhausted.
5:35 p.m. She and Gordon go to their room at the nearby Marriott Hotel to nap until 7 p.m.
At the 2004 Heart of Gold Ball, with its "Cabaret" theme, excitement is building. Gala co-chair Ken Anderson, CEO of John Muir Mount Diablo Health System, and friends are eager to hear Moreno sing. "I can still see her face and her dancing in 'West Side Story,' " he says. "That's how dramatic it was."
7:15 p.m. I rejoin Moreno at the hotel, where she is doing her own hair and makeup in the hotel bathroom. No diva, she.
I ask her husband how they met. A friend introduced them at a Christmas dinner party, and they hit it off so well he invited her out for New Year's Eve. "Meet me at the Henry Miller Theater," she said. He waited and waited outside, but she never showed up. Finally, he got out and looked up at the marquee. "Rita Moreno," it said, "starring in 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.' " (They married six months later.)
8:45 p.m. Moreno bounces onstage in a white Armani tuxedo and glittering white vest. She's revived herself and whips through the hour-long set like a pro. Part chanteuse, part stand-up comic, she charms the audience (even those on the periphery, whom she has to admonish three times to stop talking). The majority of the crowd is utterly wowed, and gives her a standing ovation.
10 p.m. With tomorrow's eight-hour play rehearsal looming, there's no encore. Well-wishers from the audience come backstage for a grip-and-greet.
11 p.m. We're back home, where the air is uncharacteristically balmy. Before Moreno gets into her pajamas, she makes us come into the bedroom for the view she promised to show us. Peering out the window at the flatlands below, I feel like I'm looking at a Lite- Brite board, or that I'm an extraterrestrial visitor seeing Earth for the first time from a spaceship window.
"You're grown-ups now," I say, trying to gently joke with Gordon. "You've built your own house."
He responds more philosophically. "We've paid our dues," he says. "We both grew up poor. My father made $23 a week as a garment presser. I remember bread lines. I grew up in the Depression."
And tonight, they're hungry because they skipped lunch and dinner. They decide to make scrambled eggs with matzos, but before tackling the last task of the day, they rest for a minute in front of the TV, watching CNN.
"This is my idea of heaven, coming home and watching the news," Moreno sighs.
Says Gordon, "That's about as exciting as it gets."
Given what's happened today, I don't quite believe him.