A visit from a legend: Rita Moreno speaks at OUS

Published 5:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2024

Following Sunday, May 26, night’s “A Conversation with Rita Moreno” event at Ohio University Southern, the guest of honor said she had wondered if the severe thunderstorm that hit the city just as doors were set to open would hamper turnout.
“But they were here and Ironton came out in full force,” the Academy, Emmy, Tony and Grammy-winning singer and actress remarked.
Upon taking the stage, Moreno joked about the weather.
“I had a bad experience once with rain and shrinkage,” she said. “And this could be a little girl’s dress before the day is out….and I ain’t no little girl.”
The event, sponsored and organized by the Ironton Rotary Club, drew a packed house for the discussion of Moreno’s more than seven-decade-long career.
Moreno, 92, a Puerto Rican-born actress who has also been the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts, may have seemed an unlikely visitor to the city, but she has a major tie to Ironton in the form of her good friend, John Ferguson, of the Ironton Rotary Club.
Ferguson recently moved back to Ironton from California, where he owned a contracting company that worked on Moreno’s house. It was through that relationship that he became friends with the actress and her late husband, Leonard Gordon, eventually becoming her manager and guiding her through a decade that has seen a resurgence in her popularity.
Ferguson served as moderator for the event, which took on a “This is Your Life” type theme, as he surprised her, not only with clips from throughout her career, but with prerecorded questions from her family, as well as celebrities such as Al Roker, Mo Rocca and Lily Tomlin.
“Where in God’s name did you find that?” she asked, incredulously, when Ferguson played a scene from 1953’s “Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation,” in which she had an uncredited role at the age of 22.
They discussed the origins of her career in entertainment, with Moreno stating she was “always wired to perform.”
She said a friend of the family enrolled her in dance lessons, having seen her as a child and suggesting the idea to her parents.
She performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events.
But, at the age of 17, her big break came when a talent scout invited her to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where she was to meet with famed producer Louis. B. Meyer of MGM studios.
Moreno said MGM was her dream studio, having produced “The Wizard of Oz” and “Elizabeth Taylor, who was my role model, lived there.”
She said the meeting took place in the penthouse.
“And there he is, Mr. Oz, the Wizard,” she said, recalling what Meyer then said when he saw her.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, she looks like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor,’” Moreno said.
She was then offered a film contract at the age of 17.
“I nearly peed my knickers,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I swam around the room, I was so excited.”
Moreno’s signature role, for which she won the Academy Award, 1961’s “West Side Story,” was discussed.
Moreno said it came as a surprise that she was even nominated for the award.
“We didn’t realize that this was going to be the film of films,” she said.
In fact, she said, in the car ride to the ceremony, she practiced what she called “loser speeches,” to be delivered afterward.
She said she thought the Best Supporting Actress trophy would go to Judy Garland, who she felt was a lock for her role in “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
When Moreno won, she gave one of the shortest speeches in the history of the Oscars, stating simply, “I can’t believe it! Good Lord. I leave you with that.”
“I didn’t have anything ready,” she told Ferguson to explain its brevity, stating she only attended the show “just in case.”
The evening’s discussion touched on many aspects of her career, such as her long role on PBS’ “The Electric Company,” a children’s educational show.
She said friends had initially advised her not to do the show, out of fear of being typecast as a children’s entertainer.
“But I’m so proud of that show,” she said, noting she won a Grammy for the album associated with it.
They also discussed her work on other shows, such as “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” on which she appeared with her husband and daughter.
“I thought he was a fabulous example for everyone in this world — adults included,” she said of Fred Rogers, who she said noted her daughter’s shyness and asked her to feed the fish with him, something he did on each show.
They also recalled her guest appearance on The Muppet Show, in which she preformed “Fever” with Animal and Floyd, members of the Electric Mayhem, the show’s house band.
“He was looking like a little lunatic,” she said of Animal, who appeared behind her. “It was so funny and it was so hard to keep a straight face.”
Moreno shared stories of many she has worked with, such as producer Norman Leer, who cast her in the remake of “One Day at a Time” and Marlon Brando, with whom she had a relationship of several years.
One story she held dear was being invited to the 1963 civil rights March on Washington by Harry Belafonte to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I have a Dream” speech.
It was a speech that nearly did not happen.
Moreno recalls when King got up to speak, sitting beside him was Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, his close friend, who did not recognize the speech he started to deliver.
She said Jackson then tugged on King’s jacket and said, “Martin, Martin. Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
“And then he put that speech away and gave the ‘I have a Dream’ speech,” Moreno said.
She noted that this has been corroborated by the archive of the speech he was originally going to give, which did not include those passages.
Moreno’s sharp wit was on full display in the final Lightning Round of questions from Ferguson.
When asked what superpower she would like to have, she said, “to be able to come back as a foul odor and hang around bad politicians.”
Ferguson asked her what holiday she would like to create.
“Rita Moreno Day,” she said, matter-of-factly. “And do you know what I would wear? Nothing.”
At the close of the event, Moreno was asked to give advice to young women today.
“Hang in there,” she said. “Get an education. It’s not enough to be beautiful. Give yourself that sense of dignity that you can carry with you.”
Moreno’s visit followed an appearance she and Ferguson made at Harvard, with her stopping by Ironton for downtime.
It was her second visit to the city, following a prior visit to Ferguson’s home.
“What a beautiful town,” she said. “It’s my like my little Puerto Rico…in Ohio. I love Ironton and I love you.”
Moreno’s appearance at OUS was a fundraiser for Rotary charitable efforts, including a children’s camp through the university. She expressed her gratitude to the audience for attending,
“Thank you bottom of my heart,” she said. “You have made it possible to send 40 kids to camp.”

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