A child Broadway star who cameoed in Gene Kelly's 1952 musical, Singin' in the Rain, actress Rita Moreno is most famous for playing Anita, the girlfriend of Sharks gang leader Bernardo in West Side Story. She was, in fact, one of the few Latino actors — and the only actual Puerto Rican — in the fictional Puerto Rican gang. Moreno made the whole world fall in love with her by leading the film's habanera-style dance number, "America," which was about the Sharks' infatuation and disenchantment with their new land. (The song has a distinctive rhythmic pattern that recalls Cuban son, but doesn't quite belong to any genre — it made for exciting choreography). At the time, Moreno had everything going for her in showbiz — a coloratura voice, expressive brown eyes, and an agile dancer's body. She could act, sing, do voiceovers, be sweet and demure or funny and salty depending on what the situation called for. It's no surprise that she ended up winning an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, and a Tony Award.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Moreno became a major pop-culture icon, starring in the children's PBS show Electric Company from 1971 to 1977. She played several characters, including Millie the Helper (a well-intentioned but mistake-prone Jill-of-all-trades, famous for yelling "Hey, you guys!" in the series' opening credits), and the front-woman for retro doo-wop group Phyllis and the Pharaohs (who taught the phonetic "ph" sound). She also played cult favorites like the bratty doll-girl Pandora and the fascist movie director Otto, who beat Morgan Freeman's character with a riding crop. In later interviews, Moreno admitted that she knew about the stigma against starring in children's shows, which can be a career-buster. But she was smart enough to choose only shows that were worthy of her stage presence. Moreno actually broadened her adult fan base with Electric Company, and later won an Emmy for guest-starring on The Muppet Show's fifth episode (for which she sang "Fever" with Animal's rock band and danced tango in a French cafe, ultimately bludgeoning her Muppet dance partner). In subsequent decades, she continued working on Broadway, made frequent TV appearances, and seemed to get more beautiful as she aged. Moreno graced Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St.) three years ago to star in the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie. She'll return this Monday, April 20, for a conversation with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. Proceeds benefit Oakland's Park Day School. Wine and cheese reception starts at 6 p.m., program at 7 p.m. $25. For tickets, call 510-653-0317 ext. 103 or visit ParkDaySchool.org.
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