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Chita Rivera: The Toast Of Chichicastengo 1933-2024

Chita Rivera: The Toast Of Chichicastengo 1933-2024

 


The first Broadway show I ever saw was Bye, Bye Birdie. It took me about ten minutes to develop a lifelong crush on Dick Van Dyke. Tall and lanky, all loose arms and limbs, looking acting like a clown trapped in an attractive man’s body, I didn’t want to be just like him. I wanted to be him. 

Because one of the great advantages of that transference was that would make me able to dance with the woman alongside him, a mesmerizing, bewitching, spark-emitting dynamo named Chita Rivera. Of course, having loved movie musicals even at an early age, I had seen lots of people dance on the big screen. But to dance like that in person nonstop while singing, and when done, keep right on going without calling for a five-minute recess was jaw dropping.

To whirl yourself around like that with so much control, at a staggering speed to match her astounding grace was almost too much for this kid to comprehend, and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off her. 

It was like getting a brain freeze from too quickly inhaling your favorite flavor ices from Lemon Ice King of Corona, but you keep on licking anyway. By the time Rivera finished her big number, “Spanish Rose,” I fell under a spell that would remain unbroken for the next fifty years. I never missed another Broadway show she starred in and caught her cabaret acts whenever I could.


Rivera’s paramount talent and electrifying radiance made her a magnetic presence, yet it wasn’t her extensions or razor-sharp footwork that generated our universal awe. 

It was the spark in her eyes, the joy on her face, the commitment of her body to treat choreography, not as if she was dancing for her life, but as if dance was what was making her feel most alive. If producers could have bottled that exuberance, cases would have been sold out during intermission.

Rivera also had a voice made for live theater, especially at a time before everyone was miked as if serenading Allegiant stadium. It wasn’t lilting like Kelli O’Hara or belltone clear like Sutton Foster, but piercing with just enough rasp to make each note indelibly stick. Even in shows that were flawed, she made her mark. 

Go Google “Don’t Ah Ma Me” from Kander & Ebb’s ramshackle musical The Rink, and marvel at how she takes down her daughter, played by Liza Minelli, with a shot from guns, mile a minute diatribe that would daunt even the most erudite of Gilbert & Sullivan acolytes. The show may have been clunky. Rivera still won a Tony.


But the more potent reason why I never met anyone who ever said, “I don’t care for her” (that would put a quick end to that friendship), is that offstage, she was a buoyant delight. 

I was working as a waiter at Joe Allen’s, the iconic theater restaurant, while she was dating Mr. Allen, so she was a regular visitor. 

Rivera was only 5’3” but it was as if some spectral electrician had trained a pin spot to catch her the moment she walked into the dining room. Back then, everyone working at Joe’s was an actor/singer/waiter/dancer - what used to be known as a “gypsy” before that term got terminated – and Rivera always behaved as if she was one of us, asking about go-sees we’d gone on, giving advice on everything from head shots to audition songs. 

Her perennially stoic beau had to shoo us away to have any privacy, not because we were annoying her, but because she was so comfortable being with us. Rivera was the ultimate ‘gypsy.”

Proof of her affiliation with everyone who has every stood on a stage in front of 1500 strangers, occurred, when prior to the opening of the musical Chicago, there was an Actor’s Equity strike that shut down 

Broadway, mainly instigated by the meager salaries of those singers, understudies, and swing actors (those who served as a replacement for several parts at once). It was Rivera and her equally singular co-star Gwen Verdon who would lead rallies almost daily in Shubert Alley until the strike was settled. Neither of these supreme talents ever forgot what it was like to be in the chorus, dreaming of being center stage.

Consequently, though Broadway’s 1975 season was usurped by the game changing A Chorus Line (though Chicago’s current revival is now the second longest running musical in Broadway history), the original 

production’s opening was one of the most thrilling nights I’ve ever spent in the theater, not only because these two legends danced and entertained as if lives were at stake, but because they managed to fill the balcony with “gypsies” in a constant state of cacophonic euphoria watching their heroes do what they did best onstage.


Even in 1993, at age 60, after what was predicted to be a career ending traffic accident causing a compound leg fracture, there she was on stage, seducing us once more, as we yearned for one Kiss of the Spider Woman

She won a Tony for that one too (having been nominated ten times). And at 82, while her footwork was now minimal, she still held an audience in thrall in Kander & Ebb’s musical adaptation of The Visit.

Her autobiography was fun and juicy. Her cabaret acts delicious and naughty. No wonder the internet is now blanketed with pictures bemoaning her passing. Search every florist shop from Boston to San Diego. You will still never find a single bloom more glorious than this Spanish Rose.

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