Dropout Moreno is an advocate for education

September 09, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Rita Moreno dropped out of school at age 14. She'd made her Broadway debut the year before -- in a flop called "Skydrift" -- and by the time she was 17 she had an MGM contract. But quitting school is a decision she says she regrets "every day of my life."

Being a dropout is the reason Moreno has become such a strong proponent of education. "I'm nuts on that subject," she insisted recently from her home in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

Tonight Moreno will be in Owings Mills doing her bit for education as the star of "Project Reach Out," Maryland Public Television's annual telethon, which encourages Marylanders to donate time, not money, to public schools.

Co-produced with the state Department of Education, the telethon will be broadcast live on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67) from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., with the first hour simulcast on WJZ (Channel 13) and the second hour simulcast on WETA (Channel 26).

Tonight's appearance is only the third time the 61-year-old actress has been in the Baltimore area; she performed at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1990 and starred in the Broadway tryout of the female version of "The Odd Couple" at the Mechanic Theatre in 1984. But this is hardly the first time she's worked to promote education.

The Puerto Rican-born performer is active in an organization called Free Arts for Abused Children, and she also frequently speaks to students in the California schools. The lesson she teaches is the importance of self-esteem. And she doesn't mince words. "When you're down at the bottom of the barrel, you see very little light. What I emphasize with them is the importance of education," she says.

"I also remind them in very direct terms that, yes, it's very tough out there for Hispanic and black children. But at least for my lifetime, they're going to have to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove themselves and while that may seem unfair, that's the reality. So I try to tell them not to whine about it, [but] get on with the business of being better."

Moreno knows first-hand how difficult it can be for a Hispanic to achieve equality in this society. Though she made it to Hollywood at a young age, she was soon typecast as a Latin spitfire, spewing dialogue on the order of, as she has put it, "You Yankee peeg. You steal gold from my people. I keel you!"

Winning an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 movie of "West Side Story" only reinforced the stereotype. Moreno finally managed to break away from typecasting in such vehicles as "The Odd Couple" on Broadway and "The Four Seasons" on the screen. But it is a reflection of her sense of humor on the subject that the role that won her a Tony Award -- Googie Gomez in "The Ritz" -- was a character that playwright Terrence McNally based on Moreno's own comic sendup of the stereotype.

But the problem still exists, and Moreno admits that in recent years she has concentrated on her concert act, in part, to avoid further typecasting. "I'm the boss. I sing anything I want. I am the final arbiter of what goes on that stage, and I love it for that reason," she says.

At the moment, however, she's making a movie for Columbia Pictures called "Blackout," about inner-city life. And though she is again playing a Puerto Rican character, she has been gratified by the positive reaction she has received in the Bronx neighborhoods where the movie is being filmed.

"Hispanic people as a rule tend not to write fan letters, so I never really hear from the Hispanic community," she says. "For the first time I realize a lot of my community feels that I was the one to open the doors. More often than not, I keep hearing the word 'pionera' -- pioneer."

Moreno will perform several songs on tonight's telethon, which will emphasize Hispanic and inner-city children in recognition of her interests. It's also a good bet that somewhere in the evening she'll get in a word or two about her pet topic -- self-esteem.

Indeed, the subject even surfaces in her fitness video. "It has like a five-minute talk before it starts and like a six-minute talk at the end -- an inspirational talk," she explains.

"There's a big, big difference between weakness, which has to do with character, and vulnerability, which has to do more with environment. . . . What most people don't realize is that they're so much tougher and more resilient than they know. We all are. It's a life blessing that I have learned and that I try to impart && wherever I go."

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