Actress-singer-dancer Chita Rivera

Universally regarded as an American national treasure, Rivera reflects on her history-making career.

A triple-threat talent, Chita Rivera has enjoyed an incredible career spanning six decades. The dancer, singer and actress is best known for her roles in musical theater and has won two Tonys (The Rink; Kiss of the Spiderwoman). She's also been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is the first Hispanic woman ever to receive the Kennedy Center Honor. Rivera was a trained ballerina when she was cast for a chorus part in Call Me Madam; but it was her performance in West Side Story that made her a star. The Broadway legend also appeared as Velma Kelly in the original cast of Chicago. Still going strong, she recently celebrated her 81st birthday and is touring with her show, "Chita: A Legendary Celebration."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Chita Rivera has been performing for six decades now, turning in outstanding performances in such hit Broadway shows as “West Side Story,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” and “Sweet Charity,” so many.

Over the years she’s earned nine Tony award nominations and won as best actress in a musical twice. Her 81st birthday – stay right there, Jonathan, on that face. (Laughter)

Because nobody believes this. I don’t believe it. Her 81st birthday was just last week, so happy belated birthday.

Chita Rivera: Thank you.

Tavis: She’s celebrating with a tour of a one-woman show which is currently here in Los Angeles.

Rivera: Right.

Tavis: Called, appropriately enough, “Chita: A Legendary Celebration.” Let’s take a look.

[Film clip of Chita Rivera's one-woman show]

Tavis: (Laughter) Let me just start with the obvious. What is the secret to staying in this good a shape?

Rivera: Prayer, Tavis. (Laughter) Prayer.

Tavis: I’m praying every day and I need more than prayer, so there’s got to be more to it than just prayer. You must have a serious regimen.

Rivera: I have a blessed life. I really do. I have a great family, a great daughter, I love life, I love living, I love people. I love all the blessings that God’s given me. I appreciate it and I work at it, and it’s all worked.

I love to, the spirit of dance is an amazing thing. When the body and the spirit meet, it’s a good thing.

Tavis: I want to, in the time I have, cover as much ground as I can, which, when a life has been this well lived it’s impossible to do justice to it in a 30-minute conversation.

But take me all the way back to the beginning. When did you know that this was your gift, your calling?

Rivera: I was a tomboy, and I used to break up the furniture at the house, and I was one of five, and in Washington, D.C. My mother said, “We got to straighten this kid out.”

So she put focus into my life, and there was a school – I owe everything to Doris Jones, who was my ballet teacher, and from Doris Jones, Louis Johnson and I, who was, Louis was the first Black ballet dancer in the New York City Ballet, and so we won scholarships to – because Ms. Jones was Black, from Boston.

She was just the most – she was like my second mother, and she was just the best teacher in the world. So she directed us to New York City, and New York City Ballet.

So that’s how it got started. I won an audition to “Call Me Madam,” called and asked Ms. Jones what she thought about it and asked my mother, and they said it’s okay.

So I veered from ballet to the theater. I’ve really appreciated so much of it, and I’ve been so busy. It’s important that the kids stay busy. It’s important that they have something to focus on, and something that they feel good about.

So I really attempted to be, to enjoy my own life, but to be able to be some sort of guide, some sort of example, so that the kids know that they can do it. If somebody can do it, they can do it.

So I’m backed up with lots of good stuff. Good teachers, good friends, good angels, all sorts of good stuff.

Tavis: Before I jump too fast, say a word to me if you will about what the challenges were, or to the contrary, what the joys were of being people of color doing this back then. Your teacher’s Black.

Rivera: Right

Tavis: Your partner, your dance partner’s Black.

Rivera: Right

Tavis: You’re Latina. What was it like in that moment?

Rivera: Well, when I won the scholarship, Ms. Jones went with me. I’ll never forget her saying – we’re walking through the halls of the School of American Ballet, and I’m looking around and I’m seeing all of these beautiful, tall, thin, blonde, blue-eyed girls.

I’m saying to her, “Ms. Jones, I feel a little funny around here.” She looked right in my eyes and said, “Chita, you stick to your lane. You just do what you do. You don’t look left, you don’t look right. You look straight ahead, and you just be you. Be the child that I brought up.”

That just stuck in my mind: Stick to your lane. Don’t look this way or that way. It gave me some identity. It gave me some identity. So I really never felt any tremendous aggravation or separation. I just went on with my work, Tavis, and I didn’t put anything else in my head.

I remember people saying, “I thought she’d have an accent,” stuff like that, but I just let it go off, because somehow along the line Ms. Jones had told me to just stick to what I am and to what I do.

Tavis: But it seems to me that certainly back then it’s easier to accomplish what you have done if there’s somebody to look up to, if there’s some role model.

Rivera: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Tavis: In so many ways, you’re the pioneer here.

Rivera: That’s lovely, thank you.

Tavis: I’m not being – it’s a fact. I’m just trying to figure out how it is that you managed to do that without having a lot of people around you who did, in fact, look like you, to give you some sense that – you know, who you are.

Rivera: Yeah, well, my neighborhood was a great neighborhood; it was filled with all sorts of ethnic groups and things. So I grew up thinking I was a human being.

We did this at home and we ate our rice and beans and we did all – it wasn’t until later that I went to Puerto Rico and saw that there was an island there full of us. But I was a part of the world. Ms. Jones taught me that I was a part of the world.

That’s about it. I sound very naïve sometimes, but I do believe that separation can be a bit damaging at times. To be happy about yourself and your culture and all of that is necessary and fulfilling, but the whole tapestry is what’s important.

Tavis: See, I’m fascinated by that, Chita, in part because I think that part – I’m on my soapbox for just 30 seconds.

Rivera: That’s cool.

Tavis: I think part of what troubles me about the world we live in today is that a message as basic and rudimentary and fundamental as “you are a human being and nothing in the world ought to be foreign to you,” that message, I think, so often does not get told you, and for whatever reason doesn’t resonate to poor Black and Brown children.

Rivera: I know, yeah. I know. Well, like you said before, they have to have someone to look up to. They’ve got to have their time filled with something that they really want.

They have to have the opportunity. If it hadn’t been for Ms. Jones, I don’t know what would have happened to me in D.C. So a world was opened up to me. So that’s why I feel very responsible now. I still go around and do my show, now I’m talking about not just cultures, but age.

Now I’m talking about age, that you – what is a number? A number is only a number. It’s how you feel and what you still want to translate. It’s all about communication. It’s all about sharing who you are. I know I sound naïve, Tavis, but I’m -

Tavis: Not to me you don’t.

Rivera: I’m really not, but I am young in my energy because I really still believe that we can share who we are, and we can wipe off on each other. I see this huge tapestry when we’re born, and this red blob that’s your soul or your heart.

Then your life is your painting by the end of it, and mine is just all colors. Mine’s everything. I’m bugged because I can’t believe I can’t speak every language there is. But I feel I can when I sit and am with somebody, and I can dance for them. Because dance is dialogue without language, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Mm-hmm. (Laughter)

Rivera: I want to make sense on the “Tavis Smiley Show.” I seriously want to make sense on this show. (Laughter) I do not want to be a fool on this show.

Tavis: Trust me, I’m guilty sometimes of not making sense on my own show.

Rivera: No, you are not. You are the best.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you. But I love that, the way you phrase that, that dance is a way to communicate -

Rivera: Totally.

Tavis: – beyond language barriers.

Rivera: Way, way beyond it.

Tavis: Was there ever, has there ever been a moment in this long-running career, this 60 years, where you thought about doing something else? Because there have been a lot of ups, but there are also down periods. There are dry periods, dry spells. Did you ever think about doing anything else?

Rivera: Not really. I had thought about kids. I always – I love kids. I only had one, have one. But basically, no, and basically, never anything beyond the theater. I love life. I love the live theater.

Tavis: That was my next question. Let me jump in right quick. With all the talent and all of the gift that’s present in this body of yours, why this extreme love for theater, so much so that you haven’t even really tried so much to branch out beyond it?

Rivera: Well, I really do believe that you’ve got to work hard at one thing first. If it takes you other places, then you work hard at those other things too. But you’ve got to – I love the theater because the theater is alive. The audience is right there.

You can feel them, you can hear them, you can – they respond immediately. It’s like taking a plug, putting it in the wall, and the lights come on and there they are. It changes. Some people say, “How can you be in the theater and stay in a show for a year when it’s the same thing, same words?”

No, it’s not. The audience is different, you wake up the next morning, you feel different. The words come out just a little bit different. It’s a different breath every day. Every day is a different thing, so I like that challenge. It’s enough for me.

Tavis: See, we live in a world now where everybody is encouraged to “multitask,” to do as many things as you can, no matter how unwell you do them.

Rivera: No, that’s exactly – that’s exactly right. (Laughter) That’s why I said this very moment – I can’t believe I’m looking at you, because I have so much respect for you, and I watch the show all the time.

I learn so much from the show and your guests, and I don’t want to waste this time. I really want to be with Tavis, and I want – really am enjoying the conversation with you.

It’s seriously a blessing that I’m sitting here. You know what I mean? So it’s – no, that’s a very serious thing with me.

Tavis: I take that, I receive that in the way you offer it.

Rivera: Okay.

Tavis: And I feel the same way. We’ve been excited for days that you were coming on this program. I love learning from legends, and I think we use the word “icon” much too loosely today.

But I love the back story of people who’ve made the kind of contributions, particularly against all the odds, that people of color oftentimes face. But you used a word a moment ago that really got my attention when you said that you feel blessed to sit here.

How much of this is – and I’m not trying to get you to proselytize here, go somewhere you don’t want to go -

Rivera: Yeah.

Tavis: – but how much of this, you think, beyond your gift, beyond your talent, beyond your hard work, is a blessing?

Rivera: I think all of it is.

Tavis: Yeah.

Rivera: I think absolutely all of it is. I could not do it; I could not do it without the help of the universe, the help of God, of my beliefs. I never feel as though I’m ever, ever alone. I sometimes don’t even think it’s me. You know what I’m saying?

Tavis: Absolutely.

Rivera: When I sat there and I’m looking at President Obama and I’m going, “What am I doing here? How did this happen?” Somebody got me here, and I just want to be ready all the time, you know what I mean? I just want to be ready so if somebody calls me I’ll go, “Here.”

Tavis: See, my granddad said all the time – which you are a perfect example of, a quintessential example of – my granddad said, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.”

Rivera: Hello.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Rivera: Hello. That’s -

Tavis: That’s who you are. If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.

Rivera: That is going to come out of my mouth from now on.

Tavis: You can have it, it’s all yours.

Rivera: Okay.

Tavis: Jonathan, zoom in on her left shoulder. You mentioned President Obama, and that is a gorgeous piece of jewelry there. Might you explain what that is?

Rivera: (Laughs) I am so proud of this. It’s the Medal of Freedom.

I don’t know how it happened, I just – I was born, Ms. Jones, my mother, my family, I did my thing, I was on time, I was ready, like your grandfather said. (Laughter)

Then I get a call, and I go, “What? Me?” Then, when I met him, both of them, it just blew me away. I must say I did laugh, because I had said to him at the inaugural dance that they had, and she looked so beautiful.

He was dancing, and I looked and I went, “He’s dancing just like the guys did in high school.” (Laughter) “I remember that hand down here, and I remember that little bop. Uh-oh.” It was like “Dunbar,” “Lois & Dunbar,” if you’ve seen it.

Tavis: Absolutely. (Laughter)

Rivera: So I told him, I told him, and we had a big laugh about it, and Michelle leaned over and said, “And that’s the only step he’s got.” (Laughter) Which I do not believe. I do not believe.

Tavis: Well, if you don’t know but one thing, just do your one thing. Stay right in there.

Rivera: That’s all.

Tavis: Just stay right in gear, yeah.

Rivera: Stay right in that groove.

Tavis: There you go. (Laughter)

Rivera: But when I was sitting there with all of these amazing people, and Sidney Poitier was there, and I’ve known him for so many years, and I just adore him.

I looked over, and I make jokes out of things a lot of times, to make myself feel comfortable with them, because I really just feel like just a gal that was born in D.C., do you know what I mean, who loves to dance, and can dance.

I make the joke of there was a Marine over there, and I said, “Oh, dear God, don’t let him look over and say, ‘Pst, Ms. Rivera, we made a mistake, could you come over?’”

Tavis: “This way,” yeah. (Laughter)

Rivera: “Would you just come this way?”

Tavis: No, there was no mistake, yeah.

Rivera: But then when he said, Tavis, when he put it, the big one around my neck, he said that the entire group of people were chosen because they had given their lives and their energy, dedicating to being an example, working very hard, wanting nothing else except to be an example and to do the best they can in what they do.

I suddenly thought, hey, okay, I fit that. I fit that. I’ll take it. So I felt much more comfortable when it was defined to me. But it still, I still had my little angels pushing me.

Tavis: It’s a little lofty.

Rivera: Yeah.

Tavis: But you’ve earned it, though. When you look back at these various characters that you first played, what do you make of that list?

Rivera: It blows me away.

Tavis: It’s a sick rundown.

Rivera: Yeah, it is.

Tavis: Any one of those -

Rivera: Yeah, no, that’s true. That’s absolutely true, and I’m beginning to be a big more comfortable, because I’m really acknowledging them now. Because it’s a lot of them.

I did come along at a great time. They call it the Golden Age, where every single theater was filled with a hit. I came along. I’m paying for it now because I’m (clears throat) years old, but (laughter) I give a lot of the credit to the fact that I did come along at that time, when the Bernsteins and the Sondheims and the Robbins and the Kander and Ebbs and the Cy Colemans and all of these amazing people created all of these things.

I was, as your grandfather said, I was ready, and I was chosen. I was chosen. So I give myself credit for continuing and doing the best of my ability to help make these shows hits, but they created them.

They created them. They made them happen, and I was there to receive it. So it’s a mixture of all of it. Life is a mixture of all of it.

Tavis: I’m glad that you chose the theater and that you stuck with it and you’ve blessed us in numerable ways with this artistic genius of yours. Yet the flip side of all that is, and any artist on Broadway watching will say “Amen” to this; I can hear it now.

You don’t get rich, necessarily, by staying in the theater. I just had Angela Lansbury here not long ago.

Rivera: Ah.

Tavis: She was very clear: The only reason, the primary reason she took “Murder, She Wrote,” was at some point in her life she needed to make some money.

Rivera: Yeah. I wish I had had that, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. So I’m just – I love your devotion to the theater.

Rivera: I’ve got (unintelligible).

Tavis: You’re not homeless, thank God, but that’s a lot of money to leave on the table.

Rivera: It is, but what you don’t have, you don’t miss. What you’ve got, you cherish. You cherish. You keep giving it your very, very best, because that responsibility, you have a responsibility to yourself, also.

You want to feel good when you go to bed at night. You want to feel good about yourself. When some kid walks up to you and says, “I want to dance because I love the way you dance, and I want to.”

Or “I had become a dancer because of,” whatever in the business. That makes you feel good, because every single person is valuable. A full – 12 people in a theater are as important as a full house.

Tavis: I love that. Tell me about this one-woman show that we saw a clip of at the top of this conversation.

Rivera: Well, it’s a lot – it’s stories from the shows that I’ve done, and they’re wonderful stories because they involve wonderful people, unbelievably creative people who have gotten me where I am.

It’s a lot of fun. I love to laugh, I love the joy of life, and I love sharing it. I move – and I kind of liked that. I never like the way I look. I don’t. I never look at myself.

Tavis: You look good to me. (Laughter)

Rivera: But I liked that. I’m like, “Okay, the hat looks good.”

Tavis: The red dress looked hot.

Rivera: The dress looks good. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Rivera: You said you liked my shoes.

Tavis: I love the shoes, yeah.

Rivera: So that made me happy. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m just impressed that you do that in heels at 81. (Laughter) I’m just completely blown away by that.

Rivera: You keep saying that number.

Tavis: You know why? Because I’m trying to talk myself into believing it, because I just – I’m looking at you and I just don’t believe it. That’s why I keep saying it.

So a little birdie – I got a minute and a half to go. A little birdie told me that you’re going to reprise something this summer, is that true?

Rivera: Absolutely. There’s a wonderful musical called “The Visit.” It’s a play, a Durrenmatt play, and it was done many years ago by the Lunts, and Fred Ebb and John Kander, was one of their last pieces that they wrote together before Freddie died.

It’s an extraordinary piece. It’s very European. It’s not – I love “Mary Poppins,” but it is not – it is a serious love story. Some people think it’s about revenge; I think it’s about love and passion.

We’re going to do it in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It’ll be our third time. I pray it’s third time lucky. But it’s an extraordinary piece of theater, and nobody does theater the way that Americans do theater. I think we need it today.

Tavis: Williamsburg, Massachusetts, I think that was a little shout-out for y’all tonight. That might be an exclusive, so I’m not sure if the local paper has even written about that, but Chita Rivera’s coming to town, so get your tickets (laughter) as fast as you can.

If you go to our website, Tavis Smiley – PBS.org/tavissmiley, you can get the scoop on where you might luck up and see Chita Rivera at this one-woman show for the dates that remain, and maybe even get some information about this “Visit” reprisal coming this summer.

Can I just say this has been one of the great joys of my life, to sit here with you for this time?

Rivera: Oh, Tavis, you, I told you, I’m – it’s another thing for Chita.

Tavis: Yeah, well -

Rivera: To sit here with you.

Tavis: It ain’t no Presidential Medal of Freedom, but we love you anyway.

Rivera: You just stay well and just stay who you are, because we need you, Tavis.

Tavis: When I get to be where you are, at (makes noise) years of age, I hope I have half the spunk that you have. (Laughter)

Rivera: Oh, you will.

Tavis: Just half.

Rivera: Just look at that wall out there with all those people that you know.

Tavis: Which you’re about to be on now.

Rivera: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah, we’re going to put you -

Rivera: Yes.

Tavis: Chita Rivera has just made the wall at “Tavis Smiley” in the hallway. (Laughter) So yeah, Van, get the picture ready. Put Chita on the wall. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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  • Norma Padro

    I like the article very much. They left one part out. She’s not just a Hispanic. A Hispanic can be from anywhere in the world. She’s part Puerto Rican. Which is very beautiful, because where I grew up which is New York City I was always taught that not all of us were worthy of anything. I’m glad to hear that there are people like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. These people are opening doors for all us Puerto Ricans. I’m very happy to say that I’m from Puerto Rico.

  • Frank

    I have even more respect for Chita Rivera after watching this interview. I only saw her larger than life billboards and television clips in New York of her looking glamourous and sophisticated. I thought that she was a big shot broadway diva. I knew she was talented, but didn’t think she was so down to earth, humble and spiritual. Her warmth, wisdom and sincerity exuded through this interview. I can see why she is loved and has a long endearing career–good karma from a good person.

    God bless you Chita! I respect you even more.

Last modified: January 29, 2014 at 9:22 pm