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      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      Rita Moreno Lifts the Curtain on Her Life Story

      Philadelphia Speakers Series

      Pictured from left to right, freshman Hannah Guth and junior Sophia Hastings, both gender and women’s studies and social work majors, pose with actress, dancer and singer Rita Moreno and Dr. Beatriz Urraca, director of gender and women’s studies and associate professor of Spanish, at the Philadelphia Speakers Series presented by Widener.

      Hollywood is known for its dazzling lights, glitz and glamour. But behind the curtain, true life often reveals itself to be less radiant, which Puerto Rican-American actress, dancer and singer Rita Moreno discovered at a young age. At just 5 years old, she left behind the comforts of her vibrant and colorful life –and also her younger brother, Francisco – in Puerto Rico to travel with her mother to the United States. They sought opportunity and prosperity. Despite the humor she found in the Statue of Liberty, which she said was "holding the largest ice cream cone I've ever seen," she described those first days in America to the Nov. 21 Philadelphia Speakers Series audience as colorless and full of discrimination.

      Sharing a four-bedroom apartment with three other immigrant families, she would spend the evenings on the fire escape where the lights of the city and the stars in the sky would inspire her to dream of a life more fulfilling. Her first big shot at that life came at the age of 17 when she met Louis B. Mayer, one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Reminding him of a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor, he instantly signed Moreno to a seven-year contract. With that contract would come fame and the thrill of being on studio lots with the likes of Marlon Brando, Clark Gable and other famous performers of that era. However, despite achieving her dream, she found the career to be unfulfilling as she was typecast into roles of young, minority women who were ignorant, morally bankrupt and illiterate. Just three years into that seven-year contract, she was let go.

      With her true grit and determination, she continued to find new roles for herself in Hollywood. Most notably, at the age of 28, she was cast in "West Side Story" as Anita, a woman who had self-respect and dignity. Through her portrayal of Anita, Moreno felt – for the first time – that she made a difference through her career. She won an Academy Award for her efforts. While other roles and true Hollywood love affairs with the likes of Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley would follow, it wasn't until she married cardiologist Leonard Gordon and experienced the birth of her daughter, Fernanda Luisa, that she felt complete.

      With a career spanning more than seven decades, it's no wonder Moreno is one of only eight living performers who can tout winning all of the entertainment industry's highest honors: The Oscar, The Emmy, The Tony and The Grammy. And, with a new series, "One Day at a Time," ready to debut on Netflix Jan. 6, her best days may still be yet to come.

      The next speaker in the Philadelphia Speakers Series presented by Widener is another Hollywood legend. Comedic actor John Cleese, co-founder of Monty Python, will appear Jan. 16.


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