Backstage with Ron Onesti:
A reigning queen of ALL entertainment
Another edition of “Cornerstones of Rock: American Garage” at The Arcada Theatre is over, and boy, what a night it was! This was the fifth production of this historic presentation, and fans still could not get enough.
This show featured those amazing garage rock pioneers from Chicago who kicked off a national sensation that helped 1950s-era rock ‘n’ roll make the transition to the harder edged rock of the Sixties.
“Hey You Guuuuuyyyys!” If you were a PBS television-watching child in the early 1970s, then you know what that all-too-familiar phrase sounded like — and what TV show was coming on next. Next to “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” the iconic classic TV program “The Electric Company” was right up there as a daily dose of “good” educational television.
Of course, we didn’t realize it was “educational” TV. The daily word games were just fun, and the songs and phonetic challenges were engaging. The pedigreed cast of Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers and more, was just another group of funny, exaggerated characters to us kids. Little did we know just how iconic so many cast members of this television show were going to become.
Fast forward to 2015. I am watching my favorite awards show, “The Kennedy Center Honors.” I was watching specifically because one of my all-time favorite vocalists was been honored, Carole King. But alongside Carole was another fellow Kennedy Center honor recipient that year, Rita Moreno. The voice of the “Hey You Guyssssss” character on “The Electric Company.”
I’ll admit, even after hearing her name so many times over the years on TV (all good, mind you), I never truly realized just how accomplished of an entertainer she is! After doing a bit of research, I was thoroughly amazed. She is one of only 12 individuals in the history of show business as we know it, to have achieved top honors in television, music, film and on Broadway. It is called an “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winner), a feat only achieved by 11 others.
Moreno was the third to do it, behind American composer Richard Rodgers and film legend Helen Hayes. While it took Hayes 45 years to accomplish the feat, Moreno held the record for quickest time, 16 years, until the most recent member joined the elite group. Songwriter Robert Lopez did it in record time for his work on Disney’s “Frozen” and Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon.” Other notable members of this exclusive society are Whoopi Goldberg, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Brooks.
So here is the top of Moreno’s score card, since there are a slew of other awards and milestones she has achieved over a 60-plus year career in showbiz: She won her first of two consecutive Emmys for a guest spot on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 (the following year she won one for an appearance on “The Rockford Files”). Her Oscar came in 1961 as Best Supporting Actress in “West Side Story,” followed by a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1972 for “The Electric Company” album. In 1975, Moreno nabbed a Tony playing Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally’s “The Ritz,” a role she reprised in the 1976 big-screen version.
She comes to The Arcada this Sunday, Feb. 26, for a musical retrospective of her storied career. After speaking with her briefly in preparation for her show (and at 85-years-young), I found her to be interesting, humble and full of her native Puerto Rican “spice!”
This behind-the-scenes evening will surely be a special one. I asked her for a “taste” of what we can expect on Sunday. She said: “Oh, I’ll do some songs, and tell some stories.” “Like what?” I asked. “Did you know I had an eight-year relationship with Marlon Brando?” she said. “I dated Elvis just to make him jealous! But Elvis wasn’t the best lover on the planet, that’s for sure.” Talk about spicy!
She is still as busy as ever, currently starring in the hit Netflix series reprise of Norman Lear’s “One Day At A Time.” She is definitely a star of the show, with comedic timing and presence that has been her signature throughout her entire career.
It is amazing to think about the careers of Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby and, of course, Rita Moreno, since their scrappy-looking days of “The Electric Company.” I think about the many roads they have all taken, the millions of lives they have all touched and the countless hours of sheer entertainment they have all provided. I have watched “Shawshank Redemption” with Freeman probably 20 times myself!
If there is something I can be thankful for, it is that I have lived a life enjoying the music and entertainment of the Sixties, Seventies and later. I have watched how television shows have become more real (what, a Jeannie or a good “witch” wife are not real?). In today’s day of politics, news and crazy reality shows, it is nice to hum “Conjunction Junction” to myself or watch an episode of “All In The Family” once in a while.
Rita Moreno appears at The Arcada Theatre Sunday, Feb. 26, at 3 p.m. Call (630) 962-7000 or visit www.oshows.com for tickets.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.