Guest Diary

LIZ SMITH: Lunching With Chita Rivera

Legendary Tony-nominee Chita Rivera, star of “The Visit,” at a luncheon at the Four Seasons held in her honor.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
by Liz Smith

Lunching With Chita Rivera and a Glittering Batch of Other Broadway Legends!

“WHOO-Hoo, gypsies!”

That was one of the more amusing parts of a letter from Rita Moreno to Chita Rivera, read by Edgar Bronfman Jr. at the big Four Seasons luncheon for legendary Tony-nominee Chita, star of “The Visit.”

Bronfman, said, before he read Rita’s letter, “I don’t think I can do this justice. I’m the wrong person to read it. I’m just not a performer!” He did fine.
Liz Smith, Chita Rivera, and Edgar Bronfman Jr. (© David Gordon)
Edgar and I were co-hosts of the lunch, and it was one of those gatherings that if an earthquake brought down the building, a great many of Broadway’s legends would have perished. I do mean such as Tommy Tune ... Bernadette Peters ... Tyne Daly ... Ben Vereen ... Tovah Feldshuh ... Mary Beth Peil ... Joel Grey ... Terrence McNally (He wrote the book for “The Visit”) and flocks of Tony-nominated actors — Max Von Essen, Brad Oscar, Victoria Clarke, Ruthie Ann Miles, Andy Karl, etc. Along with distinguished types such as producer Jean Doumanian ... Fran Weissler ... Daryl Roth ... Judith Ann Abrams.
Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth, Victoria Clark, and Mary Beth Peil.
Chita with Ben Vereen.
Tovah Feldshuh and Bernadette Peters.
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Clarrisa Bronfman, and Terrence McNally.
Laura Osnes, Conrad Ricamora, Harriet Harris, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Victoria Clark.
Laura Michelle Kelly and Max von Essen.
Sydney Lucas and Montego Glover.
John Riddle, Chris Newcomer, and George Abud.
Orfeh and Andy Karl.
Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles.
Orfeh and Daryl Roth.
Everybody, including the grand star herself, in exotic summer black, looked remarkably crisp, despite the sweltering 85 degree weather. Still, the bubbling pool of water in the center of the room tempted many.

Chita was adorable and modest when it came time for her to make a few remarks. She was more than a bit taken aback when the entire room stood for her. “Sit down and eat!” she said. Her desire had been “only to dance and to be in shows. All this — lovely lunches with famous people. I never imagined or even hoped for such things.”
I made a few remarks myself, recalling the first time I met Chita back in 1951, introduced to me by Elaine Stritch, when they were both in a touring company of “Call Me Madam.”

Elaine knew talent when she saw it!
I said: “I think it killed Elaine to really acknowledge another talent — other than her own. But Chita was just too talented even for Elaine to ignore!” And Chita was just a cute kid at the time.

But here’s something I didn’t say. I knew there were a few other Tony-nominated actresses on the premises and I didn’t want to offend them. But I truly believe Chita deserves the Tony. Not simply because of her performance, which has everything. But “The Visit” simply wouldn’t exist without her.

Her commitment to the show — which was many years in finally arriving on Broadway — and because she literally carries the production on her tiny shoulders. “The Visit” is a theatrical event made splendid by Chita. The Kander & Ebb music will not be remembered as their earlier works were, but the music takes the curse off a depressing work. It has to rely on star power and talent; it can only come to life with a big star who can make the most of material that in other hands might fall into parody or camp. Chita never does. “The Visit” is real theater, thanks to the one, the only, the incomparable Miss Rivera.

Chita and “The Visit” will visit London, where I feel certain she will be as acclaimed over there as she has been here. Maybe even more so!
Chita's "The Visit" cast members David Garrison, George Abud, Matt Dengler, John Riddle, and Chris Newcomer.
LUNCHEON TIDBITS: Tommy Tune, tan and tall and eternally youthful, will host and perform in the coming Ford’s Theater Annual Gala. He left the lunch, wearing his trademark red shoes and a handsome shirt with red buttons, to rehearse his number. (He'll do "Little Jazz Bird"  from "Lady Be Good.") Tommy lives to work. Although he did travel to India recently, and says he “found himself.”
Tommy Tune, Brad Oscar, and Harriet Harris.
He asked if I’d ever been to India. I said yes, once! Tommy said: “Did you get sick?” No I didn’t. “Well, then, you obviously didn’t go to the real India. Because everybody gets sick there!” I had to admit I’d seen New Delhi via the Raj Hotel. I also admit I didn’t care for the dirt, poverty and people holding their infants for sale outside your car window.

Tommy laughed: “The Raj! My goodness. One night there would be the price of my plane ticket!”

... Observing Bernadette Peters that day, I can only assume somewhere she’s keeping a portrait in her attic, or is draining the blood of virgins. Skin, hair, figure — remarkable! She looks like she looked when she first burst to fame in “Dames at Sea.”
Bernadette Peters, Ben Vereen, Bebe Neuwirth, and Joel Grey.
I also observed the beautiful dancers John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla who play the younger versions of Chita and Roger Rees’s characters in “The Visit.” They were even more beautiful up close. And I saw them pretty close at the Lyceum Theater. They are charming as well as incredibly attractive. So romantic onstage!

Actress Beth Malone, who is Tony-nominated for “Fun Home,” says she hasn’t even thought about a possible acceptance speech. She was urged to begin thinking about it instantly. “Nobody wants to hear the winner say, ‘I have nothing prepared!’”
John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla. Beth Malone.
Producer Jean Doumanian, who has all her fingers in many pies, was told, “You look like a lady of leisure.”

Jean Doumanian with Tommy.
Jean replied: “I’m sure you mean that as a compliment. But if I was ever to become a lady of leisure, I’d kill myself!”

Isabel and Ruben Toledo were also there. She is an award-winning designer. He is a famous artist. (They have collaborated on her fashion designs.) She looks like a sultry cross between Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell.

The Cuban-born Isabel was mighty pleased when told of this resemblance. She was wearing one of her own creations, a white and black shirtwaist dress “from three seasons ago.” Well, it’s one of those things that will look great three seasons from now.

(At one point, the Toledos and other tablemates entered into a deep conversation about the moustaches and excessive facial hair of famous female movie stars, as well as the perils of over-tweezing one’s eyebrows. Everybody seemed to know the famous tale of Lana Turner — she had to have her eyebrows shaved off for an early movie role and they never grew back!)
Joel Grey with Isabel and Ruben Toledo.
Tyne Daly, the star of the rowdy “It Shoulda Been You,” looking just great in aquamarine, told me quite passionately that “Women who try to do what men do, just get killed for it. They get all the shit.” True. And that’s why we have to keep doing what men do. This was prompted when I jokingly reminded Tyne that she’d been killed in “The Enforcer,” one of the early Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” movies (she played his partner.) “Guns! Guns and men spell ‘killed’ for women!”

Oh, and Joel Grey chatting with Tommy Tune said that he’d just come across an old photo of the two of them, on a beach, in matching striped bathing suits. “We were so cute!” said Joel. Guys, you still are!
Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Ben Vereen, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, and Tyne Daly.
THROWBACK THURSDAY: In the aftermath of Memorial Day, I am reminded of what it felt like to welcome my fiancé Capt. Edward Beeman, back home, alive and well!

Photographs by Timmy Blupe.

Contact Liz Smith here.