How Rita Moreno is using awards like an upcoming public television award to further her philanthropy

NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Rita Moreno says it was always in her nature to be generous — holding doors open for people and helping lighten a mother's burden as she struggled with shopping bags and children.

But Moreno, still the only Latina EGOT — winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — in history, says it took an especially outspoken roommate to teach her the importance of politics and philanthropy.

“She just indoctrinated me in the joys of being generous and helping people, really helping people,” Moreno told The Associated Press. “After that I learned to do it in a bigger way.”

After her Oscar win for “West Side Story,” Moreno participated in the “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations against nuclear testing. In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington and was close to Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke she saw gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urging him, “Tell him about the dream, Martin,” prompting him to ad lib his most famous speech. For decades, she has fought against the racism and sexism she has experienced in the entertainment industry – for herself and for those who have followed in her footsteps.

For her groundbreaking career and philanthropic achievements, Moreno will be honored Tuesday evening at the WNET Group 2024 Gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York City. By accepting the honor at the fundraiser for America's flagship PBS station and its associated public television networks and NPR stations, Moreno can also support the kind of artistic programming she has supported for decades.

It's a philanthropic strategy Moreno has long used. That's why she served on President Bill Clinton's National Council on the Arts and President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. And that's why she's lent her name to the Rita Moreno Arts Building, which will house a theater for the Entertainment Community Fund in Los Angeles.

“When I'm asked to be part of something like this, I'm always amazed,” Moreno said, adding that she “couldn't be prouder” to be honored by public television because it has been such an important part of her life and career.

Moreno spent six seasons on PBS's “The Electric Company,” teaching young people, and not-so-young people, to read. The show, which also featured Morgan Freeman and Skip Hinnant, meant so much to her that she continued to work on it even while working full-time on Broadway. It was during her stint with “Electric Company” that she won a Tony for her role as Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally's play “The Ritz” in 1975.

“It wasn't easy,” Moreno said. “We worked really hard on ('The Electric Company') and did a lot of trick photography. But I enjoyed working on it. I've always loved being funny, so it gave me a great outlet for my sense of humor. I like ridiculous humor.”

But Moreno's work on 'The Electric Company' also had a serious impact. She saw that it helped her daughter Fernanda, who was five when the show started, with reading. And for generations of Latino youth, Moreno was the first person they saw on TV who looked like them.

When Moreno was feted by the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, actress Gina Rodriguez paid tribute to her, saying, “When you followed your dreams, Rita, you gave me permission to follow mine.”

Neal Shapiro, CEO of WNET Group and former president of NBC News, called Moreno “the ideal choice” for the honor.

“We love her,” he said. “We love her for the artist she is and the great work she has brought to the American public. And we have a special relationship with her because of the work we've done on previous issues and she's been on some of our shows like 'The Electric Company.'

Shapiro said Moreno's work, especially on Broadway, is the kind of groundbreaking excellence in the arts that PBS wants to bring to the entire country, not just to those who happen to encounter her in New York.

“And the way she has approached her career, she is very concerned about representation and making sure that all voices are represented,” he added.

The gala honoring Moreno will also serve as a kickoff of sorts for the nonprofit's new Broadway and Beyond initiative, which will assemble new theater programs on air and online in May and June.

For Moreno, the gala is a rare break in another busy period in her career. At the age of 92, she was heavily involved in the recent film 'The Prank', in which she even cut off the bangs of her wig herself so she would look meaner for the role. This summer she starts working with Harvey Keitel in the new horror film 'Theirs'.

And meeting all the people she inspired would be a full-time job in itself. Moreno laughs about meeting rocker Lenny Kravitz at the Vanity Fair after-Oscars party earlier this year.

“He was standing all alone at a bar or something and I said, 'Hi, I'm Rita Moreno,'” she said. “And before I could say 'no,' he was on his knees on the ground saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God'… and it was because of me.

“I kept looking at my daughter and saying, 'What is this?'” Moreno continued. 'And that was because he is a great admirer. What do you think of that?”

_____

Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits is supported by the AP's partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP's philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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