When I was growing up, two programs that were watched regularly and influenced my young brain quite a bit, were The Electric Company and The Muppet Show. You can imagine, then, how excited I was to be part of the committee honoring the legendary entertainer, Rita Moreno – who starred in the cast of the former; and won her first Primetime Emmy for her appearance on the latter – as “2019 Woman of the Year” at Nevada Ballet Theatre’s annual Black & White Ball.
Now, in addition to yelling the iconic “Hey, You Guys!” that began nearly every episode, Moreno had a number of signature characters that she portrayed throughout The Electric Company’s six-season rum, and one of my favorites was Otto the Director. While named for Otto Preminger, Moreno would play Otto – a highly-wound auteur whose actors continuously flub their lines – as a caricature of director Erich von Stroheim, right down to the obsessive perfectionism and the jodhpurs, to which she added a riding crop.
Fast forward to this past Thanksgiving, and while writing an article to promote Moreno’s honorific, I came across a publicity photo from The Electric Company, of Rita Moreno, in character as Otto the Director; and in that photo, she was biting a riding crop.
So, back to the afternoon of the gala. I was putting on my cufflinks when it occurred to me that I was in possession of a riding crop, and - upon retrieving it from the umbrella stand in which it is kept (where do you keep yours?) - texted NBT’s head of publicity, Jenn Kratochwill, asking if I could bring a prop for Rita. Receiving her answer in the affirmative, I returned to accessorizing, leaving the riding crop on my bed. With my two dogs. Which was just stupid, of me.
Now, finding myself festively attired, but with a mangled prop (covered in more than a bit of doggie-drool), I decided to swing by Walgreens to see if they had any black electrical tape with which I would perform a surgical reparation, on my way to the ball. This, of course, necessitated strolling through Walgreens in the late afternoon, dressed in an embroidered black velvet Nehru-collared dinner jacket, a stunning Victor Velyan necklace of tumbled black tourmaline, some cocktail rings, and velvet evening shoes; the soles of which hadn’t really been broken-in, yet, giving the added bonus of making me slip every few feet, if I wasn’t paying attention. As you might imagine, I caused a teensy stir; so, I got my tape and got out of there, as quickly as I was able (without slipping).
My riding crop restored, I raced down to Aria Las Vegas, where I was a few minutes late for the Shops at Crystals-sponsored VIP Reception that preceded the pre-dinner cocktail reception and silent auction. Once inside the Primrose Terrace, I found Jenn, who was busy coordinating things. “Uh, maybe I should have asked what prop you were bringing?” Jenn asked, with a raised brow. Fortunately, I had Rita’s Otto photo on my iPhone, and I showed it to Jenn, who immediately got it, shrugged and chuckled and said “Why not? Let’s go and introduce you to Rita!”
So, I went and was reintroduced to Moreno (we'd been introduced and photographed together, in 2014, when she came to town to perform in honor of Gloria and Emilio Estefan at the 18th annual Power of Love™ gala benefiting Keep Memory Alive), with whom I was able to chat in the corner, for a few minutes. After talking about her mesmerizing performance (singing a sultry rendition of Miami Sound Machine's "Conga," in black leather pants and a black lace bra, mind you), and about how she’d just been with the Estefans, in Miami, I looked her in the eye and said “I'll bet you’re wondering why I’m holding a riding crop.” She nodded.
So, I explained that being a middle-aged gay man, while I’m certainly a fan of West Side Story and The King & I, I actually became familiar with her because of The Muppet Show and The Electric Company. Then I pulled out my iPhone, and showed her the photo of her as Otto, and said “Do you think you could do “an Otto” with me, for the photographers?”
“You know,” she purred, eyes sparkling, holding my arm as we walked over to the step-and-repeat, “I named Otto." Then, my darling Denise Truscello took our photo; and that was the start to an utterly fantastic evening – one about which you can (and should) read more, next time.
Rita Moreno | 2019 Woman of the Year
Nevada Ballet Theatre | Black & White Ball
Aria Las Vegas | January 26th
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[Editor’s Note: Rita Moreno won the Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program” in 1977 for her appearance on The Muppet Show that included Moreno singing “Fever” while accompanied by Animal on the drums, in a performance that brilliantly managed to be both sophisticated and silly.]