Rita Moreno opens third season of the New Jersey Speakers Series

rita1Above: Renowned actress, Rita Moreno kicked off the 2016-2017 season of FDU's New Jersey Speaker Series on October 6. (Photos by Michael Paras) 


By Andrew McKay

Fairleigh Dickinson University President Christopher Capuano officially opened the third season of the New Jersey Speakers Series at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Thursday, October 6. “Those who have been with us the last two years know well the incredible lineup we have presented, including people like Madeleine Albright, Steve Wozniak, Ken Burns and Leon Panetta, just to name a few,” he said. “This year, we have another group of superb speakers who will entertain and enlighten us, beginning of course with tonight’s guest, Rita Moreno.”

Capuano said that the Speakers Series builds on the University’s mission to prepare world citizens who are engaged with important issues. “We are known for transforming lives. We do that in many ways, including through programs like this, where we hear from those who have not only transformed their lives but who have changed their world.”

He said that the University takes “special pride in offering programs that enrich the cultural and intellectual life of our community — and that may indeed continue to transform lives.”

rita3Above: Rita Moreno with FDU President Christopher A. Capuano; Cynthia Thole Loewus, assistant professor of dance and musical theater; and Florham Campus student, Pamela Shapiro.  


Rita Moreno, the featured speaker of the evening, is one of only 12 actors who have won all four major awards — an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for portraying Anita in the film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Recently, Moreno was presented with the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Moreno took the audience on the journey of her life, beginning with her family’s immigration from Puerto Rico to New York City. Struggling to survive on the city streets she frequently found herself the target of racial hatred. “I was living a reverse Wizard of Oz,” she said. At night, she would climb the fire-escape to the roof-top of her tenement building and dream. “My greatest longing,” she said, “my dream, was to be in show business.” She credited her mother with giving her “a spirit that would not quit.”

ritaccAbove: Christopher A. Capuano, president of FDU, opens the the evening and the third season of the New Jersey Speaker Series.


She shared stories from when she was a teen on the vaudeville circuit, a time of her life she described as tough and lonely, to being introduced by a talent scout to Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, when she was 17. She said her greatest joy was to visit movie sets and watch Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and others in action.

Moreno said she was painfully aware that minority actresses of the time were portrayed in movies as “ignorant, passive, illiterate and morally bankrupt.” Her role as Anita in “West Side Story” became her personal mission. “I had never been given a role of a woman who stood up for herself,” she said. “Her suffering was my suffering.”  The role altered the trajectory of her life and career forever. Playing Anita, Moreno said she learned that “I could be a person of strength. I could choose what was best for me.”