By ELLIOTT DENMAN
I am totally saddened to learn of the passing of the really-truly lithe-limber-lovely-luminous Ms. Chita Rivera, a star of all stars on Broadway, Hollywood, London stages and screens – and lots and lots more, over her seven-decade-plus career in limelights everywhere.
You may be saddened, too. We've lost one of the greatest of all.
One particulary pertinent reason for me to be writing all this is because we are both alumni of William Howard Taft HighSchool in the Bronx, New York City, that large edifice off the
Grand Concourse at 170-172 Street, about a mile from Yankee
She was as great at her art – singing, dancing, acting – as any of the
great Yankees were at theirs.
This line from Robert D. McFadden’s tribute in the Jan. 31 New York Times puts it this way: “To generations of musical aficionados, Ms. Rivera was a whirling, bounding, high-kicking, elemental force of the dance, a seductive singer of smoky ballads and sizzling jazz, and a propulsive actress of vaudevillian energy.” Wow!
But a further McFadden sentence was more powerful yet: “Critics thumbed thesauruses for hyperboles to rhapsodize about her pyrotechnics.” What a four-pronged supply of superlatives in a single sentence.
I never did know Chita Rivera in my Taft years…She was a year after me (I was class of 1950, graduating at 16 1/2; she was Taft ’51.)
I did get to write for the Taft newspaper – but just sports. I was that shy, very skinny little kid-manager of Coach Samuel Goldberg’s Taft track team, too. Kind of ironic, because William Howard Taft was the most obese president in American history. But also the only president to serve in another major office (chief justice of the supreme court) after his presidential term.
I actually ran just one race for the Taft track team. Taft had 11 willing candidates to run the mile relay the day of the dual meet with Cardinal Hayes. So I volunteered, dropped my manager’s clipboard, and got to anchor the C team that finished half a lap back.
The great Taft track star of the day was Merrill Kolbe – the big, lean and verrry fast, Bronx sprint champion and city champion we were sure would dash his way to Olympic stardom.
Didn’t happen, didn’t even come close. But a strange million-to-one turn of events did evolve.
That skinny team manager and C team mile relay anchor always did love walking. Fourteen mile hikes with the Boy Scouts. Long exploratory strolls around the boroughs on his own. Much fun.
Long and short of it, walking (50 klometers of it) became his ticket to
Melbourne 1956. But, far as he ever knew, no one at Taft ever noticed.
No problem, either. The former skinny team manager was the luckiest of all guys to get that far.
But Chita Rivera? Far-far-far-far different story. She had all that it took – “All That Jazz” - from Day One. The world of show biz soon took note.
She was Anita in “West Side Story,“ Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Velma in “Chicago.” She played the title role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
She belted out such classic tunes as “America” in “West Side Story,”
Spanish Rose” in “Bye Bye Birdie,“ and, yes, “All That Jazz” in “Chicago.”
And she’d earn two Tony awards and be nominated for eight more.
In 2009 President Barack Obama presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.
Yes, Taft High did have such other alumni notables as Stanley Kubrick, Eydie Gorme and Luther Vandross.
But the school has come upon harder times in recent years. The one big high school has been sliced into the mini-academies of the Taft Educational Campus.
Principal Lisa Luft is at the Taft helm these days.
So this suggestion to Ms. Luft: Please, please, call an assembly, do a seminar, invite some historians, do what it takes to remind them all that The Great Chita Rivera once walked these same hallways.
Oh, did she have “All That Jazz” – and a whole lot more !
Why this story? Just wanted to invite friends and kind folks out there
to share some of my high school memories. Elliott Denman (Taft HS ’50.)