There is no stopping Chita Rivera

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The Broadway dancer, singer and actress Chita Rivera, who has spent more than six decades on stage, is celebrating her upcoming 81st birthday by taking her one-woman show on the road. 
CBS News

(CBS News)  The musical "Chicago" was a showcase for Chita Rivera, the singer and dancer from Broadway's Golden Age who hasn't missed a step along the way.  Mo Rocca has our Sunday Profile:

Here's what you notice watching Chita Rivera in rehearsal for a benefit concert: she's still got it.

It's hard to believe she's 80 years old, until you do the math and realize she's been dancing on TV, on screen, and most of all on stage for over six decades.

"How would you describe your own dancing?" asked Rocca.

"Oh gosh, I don't know. I know it used to be explosive. I like that word. Graceful, sensual, I mean, all those words are good. But explosive, alive."

She was already in her 40s when she co-starred with another Broadway star, Gwen Verdon, in the original cast of Bob Fosse's "Chicago." And when "Chicago" was made into an Oscar-winning movie, Rivera made a cameo.

Of course she did -- she's Broadway royalty.


 Rivera is the first Latino Kennedy Center Honoree, and recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her birth name was Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero.  "Nice Jewish name" she dead-panned.

Chita Rivera grew up in Washington, D.C., the third of five children. Her father, Pedro Julio, played in the U.S. Navy Band.

"Always wore the white suit and hat, very elegant," she told Rocca. "I mean, I know that mother had the clarinet and the saxophone under the bed in my bedroom in D.C. And so I discovered it one day and she said, 'That was Daddy's.'"

Chita inherited the performer gene, and made the living room her first dance studio. Her mother promptly enrolled her in ballet school.

"Did you ask to go to dance class, or did she say, 'I gotta put her in dance class'?" asked Rocca.

"Oh no. I broke up the coffee table! I was a monkey!"

At 14 she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York. Her instructor, Mr. Obukoff, would make a lifelong impression on her.

"Every kid should have one of those teachers in your lives," she said. "Totally. Make 'em scared to death, make 'em work hard. I mean, you find out what you've got, you know? He made me strong and made me learn that I really loved what I did."

"Did you ever cry in the class?" Rocca asked.

"No.  But he did push me into the piano once," she laughed.

Chita would get right back up.  Audiences would soon see that grit and fire in the role that made her a star: Anita in Broadway's "West Side Story."

Rocca asked, "Did people know what it was going to become?"

"Nobody ever knows what anything's gonna become," she said. "You know that. I mean, you just don't know. And besides, if you're really in it, you can't be watching the traffic."

Her role in the movie version would go to another famous Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno. If the two have been occasionally confused for each other over the years, Rivera laughs about it.

"The Chita-Rita thing, we have lived with that for such a long time," she said.

"And you both played Anita, which rhymes with Chita and Rita," said Rocca. "You have the whole -ita thing going on."

"Oh, you figured this out?

"It's an honor," Rivera said of the confusion. "She's a talented, fabulous actress, singer-dancer, and we've been friends forever."

The two performed together during the second inaugural for President Obama. 

Rivera would follow "West Side Story" by starring opposite Dick Van Dyke in the smash musical, "Bye Bye Birdie," earning the first of nine Tony nominations.

That, too, was made into a movie. Her role as the Latina spitfire Rosie was played -- naturally enough -- by Janet Leigh.

Rivera would make it onto the big screen in 1969's "Sweet Charity," tearing it up alongside Paula Kelly and Shirley MacLaine.

Of the film's remarkable rooftop dance sequence, Rivera said, "It's stupid, it's so great, yeah."

"It's stupid?" asked Rocca.

"Yeah, stupid.  Well, when something's better than great, it goes back to stupid," she laughed. "But it just gets bigger.  It was fabulous.  I mean, the energy was amazing."

She would need that energy after the 1986 car crash that nearly ended her career. Her left leg was shattered in twelve places.

What pushed her through? "I didn't know what else to do," she explained. "I wouldn't have known any other way than to recover, to get myself back to what I felt was Chita."

With 18 screws and two plates holding her leg together, she got back on that stage -- and won a second Tony Award for 1993's "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

At her home in a suburb of New York City, photos of her daughter Lisa and former husband Tony Mordente sit among a Who's-Who of her legendary costars, such as Sammy Davis Jr.

"Can I ask what your relationship with him was like?" Rocca asked.

"Well, we went out with one another.  I mean, yeah, we were boyfriend and girlfriend for a while there."

"And what was that like?"

"It was fabulous," she laughed. "He's as talented in that area as he was otherwise!  I mean, he's warm and loving and fun. I mean, just so much fun."

"You said he was on the short side, but it didn't matter?"

"No. What are you getting at?" she laughed. 

"Do you ever think what your father would have thought had he lived to see you grow up?" Rocca asked.

"Nobody's ever asked me that before," Rivera said. "Daddy was very strict, from what I can understand. And I don't know if he would've let me go off at 15 or 14 and go to another city. I don't think I probably would have had this career."

Next month Chita Rivera will turn 81. To celebrate, she's taking her new one-woman show on the road.  And really, how else would she celebrate?

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