In Memoriam: Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera
(January 23, 1933-January 30, 2024)

Chita Rivera seldom missed a beat or a performance throughout her career. Initially trained in classical ballet before transitioning to musical theater, she quickly became a beloved figure on Broadway from the early 1950s. Possessing a showstopping voice and expressive body language, she exuded charisma honed through her mastery of song and dance techniques. Living with relatives in the Bronx, she graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1951. Rivera took to ballet so fantastically that she got a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York. Discovering her talent at an open dancer audition, she secured a role in a national tour of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” After ten months on tour, she joined the cast of “Guys and Dolls” in New York, replacing Onna White as a principal dancer. During this time, she adopted the stage name Chita Rivera.

In 1953, she landed a spot as a chorus dancer in the Broadway show “Can-Can,” featuring Gwen Verdon. Encouraged by Verdon, Rivera pursued leading roles, eventually earning a part in “Mr. Wonderful” and engaging in a romance with its star, Sammy Davis Jr. Her career progressed as she appeared in productions like “Seventh Heaven,” and “Shoestring Revue.” Rivera rose to fame in 1957 with her portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story,” where she delivered memorable performances, including the iconic duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” with Carol Lawrence and the lively ensemble number “America.”


In 1986, a severe car accident in Manhattan forced Rivera to halt her dancing career temporarily. Despite sustaining multiple fractures in her left leg, she underwent surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. Yet her star never waned, continuing to shine brightly as accolades poured in. She garnered numerous Tony Awards, including a lifetime achievement accolade, received a Kennedy Center honor, and was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Remarkably, she returned to dancing nearly a year later, initially through cabaret acts that sustained her artistic journey for years to come.

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chita Rivera at the White House in Washington on Aug. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Rivera continued to captivate audiences in the 2015 musical rendition of “The Visit,” a Kander-Ebb-McNally adaptation based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s satirical play delving into themes of greed and vengeance. Portraying a wealthy widow who revisits her impoverished hometown, she offers a substantial sum for the assassination of a former lover who wronged her years ago. Running for 11 weeks on Broadway, inclusive of previews, the production garnered $2 million in box office revenue and earned five Tony Award nominations.

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