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Last Updated 4/3/2009
22nd - We Honored RITA MORENO

As usual, the outside reunion committee led by veterans Gail Rund, Gladys Jaffe, Barry Kerigstein, Howard Krupnick and Bob Tedeschi completed another successful event. The energy and spirit were channeled by our fantastic “tumbla” Larry Covin as he and Marsha brought their cast of entertainers to lead the singing, the dancing and the hula hooping.
Everyone partook in the tasty New York ethnic food, drink and desserts. Diets were left home for the day. A large group led by Elaine and Sid Resich arrived by bus from Orange County and another from Palm Springs led by Lee and Bernie Frank. A number of revelers actually found old friends from many years ago. The high school sign-up tables helped and Larry called out lots of names.


Our veteran crowd knows the drill – leave a few minutes early, get to your seats, read the program to find out who will be performing and do the rest of their talking in the auditorium. The show - unique and like no other – combined many of the same ingredients that have made this event one of the most enduring and lovely evenings for everyone over these many years. Buffeted by the enthusiasm of the audience, this 22nd consecutive sold-out event ran seamlessly under the direction of Jon Alexander and Fran Zigman.


In the tradition created decades ago, the mood was set by the New York Alumni Orchestra, under the direction of John Setar. The orchestra opened with those memorable New York tunes and melodies, and the orchestra also included songs from Westside Story and Love Story, as a special tribute to Rita and Arthur.


Appearing in his 16th consecutive year, Robbie Britt was stunning once again in his rendition of “America.” In keeping with his many surprises and creative ingenuity, Jon Alexander presented Robbie with the Joint Services Color Guard (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines) and with Robbie leading the Color Guard dressed in military fatigues. Despite his numerous appearances Robbie received his 16th consecutive standing ovation. As described by Madison High and veteran Beverly Hills columnist Joan Mangum, his delivery was “the most stirring rendition I’ve ever heard.”


Co-host Sal Richards returned to the stage to the delight of the audience with the same wit and artful manner by setting the table for all who followed.


Comedians Stewie Stone and Dick Capri also returned from New York City and continued the raucous laughter that rocked the roof from last year. Brooklynite Stewie said that he still has a summer home on Livonia Avenue. Italian Capri mused that in his next life he’d like to return as a Jew. “I’d like to do things that Jewish people do – like drink from a yahrezeit glass, keep two sets of dishes, two sets of books, join a temple and make a $5,000 pledge and not follow through. Brian Childers, appearing in “The Boy from Brooklyn,” sang one of Danny Kaye’s signature songs, Minnie the Moocher, while our pal Theo Bikel sang an original song dedicated to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and followed with a wonderfully nostalgic version of Fiddler on the Roof, - in Yiddish.


Another pal, Monty Hall did the honors once again by performing the adoption ceremony after Arthur’s good friend and Brooklynite Rabbi Jerry Cutler offered his personal insight and praise for Arthur’s “yiddish kite” and good deeds. Monty was particularly happy to perform the ceremony for Arthur because they’ve been personal friends for over 50 years.

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In addition to the laudatory words said about Arthur, we were treated to a video loaned to us by the Motion Picture and Television Academy which was shown during the 2002 Academy Awards when Arthur was presented with the most prestigious Jean Hersholt Award – a humanitarian award given only occasionally and only twice between 1995 and 2002. With the class and dignity of this famed director and past president of the Director’s Guild of America, Arthur expressed his heartfelt appreciation as he explained his close ties and affection that both he and Gwen have always had for New York City. To close the first act and in special tribute to Arthur, Mike Burstyn sang the very beautiful song the Theme from Love Story.

In noting that Mike is a Jewish kid from the Bronx, he decided to sing a song made famous by an Italian kid from the Bronx, Bobby Darin to our guest of honor – a Latino kid from the Bronx – Mack the Knife.

The second act opened with co-host Freddie Roman, from Richmond Hills High, who lives in New Jersey and in Florida. “Why do I live in Florida? Because it says so in the Torah! We were delighted to see Julie Budd returning to our stage after many years. Many of us saw Julie grow up in front of our eyes as a teenage singing sensation often appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Now a veteran concert performer our Brooklyn gal Julie has one of the most electrifying voices in the business. Appearing later on stage with Mike Burstyn, they teamed in their owned special tribute to Rita singing one of Rita’s favorite songs, Sunnyside of the Street.
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During the second act we were delighted to share our experience with Budd Friedman when he was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame along the Grand Concourse several months before. We were thrilled that Fran was instrumental in Budd’s selection. Bronx Borough President Carrion’s reference to Budd as the innovator of improvisational comedy made us all especially proud since Budd served as our very first master of ceremonies 22 years ago and he has been with us every year since. In another break with tradition Robbie Britt returned to the stage to sing Westside Story’s powerful song Somewhere. It was Rita’s night and the songs were certainly going her way. And, for the 13th consecutive year we were all honored by a young saxophone player who met his wife Florence at the Avon Lodge in the Catskill Mountains. We have been privileged for so many years to be the audience for the genius of the great Sid Caesar. Sid’s material included his personal friends Arthur and Rita and that was just one more personal touch for our two special guests. Another personal touch followed from a video message by Tony Orlando, who having lost 85 pounds since we last saw him recalled many nights when he followed Rita on stage in Las Vegas. He told Rita how he regularly pulled up his socks in recognition that he was following “one of the best entertainers that ever walked the stage.” Tony expressed his pleasure for having the opportunity to send his love to Rita and by lamenting the fact that ”this business” often takes people away from each other for long periods of time.


By this time the “table” that we had set for Rita was almost completed - with just a few more surprises for her. The video monitors were alive again capturing magical moments from her career. As Freddie came into the audience to escort Rita up to the stage he noted the fact that she is one of a very few who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy Award. Freddie then pointed out: “not only that – she’s married to a Jewish doctor – Lenny Gordon!”
As Rita hobbled on stage as a result of a recent broken toe, she was greeted by Yonker’s boy and our chairman Jon Voight. One of our finest actors, Jon is also a wonderful speaker and his presence – by itself – always adds a certain “class” to our events. In reflecting over these many years of what he thought the alumni association is about, Jon concluded that there is “some spirit in New York – which Rita personifies – and when her name is mentioned it immediately brings to mind those wonderful traits of New Yorkers - the energy, the chutzpah, a joi de vive and courage. And, there was even more to come. Jon had the distinct pleasure of introducing Rita’s co-star in Westside Story and close friend George Chakiris. Having just seen them both on the video dancing in Westside Story and now on stage 50 years later the murmurs were obvious as to how great they both looked.

And, there was still more to come….Another old friend of our association, James Dawson, the Headmaster from Professional Children’s School in Manhattan traveled from New York to be with us. When Rita saw him she was aghast saying, oh my god, what are you doing here? She turned to the audience and told us that this was the school she had gone to after grade school. The expression in the photo above captures her surprise. James, as he did for Dick Van Patten and as James’ predecessor had done for Milton Berle reminded Rita that while she had achieved so much success there was one thing had eluded her. He told her that he was here on behalf of the faculty, the trustees and on behalf of everyone connected with Professional Children’s School to officially graduate her from high school, more than 50 years after she dropped out to pursue her professional career.

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As the orchestra began playing Pomp and Circumstance, James placed a long white cloth around Rita’s neck – and the audience heard Freddie screech – A TALLIS! -and the laughter roared once again. After being given her diploma our portion of the evening was finally over and Rita took over….. When Freddie asked Rita if she’s like to sit down on a chair, Rita replied, “you bet your ass,” and we all knew that this was a real down-to earth New York gal.
Rita immediately acknowledged how privileged she was to have shared this evening with her friend Arthur, who directed her in the film Poppy. Rita also stated that when she looked at the program of the evening and saw the names of the past honorees that she was struck by the fact that “we were all poor – that even the audience – came from the same place – humble backgrounds.” In reflecting further, Rita noted that because of our common backgrounds we all knew the kind of struggle it was and in her view that is what still keeps us all together.” And, then she good naturally bellowed: “I’ve never been in the company of so many ….. old Jews in one room in all my life!” She quickly reminded everyone how thrilled she was to see her former agent Norman Brokaw and pointed out that she’s been married to Lenny for 47 years. The crowed roared in approval. Rita talked about beginning a new life in America and in the Bronx, of how she fell in love with and married Lenny – of how “thrilled” both their families were when they each informed them of their pending marriage. Rita also remembered Lenny’s mother saying to her on the way out the door, “just be good to my baby,” and this audience readily understood.


Rita spoke of the pride she has in being a New Yorker and while noting that New York may be crowded, noisy and even sometimes rude, Rita waxed nostalgically by saying that there is no place like New York City. Although she and Lenny live in the Bay Area near their daughter’s family, Rita sand Lenny still have an apartment in the heart of New York and return regularly.


Because she was appearing in the new CBS television show Cane, Rita apologized for not being able to rehearse with the orchestra and sing a song. To the delight of everyone, Rita did a “rap” co-written by Quincy Jones that is a love song about New York City. With the rhythm section of the orchestra providing the background, and with Rita hobbling and dancing on her bad ankle, we were serenaded by the lyrics with everyone could identify with love. As the evening drew to a close, the entertainers joined Rita on stage as they and the audience sang one of the most loving renditions of New York New York as we’ve ever heard Rita and Lenny were so astounded and thrilled by the evening that they joined us at the after-party in the food court in Century City.

In the words of one of Hollywood’s most legendary columnists and one who has attended the past 21 consecutive shows, Mr. Blackwell’s opinion was stated simply - “the entire event was sensational!”


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