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How Rita Moreno is using honors like an upcoming public television award to further her philanthropy

NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Rita Moreno says it has always been in her nature to be generous — opening doors for people and lightening a mother’s burden when she was struggling with grocery bags and children.

But Moreno, still the only Latina EGOT — winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — in history, says it took a particularly outspoken roommate to teach her the importance of politics and philanthropy.

“She really instilled in me the joy of being generous and helping people, really helping people,” Moreno told The Associated Press. “After that, I learned to do it in a bigger way.”

After her Oscar win for “West Side Story,” Moreno took part in the “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations against nuclear testing. In 1963, she joined the March on Washington and was so close to Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke that she saw gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urging him, “Tell him about the dream, Martin,” prompting him to to spontaneously give his best famous speech. For decades, she has fought against the racism and sexism she has experienced in the entertainment industry – for herself and for those who have followed in her footsteps.

For her groundbreaking career and philanthropic achievements, Moreno will be honored Tuesday evening at the WNET Group 2024 Gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York City. Accepting the award at the fundraiser for America’s flagship station PBS and its affiliated public television and NPR stations also allows Moreno to support the kind of arts programming she has supported for decades.

It’s a philanthropic strategy that Moreno has long pursued. For this reason, she was a member of the National Council on the Arts and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for President Bill Clinton. And that’s why she lent her name to the Rita Moreno Arts Building, which will house a theater for the Entertainment Community Fund in Los Angeles.

“When I’m asked to be a part of something like this, I’m always amazed,” Moreno said, adding that she “couldn’t be prouder” to be honored by public television because it has been such an important part of her life and her career.

Moreno appeared on PBS’s “The Electric Company” for six seasons, helping to teach reading to both the young and not-so-young. The show, which also starred Morgan Freeman and Skip Hinnant, meant so much to her that she stuck with it even while working full-time on Broadway. While at Electric Company, she won a Tony in 1975 for her role as Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally’s play The Ritz.

“It wasn’t easy,” Moreno said. “We worked extremely hard on The Electric Company and did a lot of trick photography. But I had fun working on it. I’ve always loved being funny, so for me this was a fantastic expression of my sense of humor. I love ridiculous humor.”

But Moreno’s work on “The Electric Company” also had a serious impact. She could imagine it helping her daughter Fernanda, who was five when the show began, with her reading. And for generations of young Latinos, Moreno was the first person they saw on television who looked like them.

When Moreno was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, actress Gina Rodriguez paid tribute to her, saying, “When you followed your dreams, Rita, you gave me permission to follow mine.”

Neal Shapiro, CEO of WNET Group and former president of NBC News, called Moreno “the ideal choice” for the award.

“We love them,” he said. “We admire her both for the artist she is and for the great work she has presented to American audiences. And we have a special relationship with her because of the work we’ve done on previous editions and because she’s appeared in some of our shows like The Electric Company.”

Shapiro said Moreno’s work, particularly on Broadway, is the kind of groundbreaking excellence in the arts that PBS wants to bring to the entire country, not just those they happen to meet in New York.

“And the way she handled her career, representation was very important to her and she made sure that all voices were represented,” he added.

The gala honoring Moreno will also serve as a kickoff of sorts for the nonprofit’s new Broadway and Beyond initiative, which will collect new theater programming on air and online throughout May and June.

For Moreno, the gala is a rare reprieve in another busy phase of her career. At 92, she was heavily involved in the recent film “The Prank,” in which she even cut the bangs of her wig herself to look meaner for the role. This summer she begins work on the new horror film “Theirs” alongside Harvey Keitel.

And getting to know all the people she inspired would be a full-time job in itself. Moreno laughs about meeting rocker Lenny Kravitz at Vanity Fair’s after-Oscars party earlier this year.

“He was standing all alone near a bar or something and I said, ‘Hello, I’m Rita Moreno,'” she said. “And before I could say ‘no,’ he knelt on the floor and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God’… and that was because of me.”

“I kept looking at my daughter and asking, ‘What is that?'” Moreno continued. “And that was because he is a great admirer. How do you like that?”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits is supported by the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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