Being on stage is happiness for her," says Rivera's daughter, Lisa Mordente. "At the same time, she loves being in the kitchen."
For 34 years, Rivera's home, set on four acres in upstate New York, was where family gathered. Holiday meals often featured hearty soups, a corn pudding Lisa says "is to die for" and high-decibel conversation. "Well, we're Latin; let's just say there are opinions," Rivera explains.
Earlier this year she and her Maltese, Casper, moved six minutes away to a house with less property and an apartment where Lisa and her dog, Stimpy, live.
Lisa's dad, Tony Mordente, and Rivera married in 1957 while they were both in West Side Story; he played A-Rab. Mordente went on to become an accomplished director and choreographer. They split when Lisa was 6, and she spent most of her time with her mother.
"All the kids thought my mom was the cool mom," Lisa says. "She would choreograph our little shows at junior high. One year we did The Pajama Game and some of the original cast came, including Eddie Foy Jr. She was so much fun. She always made me and my girlfriends laugh."
But Rivera separated her roles as mother and star. "During the day, we'd have a regular day," Lisa recalls. "If we were on tour, I'd have a tutor. We'd have dinner at 5 o'clock — at the table, with placemats, no TV. Then at 7:30 it was 'half hour,' meaning we had to be at the theater because the curtain went up at 8. She didn't mix the two worlds, which I'm thankful for. It's a crazy business."
Show business is made for Rivera, who changed her given name, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, to fit on marquees. Today she's ambivalent about the change. "When I get my nails done and these lovely Asian ladies say their name is Janet or Betty, I get up on my big box and say, 'That's not your real name! You must use your real name!'" Then again, she says, "Chita Rivero doesn't sound as good as Chita Rivera."
Her brother, Julio del Rivero, says, "Chita always had that special quality of attracting attention. She didn't know it, but the solo spotlight was always on her, even when she appeared in the doorway."
Her Puerto Rican father, Pedro, was a sax player who died of cancer when Chita was 7. "He was an elegant man," she says. Her mother, Katherine Anderson del Rivero, was Irish. "Our house was always a joyous house, even after Daddy died."
When Julio set up a theater in the basement to show 16mm movies to the neighborhood kids, Chita used the platform to ad lib dance routines, often upending props and curtains. "She destroyed my little theater," Julio jokes. "So Mother sent her to ballet school in New York."