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When a celebrity reaches an advanced age, journalists start writing an obituary, knowing that the star’s death could come at any moment.

Considering that all others who write about theater had had their Chita Rivera obituaries ready to go, readers have been asking me why I didn’t.

I guess there was a part of me that thought Chita Rivera was never going to die.

That’s silly, of course, but Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was one of those who seemed to be immune to time passing.

What I did write, moments after I’d heard the news, was this post on Facebook:

“The first time I ever encountered Chita Rivera in the flesh was October 3, 1964, at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, where her new musical BAJOUR was trying out.

“I got a first-row orchestra seat right on the aisle. And when the show was over, after Ms. Rivera came out to take her bows, she looked down, directly at me, and gave me a wink. I was in heaven.

“Since then, I have never missed a single one of her musicals. Even MERLIN, in which she played the wicked queen who was trying to get on the throne her un-favored son (portrayed by newcomer Nathan Lane) – whether he liked it or not.

“In July 1983, I brought my 11-year-old son Jason, who then had a fascination with magic, to MERLIN. We had no problem getting third-row seats. And I’m glad to say that Jason enjoyed the show immeasurably, especially at the curtain calls, when he turned to me excitedly and said, ‘Daddy! The Queen just winked at me!’”

My Facebook post quickly resulted in many others who told about the time Ms. Rivera winked at them. Did these multiple revelations tarnish my memories or make me feel less special? Not at all.

When you think of the thousands upon thousands of performances that Rivera gave on Broadway, on tour, in summer-stock tents and nightclubs, I was thrilled to think of how many, many people she made happy with those winks.

What I also remember was a far less happy memory on Monday, April 7, 1986, when my radio-alarm clock went off, and the anchorman on 1010-News somberly stated that Ms. Rivera had been in a terrible automobile accident.

Although days would pass before I’d learn that two metal plates and 12 screws were now in her left leg, on that Monday morning I muttered to myself, “Well, that’s that. We’ll never see her dance again.”

How silly of me to underestimate – wildly underestimate – Ms. Rivera’s courage, determination and resilience.

In 2015, my compatriots and I who administer The Theatre World Awards decided that Ms. Rivera was well overdue for The John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement. Not only did she give a gracious speech that made this seem as if it were a Kennedy Center Honor (which she’d already received), but she punctuated her acceptance speech with a wild kick of her leg that seemed to reach the ceiling of the Lyric Theatre.

But we’d been seeing her do that for nearly 30 years after the accident. In fact, the 2020s will only be the first decade of the last eight that Ms. Rivera will not make a Broadway appearance. She was with the original company of GUYS AND DOLLS, albeit as a replacement dancer, and did five more musicals on Broadway that decade, most notably, of course, WEST SIDE STORY, in which she originated Anita.

BYE BYE BIRDIE was her best 1960s credit; CHICAGO was her 1970s standout. In the 1980s, her first Tony finally arrived via THE RINK, and another would follow in the 1990s through KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

The new millennium offered CHITA RIVERA: A DANCER’S LIFE, giving her the biggest role of her career when she was fast approaching 73 – more than six times the number of pins in her leg.

The last decade brought us her last appearance: THE VISIT in which, ironically enough, she played a woman whose leg had been amputated. That had to haunt her and bring her back to those painful days in 1986.

The musical she was doing at the time of her accident was JERRY’S GIRLS, a revue of Mr. Herman’s songs. How valuable was she to the production? Let the headline of a subsequent New York Times story tell all: “7 in Chorus to Fill in for Injured Chita Rivera.”

Filling in for Ms. Rivera on screen were Catherine Zeta-Jones in CHICAGO and Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose in the two WEST SIDE STORY films. All won Oscars. And while she had aged out of two of those properties, was 13 months younger than Academy Award-winning Moreno, who didn’t even do all of her own singing.

Ms. Rivera always did, as more than a dozen cast albums can attest. What’s interesting is that the characters she played rarely got a love song. Even BIRDIE’s “One Boy” didn’t start out as hers; Kim McAfee started it and she finished it. When we think of songs that she introduced, we’re more likely to recall “A Boy Like That,” “Spanish Rose,” or “All That Jazz.”

And yet, in real life, the hundreds of her colleagues to whom I’ve spoken over the years (and I do mean hundreds) have said that before, during and after any of the eight times a week they’d performed or dealt with her, she was a complete pleasure.

In CHITA, the marvelous memoir which she co-wrote with Patrick Pacheco, Ms. Rivera revealed that she has a dark side. “Chita is sweet and kind; Dolores is a bat out of hell.”

And while Ms. Rivera used Dolores to complain or criticize, there’s far more Chita in the tome than Dolores.

As for that afternoon at BAJOUR – a musical about the Roma people, then known and referred to as gypsies – I, of course, marveled at her spirited dancing as Anyanka, princess of a Newark tribe.

Once again, she got a pungent song in “Mean,” whose title says it all. (Not quite: Walter Marks gave her a funny lyric when she informed her prey that she had “callous malice deep inside than ever lived in Doctor Jekyll’s hide.”) I also relished her distinctive twang when she delivered one comic comment after another in “I Can.”

BAJOUR did grant her a song that had a least a little love on its mind: “Love Line” proved that Ms. Rivera could issue a tender ballad when given the opportunity. Don’t miss any of these songs.

I’m not a Stage Door Petey, but my pal Jimmy McDonald, who attended BAJOUR with me, was a Stage Door Jimmy that Saturday afternoon. “Come on!” he urged. “Let’s go backstage and have her autograph our programs!”

In those days, getting into a stage door was as easy as breathing out and breathing in. We didn’t need to wait long for Ms. Rivera, who came out with a big smile, as if she were more thrilled to meet us than we were to meet her. As she signed our Playbills, she asked the two teenagers not remotely in the business what we thought of the show. When she finished signing, she looked up and continued intently listening.

Now, when I look at that signed Playbill, what stands out most is that her signature is entirely legible. I’ve seen so many autographs – and so have you – where a scrawl looks more like indecipherable graffiti. But Ms. Rivera took the time and care to do it right.

There are thousands upon thousands of Playbills filling my kitchen cabinets. One and only one is autographed, which is fitting, for it reiterates what so many of us learned a long time ago: Chita Rivera was one of a kind.

Here’s winking at you …

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.