Friday, July 15, 2011

HOLA Legends: Marquita Rivera

Marquita Rivera (May 18, 1922–October 21, 2002), born María Heroína Rivera de Santiago in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, was an actress, singer and dancer. Dubbed the "Queen of La Conga," "Queen of Latin Rhythm" and "Latin Hurricane" during various stages of her career, Rivera, went on to enjoy a strong musical career both in the United States and in her native Puerto Rico.

She was the youngest in a family of seven sons and five daughters. The family moved to New York City when Rivera was only three months old and it was there that she started a musical career. Studying dance and flamenco at the age of six, she originally studied with Rita Hayworth's father, Eduardo Cansino. Hayworth herself gave her a set of castanets as a gift.

A childhood friend of bandleader Tito Puente, Rivera, accompanied by her costume designer mother, went on to earn a featured role as a dancer with George White's Scandals of 1936, but it was her performance before Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the 1939 New York World's Fair during their respective royal visits that she considered the highlight of her nascent career. She also toured Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia in bands headed by Paul Whiteman and Noro Morales. Appearing in many New York venues, including The Roxy, Paramount, Loews State, Strand and Radio City Music Hall, she shared their stages with Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Victor Borge, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin and Betty Hutton.

She put together her own show and performed it at the Latin Quarter and Havana-Madrid in New York. She was also a marquee name back in her homeland where she entertained at venues such as Zero's Nightclub and El San Juan Theatre. In the mid 1940s Rivera was signed by Azteca Studios in Mexico City. She acted for director Fernando Soler in both the film drama Me persigue una mujer (1947) with José Torvay and David Silva, and the comedy El conquistador (1947), also starring Torvay and Enrique Herrera.

After her contract ended at Azteca, she went on to sign a Hollywood contract with a major studio, and made her American movie debut as lead singer and specialty performer in the Hope-Crosby-Lamour comedy The Road to Rio (1947). Rivera was selected (in a popularity poll by Mexican filmgoers themselves) to star in a Hollywood film biography of the late Mexican spitfire Lupe Vélez. The film was shelved when legal issues involving Ms. Vélez’s estate reared its head. She continued to work in "hot spots" such as the famous Ciro's nightclub with Desi Arnaz's band.

She was married to business tycoon Albert Vernon Ashbrook from 1946 to 1949 and had one child, Marquita, her namesake. In 1951, she married physician Eugene N. Biscardi, Jr. in New York City. They eventually became a family of seven children. Of their children, eldest son Eugene Biscardi III is a one-time model-turned-fashion photographer who has appeared occasionally as an actor on film and TV, and daughter Jessica Biscardi is a former model/actress and former "Miss New York."

By the 1950s, she had phased out her career in order to concentrate on raising her large family. In 1963, however, she made a special appearance at Carnegie Hall that featured an all-star lineup, including opera performers Thomas Hayward, Rina Telli, Dino Formichini and James Boxwill, led by Philharmonic conductor Warner S. Bass. She did not appear again publicly until 1977 when she returned to the stage in a limited engagement of her own off-Broadway revue, "The Marquita Rivera Show."

In the 1980s her husband, Dr. Biscardi, retired and the couple relocated to Los Angeles where she would occasionally make TV appearances, including "Sanford and Son" with Redd Foxx. She also traveled frequently throughout the South on the beauty pageant circuit as a judge. Following the death of her husband in 1988, Rivera chose to retire completely from the limelight.

On October 21 in 2002, Rivera died at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. after suffering a stroke. She is survived by her seven children - daughters Marquita Press, Jessica Wolford and Lucrezia Silver, and sons Eugene Biscardi III, Louis Biscardi, Robert Biscardi and Joseph Biscardi, as well as 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Marquita Rivera dancing while Luba Malina sings "Cuban Pete" (with Noro Morales on piano and Tito Puente on drums)

A video tribute to Marquita Rivera

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