The apartment building where I lived was across the street from my elementary school, PS 122. There was a lot down the block where I spent hours studying insects! One which caught my fancy was the praying mantis! I used to catch flies for them, and I was fascinated by how their jaws worked. My teacher said I could get extra credit if I brought something to school to show the class so I captured about 20 of them, and was on my way to the building and decided these praying mantises would rather be free so I just opened the box and let them all fly out!
On occasion my mother sent me to the Beer Garden around the block with a pail and fifty or twenty five cents to hand the manager the pail and fill it with beer. While waiting, I studied the guys (who were tipsy) so while I left for home my friends would tag me saying, “Rita Act Drunk!” so I mimicked what I observed, slurring my speech, saying nonsensical words and listening to their laughter, much to my pleasure! So, I guess at an early age I realized that I must be destined to make people laugh and be an entertainer.
The East River and Hellgate Bridge were within walking distance from my home and my girlfriend, Josie and I spent time dipping our feet in the dirty water along its rocky shoreline and probably scaring rats away! I also remember watching the Triborough bridge being built.
My first memory was banging on a piano and trying to play music and thinking I was wonderful. I must’ve been about three or four. My love of music was shared with my family and we spent evenings at the park nearby listening to classical and pop music from the bandstand and Caruso records were played at my home as well, although my tastes ran to Dick Clark’s Bandstand that I heard on the radio. Also, I was raised among a community of Greeks and enjoyed dancing with them, learning a bit of their language and drinking in their rich culture!
My father was born in Naples, Italy. He was a custom tailor who made clothes for Rockefeller, and was doing quite well until the depression, when he lost his job. My mother was born in the United States. Her parents were from Genoa and she used to say, “if my mother knew I married a Neapolitan she would turn over in her grave!” Neapolitans were considered part of the lower class and the Sicilians were considered even lower and possibly in the mafia. The Genovese in my mother’s family were quite light-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed, as well.
I have an older brother, Peter who was four years older than me and he was a wonderful athlete but was bedridden due to rheumatic fever and almost died. That’s when I made this pact with God that if he spared him I would be good.
My brother Paul was three years younger than Peter and I was the baby. Paul was very shy and wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street with me when we went to church. He never wanted to put on new clothing and would sit in the hole where we all had to coax him to go to church when we received communion and then confirmation. My mother read the catechism at night, but my father was an atheist and there was always fights over our attendance in church. When the priest ran off with the bingo money I decided to leave the church. Furthermore, the nuns would give us tickets to sell to our friends, who had very little money and it embarrassed me to do this. But the best part of mass was listening to a nun who sang like an angel. I would attend the adult mass and sit myself near her to listen to her sing. That was when I thought I should become a nun even though I decided to leave the church.
It’s not surprising that music was a passion of mine since my grandfather was an orchestra leader and his sons were musicians, except my father who chose tailoring because his brothers were scolded if they didn’t practice! I played a rented accordion, but never learned to read music, playing by ear, much to my teacher’s frustration! We returned the accordion when the depression came and money was scarce. I remember hitting the top of a can with a stick, uttering “Hoover put my father out of work!”
I learned to tap dance from a vaudevillian, Pat Grant, employed to teach after school, as a result of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration! I taught several girls a Military Tap Dance for our 8th Grade Graduation, and guess who took ALL the credit, our teacher, Mrs. Just!
I attended Long Island City High School for a year until my family had to move to Clifton, New Jersey because we couldn’t afford the rent, after my parent’s divorce. Our rent was much cheaper in Clifton! It took me months to be able to fall asleep, since it was so quiet and I missed the sounds of the trains passing over the Hell Gate bridge! Pat Grant and I got bookings as York & Wales for a short time, but when he told my mother “when she’s sixteen I’ll marry her,” that was the end of our team! I remember meeting a singer, Annie Kent, at one of the clubs I played as Rita York doing dances, that were from Vaudeville, and I gave her a toy shovel which she said, she would wave it to me from the stage when she was a big star. Years later, I was walking on Broadway and looked into a night club, and there she was singing Sophie Tucker songs and doing a great impression!
Find out more about my ShowBiz career here.