[MEDIA] Miyoshi Umeki & Pat Suzuki - Girls of Grant Avenue
- The Girls on Grant Avenue
Frederick Winfield Opie
** Before coming to America, Miyoshi was a nightclub singer in Japan.
** The first Asian actor to win an Academy Award, for Supporting
Actress in "Sayonara"
** The first, out of five Asian actors ever nominated, to win an
Academy Award. The second Asian actor who won an Academy Award was
Haing S. Ngor. Others who have been nominated are Sessue Hayakawa
(for "The Bridge on the River Kwai") in the same year as Ms. Umeki,
and Mako (for "The Sand Pebbles"). Most recently, Ken Watanabe was
nominated in 2004 for "The Last Samurai".
** Was already famous as Nancy Umeki in Japan with several hit songs
and film appearances to her credit before comiong to the U.S. in 1955.
** Was nominated for Broadway's 1959 Tony Award as Best Actress
(Musical) for "Flower Drum Song," a role she recreated in the film
version of the same name, Flower Drum Song (1961).
** Recorded several records on the Mercury label from 1955-1959.
Before that she recorded for RCA Japan as Nancy Umeki.
** 2003 - retired and living in Hawaii
** November 2004 - Retired in a small town in Missouri near her son
I went out at the Eastern Gate,
I saw the girls in clouds;
Like clouds they were, and soft and
But in the crowds
I thought on the maid who is my light,
Down-drooping, soft as the grey
She is my mate.
Chinese Love Lyric, 680 B.C.
Clouds of girls drift across the stage. Girls soft and bright, girls
fast and funny, girls with dreamy looks and pouty looks, girls with
languid smiles and impudent grins, girls with unruly bangs and neat
velvety chignons, girls with eyes slanted a little and girls with
eyes slanted a lot. Amid all the girls, one stands out in twilight
softness. When she first appears, her slow, sloe eyes look down, ever
so shy. Then she bounces her head in a pert little Chinese kowtow and
the hoarse, sweet husk of her voice sounds hauntingly soft. "Ten
thousand benedictions, Sir . . ."
Mei Li, the "picture bride," has traveled far to greet her future
father-in-law in the stubbornly Oriental parlor of his San Francisco
home. And she has arrived on time. Until now, Flower Drum Song has
been nothing but the newest Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical
brisk, bright, opulently staged, professional. When Miyoshi Umeki
glides onstage to star in her first Broadway show, her first four
words capture the house. The warmth of her art works a kind of
tranquil magic, and the whole theater relaxes.
But that small voice and wistful smile need something to set them
off. The need is quickly fulfilledby Linda Low, a buxom, button-
nosed stripper from the Celestial Bar, whom the musical's plot casts
as Mei Li's rival. Bold, brassy and bubbling with unabashed sex,
Linda belts out a song that tells all:
I'm a girl, and by me that's only great!
I am proud that my silhouette is curvy,
That I walk with a sweet and girlish
With my hips kind of swivelly and
swervy . . .
The swivel hips belong to Singer Pat Suzuki, and, like Miyoshi, the
chubby Nisei is bouncing through her first Broadway part. Whatever
else may be said for or against Flower Drum Song, it brings to
Broadway two of the most endearing stars in many a seasonsurrounded
by a fascinating Oriental chorus line that will give the most jaded
Stage-Door Johnnies a new incentive.
Scouting for the Khan. In a season when all the streets of
Manhattan's theater section seem eastbound,* assembling this chorus
line took on a scope that recalled nothing less than the recruitment
of Kublai Khan's harem. Like the Great Khan's emissarieswho, Marco
Polo reported, graded their finds "at 16, 17 and 18 or more carats,
according to the greater or lesser degree of beauty"Rodgers and
Hammerstein operatives went to work in Hong Kong, Paris, London, San
Francisco, Chicago and New York. Director Gene Kelly and
Choreographer Carol Haney scoured theaters, nightclubs and Y.W.C.A.s.
Co-Author Joseph Fields judged a San Francisco Chinatown beauty
contest and watched for talent that would look right on Flower Drum's
riotous Grant Avenue.
The scouts could not possibly hope to find a full bag of authentic
Chinese, settled for any vaguely Oriental features. Dancer Denise
Quan is really Canadian of Chinese origin. Shawnee Smith is American
Indian (Hopi) and English. Vicki Racimo is a promising piano student
(at Manhattan's Juilliard School) of Filipino-English origin. Mary
Huie, of Chinese origin, was working as a clerk for Revlon when a
scout spotted her on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue (she thought she was
facing an attempted pickup when the stranger approached her
with: "How would you like to be in a Broadway show?").
Study in Contrasts. Wherever they come from, all the girls would get
a high Kublai Khan rating. Oddly enough, perhaps the easiest of all
recruiting jobs involved the 20-carat stars. Early last spring
Rodgers saw Pat Suzuki on Jack Paar's television show and recognized
her right away as his stripper, Linda Low. After Miyoshi's Oscar-
winning performance in the movie Sayonara, both Rodgers and
Hammerstein realized that Mei Li's lines had been written for no one
The two girls make a fascinating study in feminine contrasts. Miyoshi
takes life as it comes, one small step at a time. Pat grasps for it
allhungry, anxious, impatient. Japan-born Miyoshi moves slowly,
precisely, with cautious grace; at 29, she is American by solemn
determination, but she still lives in the ordered, traditional world
of her tight little island home. California-born Pat Suzuki, 28, is
American by instinct, chafed by restrictions, careless of customs,
and in a hurry. It is possible to see in Pat and Miyoshi the
embodiment of the ancient, universal Chinese principles of Yang and
Yinthe opposites of active and passive, sun and shadow, fire and
One thing Pat and Miyoshi seem to have in common: for as long as
either of them can remember, each of them seems to have been
rehearsing her part in Flower Drum Song.
Head in a Bucket. Miyoshi's rehearsals began in the green hill town
of Otaru, on the big northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, high above
Otaru Bay. The last of nine children, all two years apart, she grew
up in a jampacked household, the family circle swollen by two
servants and seven extra boys, all apprentices from her father's
thriving iron factory. No one paid much attention to her, Miyoshi
remembers. She was too little. But she managed to steal into the
neighborhood Kabuki theater, and had money enough for "ice" candy.
Today, onstage, she sings her Flower Drum song:
My father says that children keep
Rivers keep flowing, too.
My father says he doesn't know why.
But somehow or other they do.
One brother recognized the little girl's love for music and took her
for tap-dancing and harmonica lessons. After a while Miyoshi switched
to the mandolin. ("I didn't like mandolin, either. When I didn't
like, I quit.") Next came piano. Says Miyoshi: "I just loved any
sound that you could do it with instrument."
Most of all, Miyoshi would have liked to make music with her own
voice, but that was impossible: she had bad throat trouble. Mornings,
when she first woke up, she could barely speak. When she finally got
her voice cranked up, it came out lower than any of the other
kids'. "Children have such high voice," she remembers
wistfully. "They read their lessons together, way up there. And I
read my lesson, way down there." Then, one day during music class at
school, the teacher heard a new voice and asked in surprise. "Who's
that?" Suddenly Miyoshi Umeki could sing.
At home she sang incessantly, to the intense irritation of both her
mother and father, who disapproved of her fast, American-style tunes
(which she picked up from records). So Miyoshi took to walking around
the house with a bucket on her head to spare her parents the pain of
her songs. After she went to bed, she would duck under her covers and
go on singing. When her father refused to buy her a piano, she pasted
a pattern of paper keys on the dining-room table and practiced
Song Is Heart. War came when Miyoshi was 13. After V-J day, when
American ships appeared in Otaru Bay, things began to look up again.
So did Miyoshi. She looked up at the tall, uniformed foreign sailors
and discovered that she liked them. But the discovery was not made
without guilt. Miyoshi says: "You can't look at eyes. It's not
feminine. You should look down. It's not really insult, it's not
pretty." Her English-speaking brother brought three of the Americans
to the Umeki home as guests. There were Edward Giannini, a clarinet-
playing T-4 in the 417th Army Service Forces Band, Sergeant Joseph
Bardner, and a third soldier whose name the Umeki family never
learned. They knew him as "G Minor" because he always muttered "G
minor, G minor" as he played his guitar.
Through the early winter of 1945, the three G.I.s went to the Umeki
home almost every night. Usually the plump 16-year-old sat in the
background eating apples, but one night Giannini egged her into
trying a song. (At the time, Rodgers and Hammerstein, having
triumphed with Oklahoma!, had just opened Carousel.) Miyoshi was
still self-conscious because her voice was not the usual high-pitched
Japanese voice, but Giannini put her at her ease. "This American man
gave me courage," says Miyoshi. "He said, 'Don't feel ashamed of your
voice. Song is not only voice; is heart, mind.' "
Until the day they left, the G.I.s kept visiting the Umekis with
presentsbacon, shaving cream, hair oil. Miyoshi put the hair oil on
her face and tried to brush her teeth with the shaving cream, but she
knew a gift when she saw one.
Strange Custom. Although Miyoshi's friends were gone ("My mother was
crying too hard, it broke her heart"), there were still some soldiers
left in Otaru, and the shy little girl began to sing with G.I. bands
in their service clubs. Once she was paid 300 yen (about 90¢) for a
night's work. "Old family have strange custom, girl shouldn't work,"
she says. "I felt bad, because now I'm getting paid, really working.
I guess it's too young to get paid. I gave it to my father."
"My father he was gone," Miyoshi explains. "I mean, he die. We have
little temple in house, and everybody live there, even after die.
They always with us. I put money in temple for my father, but my
mother said, 'Your father say that it's all right you spend.' So I
bought coal for stove."
Whenever there was something special like sweets in the house, it was
offered first to the dead in the temple in "God's Room." "We have to
leave it with them one day, then we could have it," Miyoshi says. But
the hungry girl could not wait a whole day knowing that there was
candy in God's Room. She would succumb to temptation and open the
temple, despite her fear of ancestral punishment. "I prayed: I have
to have this. I got to have this candy. I'm going to take this candy,
so please don't grab me.' " Then she would snatch the candy and
run. "I really think they going to grab me."
Right in the Eyes. Nights, Miyoshi would listen to the local U.S.
Army radio station, to Dinah Shore and Peggy Lee and Doris Day, and
try to copy them. After her graduation from school, her teacher took
the class to a hotel, gave them a lesson in how to use a knife and
fork; then they were deemed ready for the world. But the professional
bands were not ready for Miyoshi ("They thought I was the little
country bear from Hokkaido"). Eventually, though, she became a hit on
Japanese radio and TV. For three years she hardly ever had a day off.
Then she decided she must see America.
What little money Miyoshi had when she hit the States, she promptly
spent on presents for her family. Night after night she would sing in
some small nightclub, say a polite "Thank you" (her only English
words at the time). She felt lost; even the strange food bothered
her. She sent to Japan for squid, waited until everyone in her
apartment house had gone to bed, then cooked the dried delicacy on an
electric stove. "They all get up and say, 'What's that awful
Miyoshi's live-wire agent booked her all over the countryin
nightclubs, auditoriums, small-town theaters. Then she got on
Tennessee Ernie Ford's TV show and Arthur Godfrey's morning show. On
the Godfrey show, Miyoshi was noticed by Warner's casting director,
who brought her to Josh Logan, who hired her for the role of Katsumi
On the strength of her Academy Award for her Sayonara performance,
Miyoshi began to get up to $2,500 a week for singing dates on the
road. Jerry Lewis offered her $50,000 for a part in his new movie,
Geisha Boy, then R. & H offered her $1,500 a week to play the part of
Mei Li in Flower Drum. Pliant and outwardly submissive, yet inwardly
serene and sturdy, Mei Li was Miyoshi. Now married to a former TV
director, Win Opie, Miyoshi is certain that she wants to continue
living in a land where it is really all right to look people in the
eyes. "Is nice look at eyes," she says solemnly. "Get to know people
Wham! Pearl Harbor. Half the world away from Otaru, in a bumpy
California crossroads hamlet called Cressy (pop. 400), chunky little
Chiyoko Suzuki began her rehearsals for Flower Drum just 28 years
ago. Youngest of a fair-sized Japanese-American family (a brother
twelve years older, and two sisters, eight and ten years
older), "Chiby" (Squirt) Suzuki was a loner from the starta kid who
seemed to figure she was expected to take care of herself. She went
to a two-room schoolhouse, rode horses bareback, learned to swim in
irrigation canals on her father's 100-acre farm, and talked Spanish
to the Mexican peach pickers. But it was not much fun. At least,
looking back on her childhood, Chiby Suzuki insists: "I could hardly
wait to grow up. I didn't like being a kid, because I always had
certain feelings I couldn't explain. The only things I could dream
about in those days were the trucks going by on the highway all night
long. I used to dream of all the places they had been that I would
like to go some day."
But there was no place to go. If Chiby got a kick out of anything, it
was singing. She sang her earliest solo at 3½, when she visited a
Sunday-school class one Easter and laced into White Lilies with such
gusto that the rest of the kids quit to let her go it alone. To
everyone in town, Chiby seemed like just another American kid; people
began to call her "Pat." At a "couple of county things" she stopped
the show with her unbridled rendition of I Am an American.
"Then, wham!" says she. "Pearl Harbor."
Along with the rest of the Suzuki family, Pat was shipped to the
Amache relocation camp at Lamar, Colo. There life was a matter of
school as usual. She did not sing much, and about the only memories
she has are of thunderstorms, dust storms, and the Nisei boy scouts
who went out every morning in the shifting sand to raise the American
Bean Cake. After the war the Suzukis spent a year on a Colorado sugar-
beet farm, renting their own land to help make a stake. Then they
went home to Cressy. For Pat, it was as bad as ever. "I was kind of a
homely kid. I was never a school typeI wasn't rah rah."
When Pat listened to her radio and heard music from the Edgewater
Beach Hotel, she wanted to see Chicago. She could visualize just what
the lake and beach would look like. When she saw paintings, she
wanted desperately to see the places the artists had painted. And she
never forgot some advice her father had once given her: "As you get
older, you get afraid to take chances. When you're young, you have
the drive. You should use your youth."
In 1948 (the year Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote South Pacific) Pat
took off for Mills College near San Francisco. It seemed a safe
distance from Cressy. She worked as a typist, did odd jobs at school,
was a receptionist in a Chinese restaurant. She bounced on to Modesto
Junior College, then to San Francisco City College and to San José
State. She studied voice, biology, philosophy, art, art history,
woodworking. During her two years at San José State she sang in a
small nightclub on weekends, and she began to develop a style. Says
Cartoonist Walt ("Pogo") Kelly: "She was a real dish of Yo-Kan, a
cute little, sweet little bean cake. She could have licked the brass
section of Phil Spitalny's all-girl orchestra with one tonsil."
Waiting for R. & H. "I was a big slob," says Pat of her days at San
José State. Translated by a friend, this means that she was a
nonconformist Nisei. "Pat and I ran around with Caucasians," says the
friend. The strained social relations resulted in many heartaches,
and when the hurt was deep enough, Pat became deeply Japanese. Once
when a boy she was fond of threw her over, Pat sliced off the
ponytail hairdo that has since become her trademark. "I'm shorn of my
pride anyway," she said, "so I cut my hair." Her parents would have
recognized the Oriental sign of disgrace.
Trying to get to Europe in 1954, she made it as far as New York
before she ran short of cash. She wound up with a walk-on part in the
road company of Teahouse of the August Moon, and one day while on
tour she wandered into Seattle's Colony, an offbeat supper club. She
talked Owner Norm Bobrow into letting her try a few numbers with the
band, brought down the house. Three years later, Pat was still at the
Colony. "How long will she stay?" Bobrow's friends kept asking him.
He always gave them the same answer: "Until Rodgers and Hammerstein
write a musical for her."
Safety in Numbers. R. & H. did not quite write Flower Drum Song for
Pat, but at times it seemed close to becoming her show. As Linda Low
hymning "Grant Avenue, San Francisco" with all the fire-cracking
verve of Chinatown itselfPat worked with so much authority that by
the time the show opened in Boston, she was practically in command.
Stage mikes had to be turned down to keep her lusty voice somewhere
within range of Miyoshi's. "Pat have very very sweet voice when she
little girl," says her 66-year-old father, Chiyosaku Suzuki. "I like
better her singing when young."
Nor does Papa Suzuki entirely approve of his daughter's Flower Drum
role. He does not like to think Pat has drifted so far from ancestral
tradition. Especially he dislikes the striptease with which she stops
the show. "I don't like it when she start taking off like this." He
tries a tentative little laugh and begins to peel off his coat. "We
see show in Boston and makes Mama to sweat. In Boston, more strip and
very small pants. I'm little scared as I think accidentally come off
her pants." Says Pat reassuringly: "We ill wear double pants. Pop."
East-West Love. In the philosophical concept of Yang and Yin, the two
elements grow and shrink each at the other's expense, but never
wholly obliterate each ather, so that the end result is a kind of
universal harmony. This is more or less what happens backstage at
Flower Drum Song, according to testimony not only from pressagents
those untrustworthy upbeat philosophersbut according to anybody else
connected with the show. And practically everybody gives the credit
to the Oriental qualities of patience and politeness. Says Production
Supervisor Jerry Whyte, a tough veteran of R. & H. shows since
Oklahoma!: "I dread to think another show with two principals running
nip and tuck like this one. But here you see no rivalry. They have a
genuine friendship for each other."
The Oriental spell extends beyond Miyoshi and Pat. Wilbur, the stern-
eyed stage-door guard, feels that the Oriental chorus girls are
politer and less brassy than the usual types; the director and the
choreographer feel that the whole cast is more disciplined and
quicker to learn. Says Oscar Hammerstein: "It's a strange flavor they
have. They don't fawn, they don't scrape, they listen carefully. I
don't think they're any more intelligent than other people, but I
think the intelligence is less obscured by neuroticism." Translates
Dick Rodgers: "We have no nuts."
The East-West love feast that surrounds Flower Drum Song is no
accident, for Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves have reached an
almost Oriental serenity in an otherwise hectic and often squalid
business. As much as any of their Chinese characters, R. & H. have
family feeling. Since they have a permanent production outfit (unlike
most other theater men, who fold up after each show), they have given
employment to generations of performers. Example: one of Flower
Drum's brightest young dancers, Patrick Adiarte, 15, started at eight
as one of the younger children in The King and I, kept on playing the
parts of older boys as he grew; meanwhile, his mother was a dancer in
The King and I. As much as any of the Chinese in Flower Drum Song, R.
& H. believe in tradition, have gone to the same opening-night party
for 15 years (given by a friend, Jules Glaenzer, vice president of
Carder's). On tour they still receive ceremonial visits from long-
married and matronly chorus girls who were in one of their early
If Wang Chi-yang, Flower Drum Song's venerable elder, likes the feel
of money and distrusts outside financial institutions, so do Rodgers
and Hammerstein. Where other producers more often than not must hunt
down angels, R. & H. have the problem of fighting off outside
investors, mostly use their own capital or that of family members and
close friends. And they go about their business with Confucian calm;
voices are virtually never raised at an R. & H. rehearsal, except in
Saving Grace. Their determined serenity is sometimes derided; says
Cole Porter: "I could spot Dick's songs anywhere. There is a certain
holiness about them." But with serenity goes an unfailing
professional competence. In Flower Drum-Song they do not shrink from
such corn as a hula-hooping little girl and that ancient scene about
the Chinese maiden who does not understand Western kissing; but there
is always a saving grace of humor or taste, or at least
professionalism. As their own producers, they ruthlessly cut their
favorite songs or scenes if they detect that alarming rustle of
inattention among spectators. "What I like about R. & H.," says
General Stage Manager Jimmy Hammerstein, Oscar's No. 2 son, "is that
they're conditioned to what works. If it works, they keep it in; if
it doesn't, they scrap it. They listen with real objective ears."
During Flower Drum's Boston tryout, when Nightclub Comic Larry Storch
did not work out in the role of Sammy Fong, he was quickly replaced
by a more experienced stage veteran, Larry Blyden. A sentimental song
was cut, and Blyden's part was beefed up; Hammerstein spent two days
writing the lyrics of a new song, and Rodgers retired to the Shubert
Theater ladies' room (which during rehearsals was equipped with a
piano) and wrote the music in less than six hours. (His record: South
Pacific's Bali Ha'i, which he wrote in five minutes over after-dinner
coffee in a crowded room.) Result of the Boston change: Don't Marry
Me, one of the brightest numbers in the show.
Big Brother. Throughout the road try-out of any of their shows, and
beyond the Broadway opening, R. & H. are omnipresent. In their
separate ways, they are intensely paternal toward their cast
Hammerstein gently smiling but a little shy and withdrawn, Rodgers
quick, effervescent and always ready with a hug for a chorus girl.
Says one member of the cast: "Hammerstein is the Great White Father,
but Rodgers is Daddy."
If there is anything about the R. & H. paternalism that the Flower
Drum cast dislikes, it is the installation of closed-circuit TV in
the St. James Theater, where the show has settled down for its New
York run. Not that anyone objects to the stage manager keeping track
of the action. But Hammerstein has ordered a cable run to his town
house so that he too can monitor the show. Says Larry Blyden: "It's
like Big Brother looking over your shoulder. It gives me the
But this is a minor irritation, considering that they will all be
around New York for a long timeGreat White Father and Daddy,
Miyoshi, Pat and all the kidsjust a big Oriental family beating
their flowery drum. Meanwhile, the girls are getting accustomed to
New York. Pat is getting vitamin injections for extra energy, and
Miyoshi, in a remarkable East-West synthesis, has taken to
champagne. "I can't stop drinking it," she says. "It tastes like
Sometimes Credited As: Nancy Umeki
Born: Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan on 1/3/1929
Professions: Actor, singer
As a teenager in her native Japan, Miyoshi Umeki began her show
business career as a singer and dancer. She often performed on radio
programs and in nightclubs.
In the 1950s, she attempted to translate that success in the USA,
landing a spot on "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends", one of the many
music-variety series then in vogue.
In 1957, Umeki was cast as the Japanese woman who falls in love with
an American soldier (Red Buttons) despite the US government's policy
banning interracial marriage in "Sayonara". As the doomed bride, the
beautiful actress offered a heart-breaking turn that earned her that
year's Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
As the studio system was in the beginnings of its decline, actresses
in general were beginning to have a difficult time finding good
roles. For an Asian woman, the problems were further compounded.
Despite winning an Oscar, Umeki was unable to land a suitable follow-
up and instead turned to Broadway where she starred in the 1958
Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song", playing Mei Li,
an illegal Chinese immigrant who arrives in the USA searching for a
While not on par with the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein
catalogue, "Flower Drum Song" was pleasant and popular, earning
several Tony Award nominations, including one for its leading lady.
When Universal adapted the material for the big screen, the studio
took the rather unusual step of hiring Umeki to recreate her stage
role. (Often those who appeared on Broadway were replaced by more
Although she acquitted herself in the 1961 film version of "Flower
Drum Song", Umeki still found additional roles scarce. In fact, the
actress was to appear in only three additional movies, "Cry for
Happy" (1961), "The Horizontal Lieutenant" (1962) and "A Girl Named
Taking time off for motherhood, Umeki moved back to the small screen,
garnering legions of fans among baby boomers as the wise and
dependable housekeeper Mrs. Livingston on the ABC sitcom "The
Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1969-72). After the series ran its
course, she operated a dance studio in North Hollywood for close to
In 1999, there was a flurry of misinformation about the actress when
author Donald Reuter claimed he had tried to track her down without
success for a book he was working on. Convinced she had "vanished",
his comments reprinted in tabloid newspapers -- and the fact Umeki
was one of the few living Oscar winners not present at a tribute on
an annual telecast of the awards -- fueled speculation about her
whereabouts. The reality, though, was hardly a mystery; Umeki had
retired to Hawaii.
Winfield Opie, husband
Oscar Best Supporting Actress "Sayonara" 1957
** 1963 Last feature film appearance, "A Girl Named Tamiko"
** 1961 Recreated stage role in film version of "Flower Drum Song"
** 1958 - 1959 Starred on Broadway in "Flower Drum Song"; earned Tony
Award nomination as Best Actress in a Musical
** 1957 Made feature debut in "Sayonara"; won Oscar as Best
** As a teenager, performed on Japanese radio shows and as a singer
in nightclubs; performed with the Tusnoda Sextet; billed as Nancy
** Moved to USA in the 1950s
** Took time away from career to raise her son
** Co-starred as Mrs. Livingston on "The Courtship of Eddie's Father"
** Operated a school of dance in North Hollywood in the 1970s, 1980s
and early 1990s
** Retired to Hawaii