This is part five of the series on the show biz ancestry of writer-actress Cynthia Fujikawa, which we launched here about four weeks ago. It’s in her own words.
A year after the Crash, Vaudeville was definitely over. If some people in NY thought it marched on a while, Charlie and Marion knew otherwise. Now living at Lottie’s Flop House on Cape Cod, Charlie struggled to find a “real job.” In 1931, he applied to sell stoves for the gas company, but needed a drivers license for this job. After a lifetime of being on the road, he still didn’t know how to drive. A nice fellow who owned a brand new car said Charlie could sit and practice in it. Charlie drove for the first time in his life when he took the test, and passed. That was the day my mom was born.
My mother hated being called Skeeter her whole life. Born in 1931, Mom was named after her mother, Marion Finlay. Her legal name was Marion Gates Breckle (Gates was Charlie’s stage name, and Breckle his surname). And her married name was Marion Fujikawa. And sometime in the 1970s she changed her first name to Lois. Lois Gates Fujikawa. A vaudevillian for sure, I guess you could say that she kept changing her act. But for many, her act would always be known as Skeeter, and always will be.
Skeeter’s career in show biz is pretty quick to tell. One year of drama school. One touring show. One Broadway show. In 1951, at the age of 21, this small town girl was a veteran New Yorker, a member of Actor’s Equity, and had appeared on Broadway. Impossible! The rest of her career was occupied as wife of a working actor (Mr. Fujikawa – another impossibility).
And of course that expression, “it’s who you know,” comes to mind. Miss West, as my mother always called her, was Skeeter’s personal Billie Burke.
After one year of drama school, Skeeter got cast in children’s theatre production and toured every state East of the Mississippi, as well as Quebec. In St. Louis, Miss West was also on tour in Diamond Lil, her signature role. The Rumplestiltskin cast members dared Skeeter to call to Miss West’s hotel room, and she did. Miss West complimented her that she had gotten her first job, and invited her to “come and see me sometime” in New York. When mom got back there, the William Morris Agency telephoned her to go to the Broadway Theatre. She joined Actors’ Equity the same day and started rehearsals for the Broadway company of the last revival of Diamond Lil, starring Mae West. Mom said it was rumored that she was Miss West’s illegitimate daughter.
After the show’s subway circuit and Broadway run, it was time to stick a fork in Diamond Lil and Mae West. Skeeter was then turned loose on NYC and the reality of what she was about to face was daunting. I can see it all so clearly. A couple of auditions later, the fairy tale was over.
But the Vaudevillians of Irish-Burke-Finlay-and Gates would travel forward vicariously through their son-in-law.
When Skeeter met Jerry Fujikawa, he was on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Teahouse of the August Moon. He was 20 years older than her and of another race. Like Charlie, Jerry had not been born into a show biz family, but chose it when he saw the opportunity (in this case it was movies and plays about World War II).
He had been interned at Manzanar with his family, fought in WWII, and had lost everything that mattered to him. So he came to New York and reinvented himself as an actor. One would have thought Marion and Charlie would rather have died than see little Skeeter run off with the “Japanese Sandman.” But you know, having a real working actor in the family after all these years was a wonderful healing for them. Skeeter retired from show biz at the age of 22 and began a new one as wife of a New York actor, and became mother to 3 children, and my father made them all proud. My father’s career spanned 35 years in road companies, 3 original Broadway shows ,movies & TV. He remained a working actor until his death in 1983.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.
Still pretty as ever. Nice archives regarding your family. Thought of you and with ‘google’ found items like this. Peter from Coffee Cantina days, SF…CA
I knew Charles and Marion Gates. I babysat for Jerry and Marions children. Great family!
Hi Virginia! Call me sometime soon. 323/533-3246 or email email@example.com. I’d love to talk you again!