This is the sixth and final of the series on the show biz ancestry of writer-actress Cynthia Fujikawa, which we launched here several weeks ago. We met a couple of weeks ago and she took me right up the present in this interview…
TRAV: So what came first? Did you hear family stories first, and get interested in it growing up? Or the other way around?
CF: Well, my mother told me everything about her vaudeville family ad nauseam. She was a mouthpiece for all of them. My mother happened to go on and on and on and repeat everything hundreds of times. We tuned her out mostly, but at some point I absorbed it. I think I’m unlike my brothers somewhat in that I’m in the business and it’s more relevant to me. And also because I somehow became the family archivist.
TRAV: Where do you fall in the hierarchy of siblings?
CF: I’m the youngest. I had done this big project about my father’s history and legacy; that project had gotten some traction in New York in the mid 1990s. I developed it with several theater companies, and ended up performing it at the New Victory in 1997. Next, I got a fellowship to work on something new with the New York Theatre Workshop and so I decided to work on a project about my mom and her vaudeville stories.
A few years prior, my mother had recorded everything on paper. She started writing down everything she recalled and then sent it out to all of her family members, and then this just made her recall more things, and write more things down. Literally nobody took an interest, and I probably took a little bit of an interest because I felt it was giving her something to do. She was quite alone at the time. She’d out lived her parents, her siblings and her husband, and was reaching back out to them in a way. A few years later, dementia set. So now I’m quite grateful to her that she had the energy and commitment to write it all down, because it would have all been lost a couple of years later. And interestingly, it sounds like a lot of it is pretty accurate. Now that we have the internet, I can confirm a lot of the details. I can see on IBDB for instance, that her mother (my grandmother) did actually perform in a George Cohan show on Broadway.
TRAV: So, we’ve talked a lot about your forebears to date. It would be cool to talk about your own connection to the theater and your own writing and how you got started on that. And also about, growing up. You wrote a little bit about your dad, but what it was like to have a dad who was a working actor? You see him in a M*A*S*H* episode or whatever…
CF: Well, we were a really non-Hollywood family, for sure. We definitely did not partake in all that. Dad had been in Hollywood since the 50s, it’s true, but as an Asian American in Hollywood, which is a whole other kind of animal. He certainly did not have the ego that we associate with most actors. He wasn’t a writer either. He didn’t write material for himself, which I think is very different than those in vaudeville. They generated their own material. He kind of found his niche, being an Asian American in New York theatre in the 1950s and and in Hollywood, and got traction that way.
TRAV: Was he working pretty constantly?
CF: Well, he worked enough to have 3 kids, buy a home, and get us all through college.
TRAV: That’s more than 99% of the actors.
CF: I know. Yes, he had the occasional catering gigs, and he supplemented his income with another passion, which was fixing clocks and watches. But that said, he kept a steady career in theatre, film and tv for over three and a half decades. Very impressive. That was all quite separate from us. My mother managed the family, he did his thing. Life was different then, right? You had only a couple of channels on TV. So all of the sudden, the phone would ring, and we would hear, “Oh my god, your dad is on channel 4!”…We didn’t know it was coming, he didn’t know it was coming so we’d run over and turn the show on. It would be kind of exciting and I would feel the thrill of other people when someone at school would say, “Oh my god, I saw your dad on TV last night!”
As he aged, he got more character parts, and played a lot of gardeners, which was really funny because we had like the ugliest yard. Yeah, that’s a whole other story, being a Japanese American in West LA in a Japanese neighborhood, and having your dad really not being a part of that. He’s part of that community in a historical sense, but he was different, he was just a very different guy. I can tell why my mom was attracted to him, why that worked for them. He was a guy who for sure broke a barrier and I don’t mean in an activist sense. He was very good at engaging someone in conversation and he was just a very charming guy. People would forget they were talking to an Asian American pretty quickly, and he just became a person (this is pre-civil rights movement, right.)
And the high school that I attended actually had a lot of movie star kids in it. A lightbulb went off, right? I sort of went “We’re really not a part of this world.” I literally went through all of high school, in the drama department, without anyone ever knowing that my family was in the business. There’s a whole other energy, a whole other kind of ownership, a whole other sense of entitlement that I think other second generation industry kids feel. But Dad was just so glad to be part of it. And I said in that last piece, I think that my mother, being married to a working actor, was relieved of any burdens having to do with picking up the pieces of the family business. And I think her parents were genuinely excited about having a Broadway actor in the family, after losing their careers. Every time my parents (they lived in New York) went up to Cape Cod to visit, my grandmother would put a press release in the paper…”New York Actor vacationing in Cape Cod.” Very cute.
TRAV: So in high school you were in drama, you did theater, and stuff?
TRAV: Did you act?
CF: Yes, but I was a bit of a wallflower. I had been involved in some sort of drama class, some sort of enterprise, since I was a small child, since I saw my dad on stage in 1966 in It’s a Bird, Its a Plane, Its Superman. I was 5 years old, my dad was in this Broadway show, we came to see him in the show, and [from that moment on] I wanted to be an actress. In Kindergarten I met my drama buddy (we are friends to this day and still occasionally scheming). Her name is Shannon Hile. She was the writer and producer, and I was her performing partner. She was the brains for sure, and I was just along for the ride, but we literally got onto a stage any chance we could. We had our own little vaudeville act for a while. And, then in Junior High, we did melodramas, reviews, duets. Every spare moment was spent trying to get in front of an audience. I kind of lost my mojo, I think, when I went to a different high school and I didn’t know anyone in the drama department I just stayed on the sidelines for half of high school. And then I went to college, became a music theater major (San Francisco State Univ), and eventually came out of my shell.
TRAV: Did you sing and stuff?
CF: Yeah, I sing. I’ve done a bunch of musicals. But in truth I don’t have the big, amazing Broadway voice. I think that’s the gold standard for musical theatre now. There does seem to be a track record of song and dance acts in my family, and a couple of concert singers way back when (Mary Irish and daughter Annie Irish). Betty Garrett is one of my mentors and teachers– an amazing musical theatre talent and former MGM star – she also had a streak of vaudeville in her. She was a master at selling a comedy song, but did not possess the big pipes we have come to expect. It’s a shame. I think it’s very tough now to get by on your comedy and interpretive skills without the amazing “Broadway voice.”
TRAV: The vaudeville thing would be different because it’s more about personality.
CF: For sure. So anyway, I went down the musicals road in college. My dad — in poor health at that time — was still waiting to see how serious I was about pursuing theatre. And I remember him saying, “Go into summer stock theater, go get a job in summer stock theater.” I didn’t even know what that was, but I really took it to heart. So I started looking for a summer job on the east coast. I found an internship at Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, and managed to get myself there. The next summer I got myself to New York City for a mass summer stock audition and got cast in a season at Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut (where Katharine Hepburn made her debut). My eyes opened, “I’ll graduate in another year and I’ll come straight to New York and I have friends, and I have a community of people from these two summers.” I had it all figured out finally. I kept in touch with everybody from those two seasons. My dad had started in New York. It was obviously something I could do too. But then he died. Total game-changer. I didn’t end up going. I graduated and ended up back at home.
When I had been at Ivoryton Playhouse, one of the producers (Josh Dachs) sat me down and explained “you really need to go to a graduate theatre program, if you really want a career in New York as an actress.” That was the best advice. Eventually I went back to San Francisco to the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and spent two very focused years with an intimate group of adults in a small conservatory, learning my craft. Life-long friendships, and collaborations were forged. These people, later, became my lifeline in New York.
When at ACT, we had also witnessed the physical and creative survival of the theatre itself. Its founder, William Ball (who was a true innovator and genius) had become something of a mad genius, and was practically taking the theatre down with him. (Ball was forced to resign and later committed suicide) One of his right hand men, Ed Hastings, succeeded Bill Ball as the Artistic Director. Ed’s philosophy was that we have to pollinate. He was really supportive of people starting their own theaters and developing more talent, more theatre artists, more playwrights. I eventually did start my own theatre with friends at ACT and, with their sponsorship, we produced a dozen critically-acclaimed plays in San Francisco over the next 5 years.
TRAV: What’s it called?
CF: Encore Theatre Company.
TRAV: So you were in San Francisco a long time?
CF: Fourteen years. And New York has still not happened yet. After Encore’s fifth season, I joined a women’s writing group and started to write a story about my dad. I had about 7 pages. My group published it and so I had this story, this potential monologue now. An act of my own. Oddly enough this became my calling card when I did finally move to New York at long last. This will be my thing, I’m saying to myself. I going to bring that 7 pages with me and turn it into something.” So, I came here in ‘93 and began working on a one person show called Old Man River. I didn’t have the story yet, but I had the title and the ending and I knew it was about my dad. Dad was a Japanese-American who was in an internment camp [during the Second World War]. During his confinement, he had lost his family. And while I was living in New York and writing this piece, I found one these lost family members. A living, breathing woman named Teri who was my half sister (from my dad’s first marriage). The story was forming.
TRAV: Was that wife Japanese-American, too?
CF: No. She was Caucasian, like my mother. They had two sons and a daughter. The sons were deceased, but the daughter had gone with her mother, after the war and an unpleasant divorce. In 1993, a few months after I arrived in New York, I was able to locate this half sister, and so the project went *boom*. I started researching and writing full time. And I found my footing as a theater artist, finding my voice. And that was a journey, it was a journey from when I was 4, to that moment when I was like I just need to be myself, interpret my life, and communicate it. I now had an idea that I could pitch it to somebody, and I brought it to the Women’s Project. They paired me with director Juliet Carrillo and I got 70 pages out. And that led to something else and that led to another director and another thing and eventually I ended up at Mabou Mines, with a fellowship (keys to their East Village space for 6 months and a few hundred bucks. We also got a couple of clip lights, and a small audience that would attend our “final.” Ruth Maleczech, Bill Breuer and the rest of them attended. It was way too long, it was something like 200 pages now and over 2 hours. Ruth called it “the book” but she liked it in fact. She called Jim Nicola at New York Theatre Workshop, and he came and suddenly I’m going on a summer retreat, at Dartmouth College and Vassar, and working on my monologue alongside Jonathan Larson who was writing Rent, and writer/directors Ain Gordon, Moises Kaufman, and others. And a year later, New York did gave me a fellowship to work on the vaudeville story.
TRAV: It’s amazing that your family has maintained as much lore as it has because a lot of people are gone after a generation or two.
CF: It’s just because of me and my obsession with this stuff.
TRAV: Yeah, because you’ve paid attention.
CF: I think the genesis of that, paying attention, had to do with losing my dad and realizing that I hadn’t probed at all. And then when I did probe, I found this whole thing with my sister. It became my vaudeville schtick, it became my schtick. I stood on stage at the New Victory Theater, which used to be Minsky’s, and gave a two hour monologue to 500 people for 8 performances and did my schtick about my dad. And this is how I got my New York thing on. And the road to that moment was all about just being truthful about myself and finding the story. And it’s a great story. I just paid attention. The great stories are all there, they’re all in my arsenal, I just have to reach out to them. Great stories of these vaudeville entertainers over a 75 year period. They’re all sitting there, waiting to be told. My plan is to re-work this script about my vaudeville family (now called The Last Vaudevillian.) If I can find the “story” it will be timely and engaging. But it’s been my nemesis, trying to find the things about these performers of yesteryear, and their struggle, that would be engaging to an audience today. (ideas are welcome!) In any event, the character of my mom will be the mouthpiece for them, of course. And eventually this will be my schtick. She was quite a character, my mother. I’m pretty sure this is the role I was born to play. We’ll see what happens next.
TRAV: Thanks, Cyndy. It’s been amazing following your family through the generations. I look forward to seeing The Last Vaudevillian! (UPDATE: There has been progress. Cyndy did indeed write and workshop the show and premiered it in 2015)