The Vaudeville Origins of V. Vale and RE/Search Publications

To be of my age and of my proclivities is to have been influenced by West Coast-based RE/Search Publications (est, 1980). This underground publishing house put out high end periodicals on a wide range of outre topics calculated to arouse the interest of someone like me, and I’m certain that my first book, this blog, and probably many of my early plays would not have existed without them. I have previously been remiss in the past in omitting them and their founder V. Vale (b. 1944) from the list that includes Dick Zigun, Coney Island USA, Jim Rose, James Taylor, and Katherine Dunn when discussing the contemporary sideshow revival.

In addition to the Daniel P. Mannix classic Freaks: We Who Are Not as The Others, their titles include Incredibly Strange Films (1985), which helped introduce many of us to the likes of Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, Herschel Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman and various other exploitation auteurs; Pranks (1986), a celebration of hoaxes with contributions by Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Joe Coleman, Karen Finley, John Waters, and Henry Rollins, et al; and Modern Primitives (1989), the highly influential book about body modification, piercings, tattooing etc which features the likes of Lyle Tuttle, Michael Wilson, Anton LeVey and Fakir Musafar. Angry Women (1992) had interviews with Kathy Acker, Susie Bright, Diamanda Galas, Karen Finley, bell hooks, Lydia Lunch, and Annie Sprinkle (now that is a motley all-star crew).

RE/Search was the successor enterprise to Vale’s earlier project, the San Francisco punk ‘zine Search and Destroy, which he published between 1977 and 1979. Named after the 1973 song by Iggy and the Stooges, Search and Destroy was the product of many influences: Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss (much like Penelope Spheeris), early 20th century dada, and the Beats (two of whom, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped fund the first issue, and a third of whom, William S. Burroughs, was a major focus of Vale’s publications for decades). Vale knew the latter three because he worked at City Lights Bookstore by day while playing in the acid rock band Blue Cheer by night.

What I did not know until recently was that Vale is second generation show biz. His mother was Mary Takaoka (1912-1991), the oldest member of the Japanese-American singing trio The Taka Sisters. They are frequently described as a vaudeville act, and they may have played some literal vaudeville in its waning days, but mostly they seem to have played night clubs on the Chop Suey Circuit and high profile venues like Harry’s New York Cabaret in Chicago. They were frequently billed as triplets, though they were just sisters, the others being Midi (1914-36), and Myrtle (1916-2011). Sadly, it all came to a halt in 1936 when Midi was killed by her jealous fiance after she threw him over for another man. That awful story is recounted here.

Mary fared far better in the matrimonial department, having wed stage and screen actor Conrad Yama (Kiyoshi Conrad Hamanaka, 1919-2010), who you can see in movies like The Godfather; The King of Marvin Gardens; The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three; and Midway. His biggest screen role was as the titular character (i.e., Mao) in The Chairman (1969) with Gregory Peck. He was also in the original Broadway production of Flower Drum Song.

Those triumphs were ahead of Yama at the time of his son’s birth in 1944. In point of fact, his entire family was in a bad way then, for they were all interned at the time in one of the Japanese-American “Relocation Centers” during World War Two. V. Vale was literally born in a secret American concentration camp. Is it any wonder he would make common cause with outsider culture? Vale’s sisters are Lionelle Hamanaka, a jazz singer, and children’s book author/illustrator Sheila Hamanaka.

For more on the history of vaudeville and sideshow, and their revivals, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.