THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
BY Gerrye Wong August 7, 2019
Everyone’s heard of this old saying, and this time I’d like to share stories about performers whose lives were spent in the world of show business. I had the privilege of meeting DOROTHY TOY FONG many years after her colorful career as a dancer on Broadway stages and Hollywood movies during the 1930s-50s, but was always intrigued when the ever smiling lady would share some of her memories with me. At a time when so-called Orientals were seldom seen performing in the public eye, Dorothy and her dance partner Paul Wing were making a name for themselves as a Chinese dance team sometimes referred to as “The Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers”.
Dorothy Toy is on far left of her Dance Revue Chorus
Dorothy would always laugh and tell me, “I have very strong toes” when we looked at old movies of her performing her famous tap dancing on her toes during her routines as the “Toy and Wing Chinese American Dance Team”. Against all odds, they faced discrimination but won over audiences as they played in prominent theater stages across the United States and Abroad.
Filmmaker Rick Quan with Dorothy Toy Fong
A 2017 documentary movie by Rick Quan, titled “Dancing Through Life: The Dorothy Toy Story” chronicling her life showed old clips of their appearances in Hollywood movies and theater stages sharing the billboards with many of the top vaudeville stars of the day. Growing up in Los Angeles from a traditional Japanese family, she recalled living across from a vaudeville theater and always wanting to dance. Luckily the theater manager would see Dorothy dancing outside her family’s restaurant where he came to eat often, and advised her mother this girl should take dance lessons. From that time on, her dance lessons propelled into a life of show business, which she said made her the happiest person alive.
Dorothy Toy Fong with Doris Grover, Gerrye Wong and Darlene Mar
The dancing duo appeared in many movies and felt proud to be the first Asian American performers to play the famed London Palladium . However, World War II curbed their dance careers with Paul being drafted into the Army and Dorothy having to remain on the East Coast to escape being interned with her family and all Japanese citizens. Eventually Dorothy formed her own dance troupe and they performed on stages all over the US and Abroad as the Dorothy Toy all-Asian Dance Company.
Dorothy with show business associates Arlene Wing, Cynthia Yee and Pat Chin
Sometimes in the post-war years, when the demand for vaudeville and live stage performers diminished, Toy and Wing performed in night clubs here in San Francisco and other urban cities into the 1960s. Many locals remember being awed by the beauty of Dorothy and the talents of Paul during their Toy and Wing dance routines at the Forbidden City Night Club.
Film maker Arthur Dong and Gerrye Wong congratulate Dorothy on her 100th birthday
It is sad for me to report that just last month, my dear friend, dancing dynamo Dorothy passed away at her home in Oakland at the age of 102.
My favorite memory of Dorothy was joining a group of her friends who took her to Las Vegas to celebrate her 90th birthday. She still was fairly agile in her high heels and seeing the bright lights down Las Vegas Boulevard seemed to remind her of her hey days being in the spotlight herself so many years ago. She would giggle to those of us with her, Doris Grover, Darlene Mar, Rose Low, and myself, and say, “I loved dancing in front of audiences and I was always happiest when I was dancing,” and proceed to kick her leg in the air to show us a favorite dance step.
Dorothy always on her toes during the dancing career
Dorothy Toy Fong will always be an icon in show business history as the brightest dancing star in Asian American stage and screen history. She enlivened many a stage and movie screen throughout her dancing career, and if I know Dorothy, she is still wowing audiences in heaven with her en pointe toe tapping energetic routines among the clouds.
CYNTHIA YEE – DOROTHY TOY FONG PROTÉGÉ
A happy smile lights up CYNTHIA YEE’S face when she recalls the day in 1962 when landlord Dorothy Toy, who knew of teenage Cynthia’s love of dancing and performing as a majorette in the St. Mary’s Drum Corps, called to ask her mother if Cynthia could fill in for a sick dancer in her dance chorus for a week. That, she recalls, changed her life as the week turned into months and the thought of college flew out of her head. After an out of town trip to beautiful supper clubs in Central California dancing with the Dorothy Toy Revue, Cynthia admits she was hooked to being on stage and for the next ten years, that was her life traveling throughout the United States, Canada, Caribbean Islands, Europe and Japan.
Show business became her life and she remembers the thrills of sharing stages with such notable stars as Red Skelton, Brenda Lee, Patti LaBelle, Nelson Eddy the Smother Brothers and many more at USO clubs in Germany and Japan. What an exciting life for a young girl who had grown up in San Francisco Chinatown and what a lucky turn of events that her mother let her leave home trusting Chinese Aunt Dorothy Toy to look after her teenage daughter.
Cynthia today and yesteryear in the middle
Returning back to the Bay Area, Cynthia found a second career after seeing a neighbor perform a magic act at a birthday party. She ended up being the Magician’s Assistant to TAMAKA which kept her show business juices alive while on stage and continues performing occasionally even today in their popular magic act. Always enterprising, she started a jewelry business, and soon was asked to be an entertainment coordinator for corporate events and to lead tours of Chinatown. Admitting her love of working with the public, she said, “I enjoyed taking visitors around Chinatown as it was a perfect way was for me to walk, talk and share my own Chinese culture I am very proud of.”
But it was in 2004 that her dancing talents came forth again when she and a few of her fellow dancers decided to form a dance troupe. Organizations in Chinatown were always asking her to find entertainment resources for charity events, so her friends from show business days, Pat Chin, Ivy Tam, Isabel Louie and she decided to form a dance troupe themselves. Naming themselves “The Grant Avenue Follies” they were soon very much in demand for their unique dance styles and from 2004 to today, they have helped non-profit groups raise over three million dollars in needed charity funds.
Cynthia Yee awarding Gerrye Wong first prize win at On Lok Charity event.
Soon some of Cynthia’s newly retired friends who had always wanted to dance but lacked opportunities being raised by conservative Chinese parents, asked to join the Follies group, and the dancing ladies have become a familiar sight In Chinese functions, The group includes retirees from careers as a physical therapist, retired teachers, real estate investors and an architect. Under Cynthia’s leadership, they have been asked to perform in cities that include Chicago, Hawaii, Houston, Seattle and even Cuba in 2018. In the fall, Cynthia tells us, the troupe will perform at the Rockbund Museum in Shanghai, no less.
Grant Ave Follies in Las Vegas as honorees.
Being very community minded, Cynthia always makes sure that no matter in what city they travel to perform, she always arranges for them to perform in Veteran Nursing homes and senior centers. She proudly said, “To see people happy and tapping their feet and waving to the beat of the music while sitting in wheelchairs is really heartwarming to us all. The smiles we see are amazing so you can see that for the Grant Avenue Follies and myself, this is why we love what we do!”
Cynthia with members of her Grant Avenue Follies performing at a charity event
What better way to celebrate a birthday than with a book of memoirs written by the honoree himself? That was what the children, Brad, Barry and Katherine, thought when they put together a book of their dad Ernie Wong’s over 100 stories from a memoirs class he wrote for in Cupertino. Imagine the guests delight at the Ernie and Mary Ann Wong 60th anniversary party when they were presented with this premier edition of the BEING EARNEST book.
Family and friends gathered at this festive occasion marveled at his recollections written about his growing up days in Arkansas and eventual migration with wife Mary Ann to California. Mary Ann’s sisters, Magen, Jane and Jessie, also having migrated from Mississippi with their families joined the happy gathering.
Ernie Wong surrounded by wife Mary Ann and children Barry, Brad and Katherine to celebrate his birthday.
Granddaughter Marina Hoffman entertained with a violin solo dedicated to her beaming grandparents Ernie and Mary Ann Wong at the China Stix Restaurant dinner. Mary Ann spoke of the many happy times spent with California friends since their arrival in the 1970s to Silicon Valley. Recalling those memories were her Chi Am Circle friends Muriel Kao, Helen Kwan, Barbara Why, Joanne Tanabe, Pat Lum and Virginia Bakken.
Granddaughter Marina, center with dad Mike surrounded by Wong friends
Son Barry Wong, now a Pastor in Vancouver, BC, flew in with wife and daughters for the occasion. He proudly read two of the chapters from his dad’s book of experiences growing up in the small town of 500 inhabitants of Holly Grove, Arkansas. Having grown up in the south also, nieces and nephews Diana Chan , Sherrie Taguchi and Bubba Gong enjoyed hearing of Uncle Ernie’s remembrances.
Birthday Boy Ernie Wong with his male colleagues
Ernie and Mary Ann Wong merged well into California living, he as an administrator for Lincoln Properties and she a Vice President of Wells Fargo Bank. Both leaders, he once presided over the Chinese American Citizens League and Foon Hay Golf Club, and she served as president of the Chi Am Circle Asian American womens social service organization. Once again I wrote a song dedicated to the popular couple which all the guests happily joined in singing our congratulations to them.
Guests at party herald the Wongs on their 60th anniversary
SHOWERING THE BRIDE-TO-BE
Melanie Seto is honored at her bridal shower by mother Sharon Seto and shower hostess Thao Dodson
At the beautiful rooftop penthouse of hostess Thao Dodson, Melanie Seto was honored at a traditional bride-to-be shower in San Francisco. Before a delicious Asian themed lunch prepared by Thao, the 50 friends played a Find The Guest game where they had to search for the particular guests who fit the description of over a listed dozen traits as planned by mother Sharon Seto.
Congratulated by sisters Samantha and Melissa
Dr. Melanie was born and bred in San Francisco and has quite a list of degrees to her name. She attended Hamlin School, UCLA Honors Program, MBA and UOP Dental School where she specialized in orthodontia. The groom-to-be, Dr. Jason Lim is a Sacramento pediatric dentist, son of Estella and Kenneth Lim. The couple met at UOP when Jason was a mentor for freshman Melanie and they soon spent time studying together.
Having fun with bridesmaids at her bridal shower.
A glass engraved invitation to their upcoming wedding announced their upcoming evening nuptials at St. Helena’s Pasti Estate. At the shower Melanie’s Maids of Honor sisters Samantha and Marissa Seto together with bridesmaids Dr. Kat Tu, Dr. Aileen Ngan, Samantha Martin and Shannon Ikeda held a hotly contested competition for a winner designing the fanciest toilet paper and floral wedding veils. Among the celebratory guests were designer Colleen Quen, Yuan Yuan Tan, Lillian Phan, Moanalani Jeffrey, Kumiko Stevens, Angela Tse, and Virginia Foo. Congratulations Melanie.
UPCOMING NOT TO BE MISSED
History San Jose will be celebrating its annual SPIRIT OF 45 event with all-day festive exhibits, program and music for dancing on this coming Saturday, August 10. The outdoor activities in the park will be of interest to those seniors who will enjoy hearing the music throughout the area from those World War II days. Many participants will be dressed in those 1940s fashions and there will be US Army exhibits of equipment and artillery of that era.
The CHINESE HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL PROJECT will be hosting a speaker’s event at the Firehouse on the grounds with films and World War II veterans sharing their experiences. CHCP student interns will tell about their own research into the China Burma War when some of these veterans participated in the fighting in war torn China as American servicemen. Chairman Erwin Wong promises an interesting program starting at 11 am and welcomes all to this free event. History San Jose park is located at Phelan and Senter Avenue in San Jose.
The MUSEUM OF CHINESE AMERICAN HISTORY will also be open that day for visitors to learn about the history of Chinese who settled in Santa Clara Valley from 1860s to the present. Dedicated volunteers presenting this interesting speaker series event are Mona Ten, Angela Chan, David Wu, Sara Yen, Brenda Wong, Dave Yick, Liz Fong Chew, Edith Gong, Karyn Wong and Trinity Chan.