THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: A salute to Sono Osato’s pursuit of the arts and good citizenship

In this week’s column I diverge from my usual practice of not featuring living people in order to salute dancer/actress Sono Osato on the occasion of her recent 94th birthday. Osato was not just a uniquely visible Japanese American face in 1940s America, but an exemplar of progressive politics and good citizenship,

Born in Omaha, Neb. on Aug. 29, 1919, Osato was the eldest of three children of Shoji Osato, a Japanese immigrant who worked for an Omaha newspaper and later ran a photo studio, and Frances Fitzpatrick, an Irish/French-Canadian mother. (Since interracial marriage was then illegal in Nebraska, the young couple married secretly in nearby Iowa). The pair were socially ostracized after their marriage. Not long after Sono’s birth, Fitzpatrick left to make a career in Hollywood, then returned to Omaha. She and Osato had two more children.

In 1927 Fitzpatrick took her children to Europe. It was while on a trip to Monte Carlo that the young Sono saw her first performance of the Ballets Russes. In 1929, the family returned to the United States and settled in Chicago. There Osato studied ballet with Adolph Bolm and Berenice Holmes. In 1934, after Holmes secured an audition for her, she was accepted into the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, directed by Vassili de Basil. She toured Europe and the United States with the company for the next six years, leaving her family behind. She mostly performed in the ensemble, with occasional solos. In order to fit in, she wore makeup to disguise her Asian features (she was told to adopt a Russian name, but refused). For a time, she became the lover of Roman Jasinski, one of the Ballet Russe stars, who also served as her mentor.

By late 1940, both her talent and great beauty had flowered. She became a featured artist with the company (by then billing itself as the “original Ballet Russes”) and won plaudits for her role as the Siren in George Balanchine’s ballet, “The Prodigal Son.” However, tired of appearing in the chorus, with no credit or extra money for the lead roles she was given, Osato left the company in early 1941. She soon joined Ballet Theatre (today called American Ballet Theatre) as a lead dancer. She stayed with the company for two years. Among her most memorable performances with Ballet Theater were in two works by Antony Tudor — “Pillar of Fire” and “Romeo and Juliet” (1943) (in the latter she played Rosaline, a role developed specifically for her).

Osato’s life was turned around by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war in December of 1941. Because Shoji Osato had performed work for the Japanese consulate in Chicago and the Japanese-run Southern Manchurian Railway, he was arrested and incarcerated for 10 months by the U.S. Justice Department as a dangerous alien. For a time, Sono was ordered to dance under her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, to defuse anti-Japanese hysteria. Furthermore, during 1942 she was barred from joining her colleagues on a transcontinental tour that wound up on the Pacific Coast, because of the restrictions against all people of Japanese ancestry imposed by the Western Defense Command. During this period, Osato’s sister Teru, a student at Bennington College, costarred in the William Bales Company’s modern dance work “Es Mujer.” Her younger brother Tim, who had been featured as a boy on the famous radio show “The Quiz Kids” enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. His proud sister Sono noted that he was the first volunteer from Chicago! (Timothy Osato would become a career Army officer and military historian, and would later serve in both Korea and Vietnam.)

In mid-1943, Sono Osato left the Ballet Theatre Company. By that time, she had fallen in love with and married Victor Elmaleh, a young architect and real estate developer. She intended to start a family. However, both her love of performing and the couple’s parlous financial situation led her to resume her career. Nora Kaye, the Ballet Theatre’s lead dancer, suggested that Osato write to Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing a Broadway show, “One Touch of Venus” (1943), with book by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman and music by Kurt Weill. Osato was hired, and the comic solo that de Mille eventually created for her launched her as a theatrical star, as Osato won Billboard magazine’s Donaldson Award. After nine months in “Venus,” she was engaged to create the non-singing dance role of Ivy (aka Miss Turnstiles) in the hit Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical “On The Town” (1944), featuring choreography by Jerome Robbins. She remained with the show for a year. In 1945, Osato signed to play the lead in an upcoming American adaptation of the French stage hit, “Undine,” by Jean Giraudoux, but withdrew during rehearsals.

During the period, Osato remained actively involved with progressive political movements. She was present in Broadway delegations to Washington against the poll tax and for the soldiers’ vote. She appeared at campaign rallies on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, and sold war bonds. She also participated in rallies against the Franco regime in Spain. In 1945, she spoke at a rally sponsored by the Spanish Refugee Repeal. When conservative actor Frank Fay charged that the rally was “anti-Catholic” and that the participants were Communists, Osato and four colleagues brought grievance charges against him with the union Actors Equity. In 1946 she gave a dance exhibition for striking CIO workers at the GE plant in Schenectady, N.Y. She also became absorbed in supporting racial minorities. She associated herself with the anti-fascist civil rights group Japanese American Committee for Democracy, served on the board of the Casa de Puerto Rico, a Hispanic community center, and taught a free ballet class for African American youth in New York’s Harlem — her class was featured in a spread in New York’s left-leaning daily PM. Osato’s activities were widely hailed as examples of the Nisei’s good citizenship. (Ironically, African American sociologist Horace Cayton, who worked with numerous Japanese Americans, related in his later memoir “Long Old Road” seeing “On the Town” on Victory over Japan Day and being offended that Osato, as a “half-Japanese,” was dancing and performing with white Americans after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan).

In 1947, Osato went to Hollywood. However, she was limited on racial grounds in the selection of parts offered her, and faced blacklisting because of her political connections. In the end, she appeared only in a single film, “The Kissing Bandit” (1948), with Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. She returned to New York and had two children in the following years. She continued to work sporadically on the stage and on television. In 1948, she performed in “Ballet Ballads,” a dance piece produced by the Experimental Theater company. In 1950 she appeared on comedian Fred Allen’s short-lived TV variety show, and the next year performed on Broadway in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” opposite John Garfield.

In 1955, Osato attempted a return to the musical stage, in writer Mel Brooks’ short-lived off-Broadway revue “Once Over Lightly.” The same year, she returned to ballet. She performed with the Ballet Theatre as a guest artist in “Pillar of Fire” and “Romeo and Juliet,” the two Antony Tudor roles she had premiered a decade earlier, and took the lead in Agnes de Mille’s ballet “Tally-Ho.” She then gradually retired from performing. In later years, she worked as an installation artist and held exhibitions. Her memoir, “Distant Dances” (1980) won critical praise for its candid account of her life and career. In 2005 she endowed the Sono Osato Scholarship Program in Graduate Studies at Career Transition For Dancers, which offers retraining grants for retired dancers entering second careers.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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