THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Hapa baritone George Hirose’s theatrical story

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One of the pleasures of working on “The Great Unknown” is the joy of running across unfamiliar names, looking into their stories, and uncovering information that not only is interesting, but makes the history we study richer and more complex.

A case in point is that of George and Arthur Hirose, a pair of hapa brothers from turn of the century New York. George was notable both as a religious singer and a Broadway stalwart. Arthur became an executive and leader in the field of advertising in mid-century New York City.

Both their unusual careers stand in bold contradiction to our received notions about the outsider status of prewar Japanese Americans in general, and the isolation facing mixed-race individuals in particular.

The Hirose brothers were born in New York City. Their father, Yoshisuke Hirose, was a Japanese Christian who had come to the United States and studied at Beloit College before enrolling in theological studies at Wheaton College, with the intent to become a missionary. Yoshisuke (known as Yosh or John) worked himself through school in part through lecture tours in midwestern towns, in which he spoke about Japan, and in part with support from the Congregationalist Church of Sterling, Ill. While at Wheaton, he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Barbara Gebhardt, who was also studying to be a missionary. After graduation, Yoshisuke moved to New York, where he directed the Prospect Street Mission in Brooklyn. There Barbara joined him, and the two were married in nearby New Jersey in March of 1898. George McGregor Hirose, the first child, was born in 1899, while Arthur P. came along two years later.

At the time of his marriage, Yoshisuke was described in the press alternately as intending to return to Japan with his bride as a missionary, and as pursuing the goal of ministering to Japanese residents in New York (especially sailors) and opening a Japanese school for their children. In 1906 Rev. Hirose was listed as the pastor of the Japanese mission at 330 East 57th St., and in 1913 as superintendant of the building. What happened to him after that — whether he abandoned the family or passed away — is not clear; on one later form Barbara lists herself as a widow, then in a still later form as still married. In any event, by the time of the 1915 census, Barbara and the two boys (both listed under race as “white”) were living alone in Manhattan — George was listed as an “entry clerk” and his brother as a schoolboy.

Soon after, the family moved to the suburb of Mount Vernon, N.Y., where Barbara would live for nearly 20 years. While George lived there for a time with his mother, in the late 1920s he married Naoe Kondo, a New Jersey-born Nisei, and moved to Manhattan.

During the 1920s, George worked as a salesman and manager (he ended up working for a shoe company). Meanwhile, he was drawn to work with Tom Noonan, the “Bishop of Chinatown” who operated a Baptist rescue mission on Doyers Street, and became a star of early radio with the weekly services he conducted from an old Chinese theater. Noonan engaged George as one of the regular stable of singers who performed on his “Cathedral of the Air” program. By 1924, he was already winning popular attention as a “Japanese baritone” on radio, and also began giving “spiritual concerts” in churches. A reviewer in the influential New York Herald Tribune newspaper celebrated Hirose as “one of the best baritones we have heard.” Perhaps conscious of ethnic stereotyping, in his publicity George laid emphasis on his “manly style” and “clearness of tone.”

By 1930 he was sufficiently well known that he did concert tours, singing in Schenectady, Hartford, Conn., and Ocean City, Md. A review of a Hirose concert in Farmville, Va. in the late 1933 noted that George’s size and the powerful vibrancy of his voice were impressive for a Japanese. Though the review complained of lack of warmth and excessive vibration, the reviewer praised his stage presence and ability to “put over” a song. He also established a tradition of singing Palm Sunday and Easter holiday services. In 1932, he sang the Baritone part in the Easter section of Gounod’s Redemption at the Park Avenue Church. The following year George appeared at Tom Noonan’s mission to sing Methodist hymns. He shared the bill at Noonan’s church with Goldie Mae Steiner, who was billed as “the only colored woman cantor in America.” This may have inaugurated a pattern: the following year, he performed a sacred song concert at an African American church, Mt. Olivet Baptist and appeared with African American performers in an interracial concert at Calvary Baptist Church. In 1938, he was featured on a radio program in Los Angeles, in which he sang Japanese songs.

Tom Noonan’s death in August of 1935 seems to have marked an important shift for George Hirose from concert and radio singing to theater, though he had been engaged in stage work for some years already. In January of 1927, he was selected for the cast of “Ching-A-Ling,” an “Oriental Revue” that featured Chinese and Japanese in comic roles, and a bevy of Asian chorus girls. Famed modern dancer Michio Ito was the show’s star and choreographer (future dance teacher Yeichi Nimura, in turn, made his stage debut as a dancer in the show). It opened in Wilmington, Del., and toured. By the time it reached Broadway later that year, under the name “Tokyo Blues,” it had been taken over by showman John Murray Anderson, and its stars were the youthful vaudeville players “The Three Meyakos” (in real life Esther, Florence and George Kudara, three mixed-race Nisei from the suburbs of Buffalo, New York).

Although George was listed as engaged for a show called “Battleship Gertie” in 1934, his next Broadway appearance came in September of 1935, just after Tom Noonan’s death, when he was cast as Baron Ishiwara in the Theatre Guild production of “If This Be Treason,” a play by Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes. The play only ran for two months, but gained wide publicity due to its pacifist message (spoiler alert: after Japan launches a surprise attack on the U.S. and seizes Manila, the president of the United States resists all calls to declare war and instead flies to Japan to negotiate, thereby inspiring the Japanese people to rise up and throw out the militarists). Naoe was cast as an extra.

Soon after, Hirose made use of his vocal gifts when he was cast as Pish-Tush in a short-lived Broadway production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson praised George’s voice, but found his acting too humorless for a light operetta.

His big break came when he was cast as Ichiro Kato (again a Japanese part!) in the George Abbott musical comedy “See My Lawyer,” starring Milton Berle. It ran for 224 performances.

Pearl Harbor and the resulting anti-Japanese sentiment cut into George’s career, and after the outbreak of war with Japan, he was absent from performing for a generation. In later years, he was hired to play Charlie Chan in a series of TV shirt commercials. He also made a few more appearances, including an unsuccessful Broadway show, “13 Daughters” (1961) starring Don Ameche, and as Dr. Li in summer stock tours of the musical “Flower Drum Song.” George was listed as a cast member in an out-of-town preview of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse revue, “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd,” but was not in the final New York cast. George also played a bit part in a monster movie, “Gammera.” He died in New York in August of 1974.

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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