by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For the first half of the 20th century, anti-Japanese sentiment was frequently very strong in greater Los Angeles. When Chinese migration came to a halt after the 1882 exclusion act passed by Congress, Japanese immigration picked up. That, too, posed a threat, with the warning of a “yellow peril” sounded in the region and state. Among those who wrote publicly of their concerns about the Japanese in California was William W. Temple, son of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, who published an essay in 1910 not long after returning to Los Angeles after years spent in Mexico.
In California, anti-Japanese legislation was passed, including a law prohibiting Japanese ownership of land—this being a reason why, when the Workman Homestead was purchased by Walter P. Temple, William’s brother, in late 1917, the 75-acre ranch was leased to a Japanese man known only as “K. Yatsuda.”
Yet, in spite of the vitriol often directed at the Japanese, there were some elements of local society that were fascinated by certain aspects of Japanese art and culture. For example, the Bernheimer brothers, New York merchants who bought a large hillside property in Hollywood, built Yamashiro, a Japanese-style house with elaborate and extensive Japanese gardens and the property was widely publicized and visited for years (it has long been a restaurant of that name).
Another example was the surprising success of “Ken-Geki,” a performance mounted in Los Angeles by the Imperial Theatre Players of Tokyo in June 1928. The “modern sword play” featured a troupe of over thirty persons, including dramatic representations of sword fighting and dance, with the stars being Mitsuru Toyama and Koharu Ohara. Toyama was known for his athletic skills with the sword, as well as leaps and tumbles, while Ohara impressed audiences with her dancing ability.
It was reported that the troupe, which was based in the first Western-style theater built in Japan and which debuted in 1911, was discovered by Hollywood titans Sid Grauman, the theater impresario known for his Egyptian and Chinese theaters, and comedic legend Charles Chaplin, whose film The Circus opened the same month “Ken-Geki” was performed.
Evidently, Chaplin and Grauman “recognized in their presentation something entirely new in the way of theatrical productions for the lovers of the art of the theater.” Notably, a sub-headline in the coverage of the Los Angeles Times described “Ken-Geki” as an “Odd Sword Play.” Elsewhere the paper referred to “weird off-stage native music” in addition to “exotic stage settings and gorgeous costumes brought from Japan,” all of which “contribute to the novelty of the productions for Caucasian audiences.”
The two then enlisted other Hollywood heavyweights, including producers Joseph Schenck, Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille to sponsor the presentation of two performances at the Windsor Square Theatre, a new venue in the upscale residential tract of that name off Wilshire Boulevard that is now the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.
The limited production at that location was so popular with “Caucasian audiences” that the quintet of filmdom sponsors, joined by Lyndon E. Behymer, Los Angeles’ foremost producer of musical and theater performances for many years, arranged for a week’s run at the Music Box Theater in Hollywood, which had just opened its doors the prior October and is now known as the Fonda Theatre.
The Times reported that the Hollywood connection meant that many film industry members were expected to attend performances and the local Japanese-American Drama Society arranged for matinee in addition to evening performances. It was explained that there were three plays presented, two of which were sword plays and the other was “a novel dance fantasy” and showcase for Ohara.
It is notable that, though the performance was said to be exactly as that performed at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, the “action will be speeded and emotional effects intensified,” perhaps a reflection of the film influence in the production. The enhancements, however, succeeded as there were reports of “admirers of physical prowess, including star athletes, military instructors and expert fencers” who went “to marvel” at the dexterous sword work of the Japanese performers.
It was added in a Times article on the subject that
each masculine member of the cast of thirty-two players is an expert swordman, and it is stated that only the most adept at handling the heavy two-handed blades could escape serious injury in the stage presentations, so fast is the action in the dramas.
In addition, drama students as well as those from the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino demographic of the student body of Los Angeles Polytechnic High School formed a party of over 100 to attend a performance. The reason, it was reported, was that “leading educators state that the dramatic interpretations are instructive for students of the drama.” In addition to “novel entertainment,” it was observed that the play presented “interesting customs and historical episodes of the Japanese nation.”
The performances went on without interruption, despite a bout of appendicitis suffered by Ohara, this cited as proof that “oriental stars are as devoted to their art as Occidentals.” Ohara was stricken the night before the first performance, on 18 June, at the Music Box and her physician, Dr. S. Ishigawa, advised her to rest and allow an understudy to take over, but the leading lady “insisted on playing in order not to disappoint the premiere audience.”
The week-long series of shows was so successful that it was decided to extend the run another week and to hold “special night in honor of celebrities of the world of the dramatic arts,” while an engagement in San Diego was postponed to make room in the schedule. The Times reported that
notables of the stage and films, who have been conspicuous in every audience at the Music Box since the premiere a week ago, have brought so many of their friends to the presentations that the Japanese American Drama Society, staging the plays under the sponsorship of L.E. Behymer and other leading producers, have decided to return the compliment by dedicating this week’s performances to stars of the stage and screen and dramatic organizations who have contributed to the success of the engagement.
Among those who were highlighted as bringing friends and colleagues were producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. and child star Jackie Coogan, whose performance in Chaplin’s classic The Kid. The performers of “Ken-Geki” even joined in for a fundraiser for the Los Angeles Sanatorium, held at the Warner Brothers Theatre so that, as the Times headline put it, there was a “International Flavor To Be Given to Show.” Along with Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, there were performers who were Irish, German, Mexican, South American and Italian.
“Ken-Geki” did finally leave Los Angeles for other venues in California, including a one-day engagement at the Pasadena Community Theatre, and the tour went so well that, in November, Behymer announced that the Imperial Theatre troupe would make an extended tour of America and Europe. This announcement, it was said, was “indicative of the reputation Los Angeles has gained for discovering and introducing the unusual in new attractions.”
The Times went on to suggest that the city’s “acceptance of ‘Ken-Geki’, the drama unusual, served to arouse the interest of theatergoers throughout American cities, and even Europe, is evidenced by the demands for bookings that continue to flood Behymer’s office.” Once the troupe finished its performances in New York, it was expected that agents would arrange engagements in the capital cities of some European countries.
The story of the two-week run of “Ken-Geki” in Los Angeles is a fascinating one in the annals of theater history in the city and region and notable for its occurrence during a time to overt racism against Japanese-Americans at the same time that some locals were drawn to exotic Japanese themes in art, architecture, and performance.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a broadside from the opening night’s performance of “Ken-Geki” at the Music Box on 18 June 1928.