“Why don’t you come over for tea?” She asked.
Through the course of our conversation she invited me over two more times, each time being reminded by her assistant that I was not, in fact, in the Bay Area.
“Thank you, Dorothy, but I’m calling from Minneapolis. In Minnesota.”
Her assistant, Mark, had warned me that she has a tendency to repeat herself. She was just about to celebrate her 90th birthday, and sometimes she forgets when she had already mentioned something. He said that his job was to help her keep her mind on track, in addition to answering her phone and handling her email.
There was a slight ringing in my ears as we talked, not from any technical problems with my phone, but from the shock that I was actually talking to THE Dorothy Toy, star of the famed Chop Suey circuit of vaudeville; THE Dorothy Toy, of Toy and Wing, the most successful Asian American dance duo in the 1930s and ’40s; THE Dorothy Toy, who I had been reading about for 6 months prior to this phone call.
I had reached a point in my career where I, recognizing the dearth of substantive roles for Asian Americans, was considering writing my first full length play. After considering my skill set, I googled “Asian Tap Dancers” and what came back were several news articles, book references, and grainy video clips featuring Toy & Wing.
If you haven’t heard of Toy & Wing or vaudeville’s Chop Suey Circuit, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard about either of these things until I started my research. I became motivated to tell Dorothy’s story by the mere fact that I hadn’t heard of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing, despite learning of their many successes on stage and screen.
Toy & Wing were billed as “The Chinese Fred & Ginger” even though Dorothy was born Dorothy Takahashi and was of Japanese descent. She simply thought Takahashi was too difficult for most people to pronounce and that they had a better chance of getting on a marquee with a shorter name, so she changed her stage name to Dorothy Toy. They were the first Asian Americans to dance at the London Palladium, and the first Asian Americans to dance on Broadway just prior to Paul Wing being drafted into the US Army in 1943 during World War II.
Though she was referred to as The Chinese Ginger Rogers, Dorothy always thought this was a misnomer. She thought of Ginger Rogers as very smooth and graceful, while Dorothy thought of herself as a strong, athletic toe dancer. As you watch this next clip, keep an eye on Dorothy’s feet. She does the majority of the dance on her toes. And if Paul Wing’s dancing looks somewhat familiar, he danced Legomania, a style made popular by Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz film.
Their success was only one side of the coin, however. Just as they had begun to make a name for themselves both here in the US and internationally, they were invited to perform in a film with Chico Marx in 1942, but a rival dance duo outed Dorothy as being of Japanese ancestry, and in light of the then-recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Toy & Wing were not allowed to appear in the film. They moved to Chicago to regroup, according to Dorothy, while her family was sent to an Internment Camp near Topaz, Utah.
After the war, Toy & Wing got back together and became a regular act at the flagship of the Chop Suey circuit, Forbidden City night club, the setting for C.Y. Lee’s novel upon which Flower Drum Song is based. Dorothy noted that Paul was never quite the same, but they continued to tour and perform across the country.
Dorothy and Paul eventually married, but mostly out of convenience; during lean times, they could save money by booking one hotel room instead of two, and being married helped them justify booking only one room. Dorothy recalled that Paul would often pawn his tuxedo to pay for the room, and buy it back just in time to perform.
This is only a fraction of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing’s story. In May of 2007, I had the honor of meeting Dorothy in person when she–you guessed it–invited me over for tea at her place in Oakland, CA. We sipped sencha while she gave me a tour of her basement ballet studio where she has continued to teach well into her 90s, showed me pictures of her from the 30s and 40s through the 60s, and regaled me with stories of life on the road with Paul, who had passed away in 1997.
Dorothy Toy still lives in Oakland, and is gearing up to celebrate her 100th birthday this May 28, 2017. She is the subject of the documentary, “Dancing Through Life; the Dorothy Toy Story.” She is a living legend; hers are the footprints we walk in, and the shoulders we stand on as Asian American performers. And yet, most Americans don’t know about her. Let’s change that, shall we?
And if you’re wondering if I ever wrote my play, I did. It’s called Kicking The Gong Around, which is a reference to a line in Cab Calloway’s song, Minnie the Moocher:
He took her down to Chinatown
and he showed her how to kick the gong around.