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In the Family Tradition

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Jodi Long went on the road with her parents and their nightclub act when she was 6 weeks old. She slept on blankets inside drawers that were placed on the floors of hotel rooms. Until she started school, she could be seen in the wee hours on the dance floors of clubs where her parents worked.

Now, Long is giving an acclaimed performance as a manager and promoter in the newly revised “Flower Drum Song” at the Mark Taper Forum--a show that depicts the milieu of Chinese American show biz in which she grew up. She’s following in the footsteps of her father, who was in the original version of the musical for several years.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 5, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Monday November 5, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Song title--The title of “Grant Avenue,” a song performed in “Flower Drum Song,” was misspelled in a Calendar Weekend article Thursday about actress Jodi Long and her family.

Long’s parents, Larry and Kimiye Leung, who are divorced, recently reunited to see their daughter in the show. The experience was videotaped as part of an in-the-works documentary, “Long Story Short,” which will focus on the family’s story.

Long’s 82-year-old father has retained his Chinese father’s original name, Leung, which was anglicized to “Long” in his native Australia. When Larry Long became a performer in America, he reclaimed “Leung” as his stage name. But he and his wife passed on his legal name, “Long,” to their daughter.

Leung and Kimiye Tsunemitsu met as performers in 1947 at the China Doll nightclub in New York. They married, and Tsunemitsu adopted the stage names “Trudy Kim” and then “Kim Leung.” They worked as a husband-and-wife act at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco, on the road and even--on May 7, 1950--on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.

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Sullivan introduced them as “direct from China,” and the routine began with Leung talking in pidgin Chinese, wearing a Chinese robe. Then he took off the robe to reveal a tuxedo and transformed into a Western-style tap dancer, said playwright David Henry Hwang, who adapted the script of “Flower Drum Song” for the Taper production. “In the context of their time, it represented a step forward in the way Asians were represented,” Hwang said. “There was something surprising when he made that transition” into the tux and taps. Long’s character, Madame Liang, makes a similar point in “Flower Drum Song” when she says: “We’ll give the tourists what they want, but we’ll have the last laugh.”

Although Leung was a regular at Forbidden City, he was working elsewhere when most of the creators of “Flower Drum Song"--the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, director Gene Kelly and novelist C.Y. Lee--scouted talent at the club and found Jack Soo, whom they hired for a comic supporting role.

Nonetheless, Leung got a second chance when he stumbled on a mass audition for the show, after noticing what he called “50, 100 Orientals lined up outside a stage door on Broadway.”

Thus began a series of auditions, culminating in one with Kelly in Rodgers’ office, where Leung and Kelly exchanged little zingers about their respective dancing prowess. Leung told Kelly that “some people call me the Chinese Gene Kelly, but I think I’m a little better than that.” Still, he got the job--replacing Soo after Soo moved up to take over the starring role of Sammy Fong.

Leung’s big Broadway break wasn’t exactly a breakthrough. He was told to play the role like Soo, he recalled, even though, in his words, “Soo was tall and moved like a snail. I was 5 feet 5 inches and moved like a hare.” He wasn’t getting many laughs.

According to Leung, the stage manager suggested that altering his costume during part of his performance might help. That alteration enraged Joseph Fields, Hammerstein’s collaborator on the libretto. During the intermission of the first performance with the costume change, Fields confronted Leung backstage, and the argument became physical--Leung said he almost threw Fields into the orchestra pit. He was fired the next day, but he was allowed to play out his contract. During the next seven weeks, “they couldn’t fire me again, so I changed everything. It was a gas.”

Leung said he lost several opportunities to appear as Sammy Fong in subsequent productions, because he was “blackballed” for more than a year because of the incident. But eventually he was cast as Sammy Fong in a number of theaters around the country.

Leung, whose Cantonese father married a Scottish woman, still speaks with a trace of an Australian accent. He became a teenage tap dancer in the music halls of Sydney. After military service in World War II, he worked his way to San Francisco, where he was half of an act called the Wing Brothers, which brought him to New York.

Kimiye Tsunemitsu, by contrast, is a Japanese American, born in Oregon, whose family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho during World War II. She hadn’t been involved in show business when a New York sponsor obtained her release from the internment camp and brought her to the Big Apple. Once she got there, she got a job as a “pony"--one of the shorter dancers as opposed to the taller “showgirls"--at the China Doll.

The management of the China Doll didn’t care if the performers were Chinese, as long as they looked Asian. “Like our show,” said Long, referring to the Taper “Flower Drum Song” cast that features two actors of Filipino descent as the Chinese romantic leads.

‘The Only Asians on the Bill Most of the Time’

During a slump in business at the China Doll, Leung branched out with his solo act. He played before an all-black audience at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, seven shows a day. Then he and his wife formed their own act, featuring impressions, dancing and jokes about Chinese laundries and other subjects. This was the act they took West, to Forbidden City, and to theaters nationwide.

“We were the only Asians on the bill most of the time, except at Forbidden City,” said Kimiye Leung. “It was more or less vaudeville.” She retired from show business when Jodi started school and never returned.

Jodi first appeared on Broadway at age 7, directed by Sidney Lumet in “Nowhere to Go But Up.” For her audition, she followed her father’s suggestion and sang a song from “Flower Drum Song"--"Grand Avenue"--the same song she now sings at the Taper. When Leung first saw his grown-up daughter doing the song, he said, “it broke me up. I started crying.”

“The family came full circle,” her mother added.

Long’s parents encouraged her to get some serious theater training, which she did in a conservatory at State University of New York, Purchase. Soon after college, she got a job opposite Kevin Kline in Michael Weller’s “Loose Ends” at Arena Stage in Washington and on Broadway. Much of her career since then has been in classical theater, where she has played many an ostensibly non-Asian role. However, she played Asian roles in her previous Taper stint in “The Wash” in 1991 and in two TV series: “Cafe Americain” in 1993-94 and “All-American” Girl” in 1994-95, in which she played Margaret Cho’s strict mother.

Doing the musical theater and nightclub work that her parents did wasn’t an option for her, Long said. The Chinese American club world had faded, Asians were seldom cast in non-Asian musicals, and “I was never chorus line material. I didn’t dance like that.” Her mother, who had been opposed to a show-biz career for her daughter because “she saw how hard it was for my dad,” nevertheless offered career advice to Jodi that she didn’t always take: “She was convinced that I wasn’t doing better because I wouldn’t wear false eyelashes,” Long said.

In the early ‘80s, Long acted in plays by Hwang. Another actor in their circle was the man who now plays Sammy Fong, Tzi Ma.

Back then, Long said, “no way were we going to do ‘Flower Drum Song.’ But now David has taken the old and made it new. And it’s so lovely that Tzi and I represent the older generation in this new version. I get to utilize both my parents in this play--my father’s song and dance and my mother’s false eyelashes. That’s what touches me deeply--that we can represent my parents’ generation and ourselves.”

*

“Flower Drum Song,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 19, 8 p.m.; Nov. 28, 2:30 p.m.; Dec. 2, 2:30 p.m. only. Dark Nov. 22. Ends Dec. 2. $45-$50. (213) 628-2772.


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