Betty Inada: A Sacramento Flapper on the Silver Screen

Posted on January 5, 2012 – 7:48 AM | by William Burg
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Betty Inada: A Sacramento Flapper on the Silver Screen

By William Burg

How did a Sacramento girl become the most popular jazz singer in Japan? The little-known story of Betty Inada began in Sacramento’s Japantown. Like many Nisei, the first generation of American-born children of Japanese immigrants, her life was caught between the traditions of her parents and the culture of their adopted country. Born on November 10, 1913, her parents named her Fumiko but gave her the nickname “Bessie,” which she disliked and later changed to “Betty.” This independence characterized her life, and by her teens she fell in love with jazz. In the 1920s, jazz was wild, disobedient music considered responsible for the downfall of American morals, but kids like Betty loved it. Adopting flapper fashions, short hair with celluloid barettes and short skirts with rolled-down stockings, Betty’s style shocked her parents and more traditional Nisei youth but made her a popular figure in the local jazz scene.

Sacramento’s Japantown was large enough to have its own bands, like Richard Okumoto’s “Night Hawks,” and its own venues, like the M Street Café. Because many were illegal speakeasies, and due to the relative isolation of Japantown even from the rest of Sacramento, the locations of these venues are poorly documented and little-known. Bands like the Night Hawks also played in nearby Japanese farm communities like Florin and Walnut Grove, shocking and delighting Nisei farm kids with their big-city sounds. Young women like Elizabeth Murata, saxophone player for the Night Hawks, were a small but active part of this musical community. Betty Inada’s mother played samisen and performed traditional Japanese dances, and while she may have frowned on her daughter’s choice of music, she shared her love of performance. Betty joined the Los Angeles vaudeville troupe of Fanchon & Marco, but her real ambition was singing, not dancing in a chorus line or performing acrobatics as part of a stereotypical “Oriental” stage act. But there was little room in the United States for a Japanese lead vocalist, even in the radical world of jazz.

Betty may have been inspired to look beyond American shores by a fellow Sacramentan, Agnes Miyakawa, who followed the example of Josephine Baker and moved to Paris, singing “Madame Butterfly” at the National Opera Comique Theater in 1931. In early 1933, Betty’s friend Fumiko Kawabata moved from Los Angeles to Japan to sing in Tokyo clubs. Having a friend already in Japan helped Betty ease her parents’ fears about moving so far away, and on June 9, 1933 she headed for Japan at age 19, despite the fact that she could barely speak Japanese.

Betty’s inexperience with Japanese language and culture, and competition from many other Nisei in Japan also seeking stardom, a phenomenon called bata-kusai (literally “reeking butter”), made her start in Japan difficult, but she found a way to set herself apart. Due to the limits of 1930s microphones, Tokyo jazz singers often used a megaphone to be heard over the orchestra. Not wanting to hide her beauty behind a megaphone, Betty developed a vocal style more like shouting than singing. Soon she made her mark on the Tokyo jazz scene and secured a recording contract with Columbia Records of Japan. Betty’s bold, brash stage performances shocked even urbane Tokyo audiences. After a hula performance at the Columbia Record Company’s All-Star Cast Show, she was visited by the Tokyo Vice Squad and charged with public indecency, who accused her of performing a shiri furi dansu (“butt shaking dance.”) She managed to explain the significance of traditional Hawaiian dancing to the vice officers, who dropped the charge.

In June of 1934, Betty returned to California as a star of the Ginza club circuit. After three months at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, she had a farewell party in Sacramento on November 7. Upon her return to Japan, she sang and danced in her first movie, Odoriko Nikki (“A Dancer’s Journal”) followed by her starring role in Hodo no Sasayaki, “Whispering Sidewalks.” This musical feature film told a semi-fictionalized story of Betty’s experiences in Japan, as an American who comes to Tokyo to seek her fortune, overcoming adversity before achieving fame. This role secured Betty her place as the most popular female jazz singer of prewar Japan.

During World War II, Betty remained in Japan, teaming with top vocalist Kazuko “Dick” Miné in 1940. Together they toured Japan and performed for Japanese troops and civilians in China and the Sakhalin Peninsula. After the war they sang with the Stardusters, a Tokyo big band. She recorded and performed in Japan through the 1950s, gradually abandoning the brashness of her wild youth for a more mature, dignified style. She briefly returned to Sacramento in 1958 to open a Japanese restaurant. By that year, there was little left of Sacramento’s old Japantown, demolished by the redevelopment project that created Capitol Mall. Betty moved to Los Angeles where she married Cecil Silva and opened a hamburger stand, later working at a photo studio. She returned to Tokyo in 1979 and 1991, both times to sing at events honoring her old stage partner Dick Miné.

Betty died in November of 2001, after being interviewed in 1993 for George Yoshida’s book on Japanese jazz, Reminiscing in Swingtime. In that book, she was quoted: “I have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do in my own small way.” A copy of Whispering Sidewalks still exists at the UC Berkeley Pacific Film Archive, shown at the 2008 San Francisco International Asian Film Festival.

  1. 4 Responses to “Betty Inada: A Sacramento Flapper on the Silver Screen”

  2. avatar

    By Gee Whiz on Jan 5, 2012 | Reply

    Rad article!

  3. avatar

    By Matias Bombal on Jan 5, 2012 | Reply

    Fabulous William!
    I’ve always been interested in Fanchon and Marco and the stage prologues called “Ideas” they devised that toured all theatres belonging to the Fox-West Coast chain. She is an act with them that I’ve never seen documented before. Nice work.

  4. avatar

    By Gregory Miyata on Jan 24, 2013 | Reply

    I met Cecil Silva…and he was telling me some interesting stories about Betty, his first wife, and her accomplishments. He even told me stories of Betty and Toyo Miyatake. Are there any photos of Cecil way back then?

  5. avatar

    By William Burg on Jan 26, 2013 | Reply

    I didn’t find any photos of Cecil, but would be interested in hearing the stories if you’d be willing to share them. The only photos I found were the ones posted here, and two promotional photos at the Pacific Film Archive from “Whispering Sidewalks.”

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