Dorothy Toy, who beginning in the 1930s danced her way across stages and the occasional film set with striking energy, weathering the hostility toward Japanese-Americans during World War II even as her parents were sent to an internment camp, died July 10 at her home in Oakland, California. She was 102.
Her daughter, Dorlie Fong, confirmed her death.
Toy, whose married name was Dorothy Toy Fong, worked for much of her career with Paul Wing; they billed themselves as Toy and Wing and played prominent houses in the United States and abroad. According to “Dancing Through Life, The Dorothy Toy Story,” a 2017 documentary by Rick Quan, in 1939 they became the first Asian-Americans to play the London Palladium. They were in England when World War II broke out in Europe.
For that engagement and others, they billed themselves as “Chinese dance stylists” or a “Chinese-American dance team” or even “the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” but only Wing was Chinese. Toy, born in the United States, was of Japanese heritage.
“The Japanese were not well liked,” she explained in a 2009 interview with NPR, adding, “We always used Chinese names. They’re shorter and easier to put on the paper.”
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans came under severe suspicion, and Toy and Wing felt the consequences.
“That was when we were with Chico Marx,” Toy recalled in the documentary. “Somebody snitched that I’m Japanese.”
The documentary says an unnamed rival dance team was behind the disclosure. Toy and Wing had to abandon their engagements with Chico Marx — one of the Marx Brothers — and lost a film contract, the documentary says. Toy’s parents, restaurateurs in Los Angeles, were sent to an internment camp in Utah, and she settled in New York to avoid the same fate.
Wing was drafted into the U.S. military during the war, effectively ending the act, though the two danced together occasionally in subsequent years. Toy, however, continued her career, appearing in clubs like Forbidden City in San Francisco and forming her own troupe, the Oriental Playgirl Revue, which toured in the 1960s and into the ’70s.
She was born Shigeko Takahashi on May 28, 1917, in San Francisco and grew up in Los Angeles, where her father, Yataro, and mother, Kiyo (Sayama) Takahashi, operated a restaurant on Santa Barbara Avenue. There was a vaudeville theater across the street. Shigeko — who would later take Dorothy Toy as a stage name — could dance on pointe from a young age.
“My mother used to dance around on her toes outside of her parents’ restaurant,” Fong says in the documentary. “The manager of the theater would come to eat and would see my mother dancing outside, and he mentioned to my grandmother that maybe she could use some dancing lessons.”
After she studied with a Russian teacher, she added to her arsenal the springs and other acrobatic moves of Cossack dances. In 1934 she and her sister, Helen, were in a dance number in “Happiness Ahead,” a movie that starred Dick Powell and Josephine Hutchinson. Wing, whom the sisters had met at the family restaurant, was in the film as well and suggested they form an act. Once Toy graduated from high school in 1936 they hit the road as The Three Majongs and headed for Chicago.
“I told my mother and she said, ‘OK,’” Toy says in the documentary. “She didn’t know where Chicago was.”
Her sister left the act after a few years to pursue singing, but Toy and Wing stayed together, even marrying in 1940, though the documentary says it was a marriage of convenience to make things like booking hotels easier, and it ended after a few years. The two were certainly a good match on the dance floor, at least, with Wing bringing tap to the mix.
“By the time they scored on the big time on their own,” an entry on them in “Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America,” says, “their act was a medley of soft shoe, jitterbugging and balletic ballroom dance.”
In a comic film short called “Deviled Ham,” the two are introduced this way: “Toy and Wing, jazz dancers from the Orient. Burnt up two dance floors covered with asbestos.”
The relationship between Toy and Wing, who died in 1997, inspired a stage musical, “Almond Eyes,” by Jay Chee and JoAnn Yuen, which was performed at California State University, East Bay, in 2009. The war affected Wing, who served in a tank unit. “He wasn’t the same” afterward, Toy said in the documentary.
Changing tastes after the war also led to declining interest in vaudeville acts; when the two did perform together in the postwar years, it was often in nightclubs in urban Chinatowns. Her dance troupe, though, did well for a time, proving especially popular in Canada.
Later in life Toy worked as a pharmaceutical technician and gave dance lessons.
Her marriage to Les Fong, a businessman, in 1952 ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Peter.
Though Toy had some film and television credits, she preferred the stage.
“It makes you happy when you have a live audience,” she told NBC in 2016. “They say, ‘That’s great,’ and you feel like a million dollars; that’s the kind of feel you get. But you don’t want the million, you just want the applause.”