Sono Osato in a 1936 publicity photo Credit: Courtesy Newberry Library

Published in 1947, Chicago Japanese-American Year Book takes the reader into a time capsule of an ethnic community feeling its way after the government of Japan had waged war against the United States. The U.S. government had responded by forcibly removing Japanese American citizens and aliens from the Pacific coast, where the majority lived, and consigning them to detention centers in remote areas.

Chicago became the most popular destination for “resettlers” after World War II, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Most incarcerees, given only six days’ notice for winding up their affairs, had lost their homes and businesses due to the absurdly short deadline. Here was a city with plenty of jobs and social service organizations ready to help.

Besides ads and listings, the Year Book features short mentions of prominent community members. One of these reads: “Beauteous Sono Osato, talented Japanese American ballet dancer returns to her hometown a ‘star’. She is the daughter of Shoji Osato, well known photographer, and a prominent Japanese pioneer here in the Windy City. Miss Osato left Chicago and earned fame in the Broadway production, ‘On The Town.'” The story of Sono and her family, pieced from the Newberry Library’s Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection and other sources, has many parallels today.

Xenophobia, for one thing. Shoji Osato was working as a newspaper photographer in Omaha when he was assigned to photograph Frances Fitzpatrick for the society page. Sparks flew between the Japanese immigrant and the Japanophile. They eloped to Iowa, because Nebraska law forbade marriage between Asians and whites. In the heat of the moment, Frances likely did not know or care that she lost her U.S. citizenship by marrying an alien. (A 1907 federal law mandated that any American woman wedding a foreigner took the nationality of the husband.)

Berenice Holmes’s student troupe circa 1930. Sono Osato is on the right in the back row; Ann Barzel is on the right in the front row.Credit: Bertram Dorien Basabe

Sono was born in Omaha in 1919, the first of three children, and the family moved to the north side of Chicago in 1925. She started ballet classes in the Loop after school. Berenice Holmes became her teacher. Sono speaks highly of her in her 1980 autobiography Distant Dances. Holmes treated her with respect, like an adult, and patiently worked to correct her technique. Sono danced in Holmes’s student troupe with Ann Barzel, who later became dance critic for several Chicago newspapers and collector of all things terpsichorean.

It was Holmes who arranged for her pupil to audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on the last night of its Chicago engagement at the Auditorium Theatre. The troupe’s director, Colonel Wassily Grigorievitch de Basil, declared, “We’ll take her for three years.” At 14, she sailed for Europe sans famille and a new life of drama onstage and off. It was a fantasy come true for the freshman at what is now Lincoln Park High School.

Absorbing knowledge from the top dancers and choreographers of the day, Sono progressed from the corps of Swan Lake and Firebird to small solo parts. Her first was as a Chinese barback in Union Pacific, the tale of the 19th-century race to cover the west with railroad tracks. Another was as the chief Odalisque (concubine) in Scheherazade. The biracial blending evident in her face led to pronouncements such as this one in Vogue: “With her back-sloping chin, her oddly planed face, this . . . girl has a curious beauty just removed from homeliness.”

Sono Osato recreates her solo part as Scheherazade’s chief concubine in in her father’s Chicago photo studio.Credit: Courtesy Newberry Library

Sono pushed against the confines of classical ballet and society’s perceptions. She left Ballet Russe and joined what became American Ballet Theatre. There she explored modern ballet and made connections with such dancer-choreographers as Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. Her career took off just as the United States entered World War II. “I danced in a daze,” she recalled of her performance the evening of December 7, 1941. An angry audience reaction did not materialize, but the management suggested she change her name for ABT’s impending tour of the south. For the early days of the war, she was billed as Sono Fitzpatrick.

Stage names, however, had no weight with the U.S. government. The passport division informed her she could not go to Mexico on the company’s tour in summer 1942. No person of Japanese ancestry could leave the country. That left her without a job until the fall. Sono had barely resumed working and touring when the government barred her from entering California. Following the president’s Executive Order 9066, all of the state was a military exclusion zone for those of Japanese ancestry. Stranded in the midwest, she went home to her parents in Chicago, only to find that her father had been interned.

Show photo of Japanese temple on Wooded Island. The Osatos’ teahouse and garden included restored buildings from the World’s Columbian Exposition.Credit: Percy H. Sloan; The Newberry Library; Chicago

Shoji Osato likely attracted the attention of the U.S. government because of his promotion of Japanese culture. In 1938, he had duly registered his work as publicity and advertising agent for the Japanese Board of Tourist Industry and the Japanese government railways. This brought him about $4,500 plus expenses annually. An additional source of income was the Japanese Tea House and Garden in Jackson Park. According to Alice Murata’s book Japanese Americans in Chicago, Shoji purchased the garden and donated it to the Chicago Park District. Frances Osato operated the teahouse with a staff of Japanese American women dressed in kimonos.

Sono and Frances visited Shoji on the south side, where he was held in a former mansion with some German nationals. An armed guard sat with them to monitor their conversations. Shoji couldn’t attend Sono’s New York City wedding in April 1943. The indefinite internment turned out to be ten months. He looked forward to joining Frances in New York, where she had moved to be a clothing designer. But she wrote him that he could not live with her. One motivation seems to have been her long-standing unhappiness in the marriage. Another may have been a prudent distancing of herself so as not to call attention to her own alien status.

The couple’s daughter, meanwhile, branched out on Broadway. One Touch of Venus featured Sono as principal dancer in de Mille’s choreography to Kurt Weill’s score. The hit production played to capacity crowds. She received an inaugural Donaldson Award (voted on by her theatrical peers) as “Best Dancer in a Musical (female).”

Then she originated the role of Ivy Smith in the musical On the Town. Ivy is chosen Miss Turnstiles and publicized as the epitome of all things American. A sailor on shore leave sees her poster on the subway and enlists his buddies’ help in finding her. The show captured the pulse of contemporary New York City in its choreography by Jerome Robbins, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. “It was amazing to me that, at the height of a world war . . . a Broadway musical should feature, and have audiences unquestioningly accept, a half-Japanese as an All-American Girl,” Sono wrote in her book. “I could never have been accepted as Ivy Smith in films, or later, on television. Only the power of illusion created between performers and audiences across the footlights can transcend political preference, moral attitudes, and racial prejudice.”

Shoji Osato was able to see his daughter perform in the acclaimed show. He walked to her dressing room with a cane after suffering the first of two strokes. Sono not only made him proud, but the Japanese American community as well. One of their own appeared on a national stage and in the pages of major publications such as the New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar. In that time and place, Sono Osato cast a small point of light in her people’s darkness. v