Pat Suzuki

American actress and popular singer Pat Suzuki (b. Cressey, CA, 22 September 1930) is best known for her role as Linda Low, the brassy nightclub singer, in the original Broadway production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1958). The show, in which she sang “Grant Avenue” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” made Suzuki a star, and the latter song became her signature.

Chiyoko Suzuki and her three older sisters were second-generation Japanese-Americans (“Nisei”), growing up in a tiny farming town in Merced County. Her nickname was “Chibi” – Japanese for “squirt” – since she was the littlest in the family and quite obviously everybody’s pet. She loved to sing, and as a child would entertain at church and neighborhood gatherings. When Chibi was eleven, just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Suzuki family was ordered, as were more than 110,000 other Japanese-American residents of the Pacific coast, to leave their homes and to be interned at one of the many detention camps set up in unpopulated parts of the West. The Suzukis spent the duration of the War at the Granada War Relocation Center (Camp Amache) in Colorado.

They returned to the coast after the War, and Pat attended San Jose State for a time, but soon left for New York. There she got a job understudying in a touring production of The Teahouse of the August Moon, which eventually found its way to Seattle. At a nightclub called The Colony she got a regular singing gig, and one night in 1957, Bing Crosby happened to be in attendance. He was so impressed with her talents that he helped her get a recording contract with RCA Victor; her first album was The Many Sides of Pat Suzuki (1957), followed by Miss Pony Tail (1958). Before long she was singing as a guest on national network television (Dinah Shore 1957, George Gobel 1958, Dick Clark 1958), including The Frank Sinatra Show on ABC (1958). Her bold, trumpet-like rendition of “Something’s Gotta Give” on that occasion drew the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were then casting Flower Drum Song.

The musical, featuring a mostly Asian cast and dealing with the difficulties between clashing cultures in the American West-Coast immigrant community, made a splash on the cover of Time Magazine in December 1958, when the faces of Pat Suzuki and Miyoshi Umeki were superimposed in front of an American flag. Two years later Suzuki was to sing at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Flower Drum Song ran for 602 performances on Broadway, and brought Pat Suzuki a Theatre World Award for her debut. The show was made into a Hollywood film in 1961, but Suzuki was not chosen to repeat her role in the movie, despite having established the showstopper “I Enjoy Being a Girl” as her own inalienable property. Actress Nancy Kwan played Linda Low, and famed backup singer B. J. Baker dubbed in her singing voice.

Instead, Suzuki released a solo album called Broadway ’59, which opened with the three most popular songs from Flower Drum Song, but proceeded with ballads of a very different character: gentler standards like “The Party’s Over,” ‘Tonight,” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The album brought her a nomination for a Grammy Award in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category in 1960. Her 1960 solo album, Looking at You, was her last recording to be released until the 1999 CD compilation on Taragon Records, The Very Best of Pat Suzuki.

Also in 1960 Pat Suzuki married photographer Mark Shaw. They had one son, David, but were soon divorced.

Suzuki continued to appear on television into the 1960s (Ed Sullivan 1959, Jack Paar 1960, Jerry Lester 1963, Mike Douglas 1964 and 1968, Red Skelton 1964), and in the ’70s she often appeared in films and television series drama, playing Ma Eng in Frank Chin’s The Year of the Dragon (1975) and Pat Morita’s wife in the short-lived sitcom Mr. T. and Tina (1976), the first sitcom ever to feature an Asian-American family.

A strangely slow but intense rendition by Pat Suzuki of “How High the Moon” accompanies the opening credits of the motion picture Biloxi Blues (1988) with Matthew Broderick.

More recently, Suzuki has returned to New York as Esther in a 2002 Jewish Repertory Theatre production of Two By Two: The Richard Rodgers Centennial Concert, as Bloody Mary in South Pacific, at the 61st Annual Theatre World Awards at Studio 54, and in Broadway Originals in Concert at Town Hall. In Los Angeles she received rave reviews for her moving performance in the premiere of Manzanar: An American Story, an epic musico-dramatic work commemorating the experience of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans interned in War Relocation Centers during World War II. Presented at UCLA in May 2005, the work was written and directed by Philip Kan Gotanda, with music by Jean-Pascal Beintus, David Benoit, and Naomi Sekiya, and narrated by Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, Sab Shimono, and John Cho also took part in the event; Kent Nagano conducted the American Youth Symphony.

Pat Suzuki remains active in support of Asian-American civil rights, and continues to perform occasionally in venues large and small.

– Lucy E. Cross