Unfortunately for Mary and her five siblings, her father passed away in
1929 from pneumonia, and her mother, after remarrying, died in 1933, leaving
the young family without parents.
“An orphanage came to pick us up,” said Mary, “But my older brother knew that they we would all be separated, so he refused to let them take us.”
Instead, the older brother, Akira Frank, then 17, and an older sister, Mae, 16, both quit school and took on jobs to support the family during the Depression.
Frank bought a book on horticulture and taught himself to be a gardener. Mae got a job at a local produce market.
“Times were tough during the Depression,” said Mary, who was 11 years old at the time. “But my brother was able to scrape up $1.50 a week for my voice lessons, and 10 cents so I could ride a bus from Venice to Santa Monica to get there. I really do owe my brother a lot for allowing me to do that,” she said.
Despite the loss of her parents, and with the help of a supportive family,
Mary kept singing. She performed in talent shows at the Venice Gakuen and the
West LA Buddhist Church. And when she was 12, the West LA JACL sponsored her
trips to entertain U.S. servicemen stationed up and down the California Coast.
The only child performer among a group of adults, she sang popular ballads
from the ‘30s.In her mid-teens, she teamed up with her brother and sister to
form the Kageyama Trio, who performed at Nisei Week in Yamato Hall in 1940 and
Together, they sang the song, “Georgia.”
“I always wanted to sing,” she said. “I learned all the songs from listening
to the radio and writing down the lyrics. I was constantly singing around the
house. I just enjoyed singing. Judy Garland was my favorite.”
Her dream was to become a radio singer. But that ended on December 7, 1941 with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.
At 16, Mary was shocked by the news, but the full impact of what happened didn’t hit her until there was talk about “relocation.”
Once that hit home, reality really sunk in when the family was forced to sell her mother’s hand carved, upright piano for only $5. After the war, they tried to buy it back, but no one knew what happened to it. All that’s left of the piano is a photo with Mary’s family gathered around it—and the memories of the music it used to play.
On the piano is the sheet music for the song “Stay as Sweet as You Are.”
“My brother still sings that song to this day,” said Mary.
Back in camp, Manzanar dance and talent show organizers would ask Mary about a week in advance if she would perform at their functions. Happily, she obliged, and soon had quite a following around the camp dance circuit, where she would be called on to sing a couple numbers about half way through the program.
Accompanied by a camp band musician or Louis Frizzel, the popular Manzanar music teacher, Mary would stand by the piano at the front of the mess hall and sing the popular tunes of the day.
“The very first song I sang in camp was ‘Tangerine,’ acapella” she said, referring to the Johnny Mercer classic. “The last song I sung in camp was ‘I’ll be Seeing You.’”
And in the three years in between, she touched a lot of hearts along the way singing songs like “All or Nothing at All,” “Old Black Magic,” “I Remember April” and the “Trolley Song” from the movie “Meet
Me in St. Louis.”
The Manzanar High School yearbook described the “Silver-voice Miss” this way:
“Her friendliness, her sense of humor and her dependability all contributed toward making Mary one of the swellest girls in the camp, and also a fine student leader.”
Along with singing at camp dances and shows, she also sang at her sister’s wedding reception held inside the camp, as well as a funeral. She’s not sure who named her “The Song Bird of Manzanar,” but it stuck. Embarrassed by the title at first, she grew to accept it as her voice continued to bring joy and hope throughout the camp.
“It was a real sentimental time and era,” she said. “People weren’t so hurried like they are today. They had time for each other. The words and music were so beautiful. They told a story. The swing tunes were all happy. They don’t write songs like that anymore.”
Outside of singing, she worked as a receptionist/file clerk in the camp’s public works department. During her free time, she was a member of an acapella choir and a girls club called the Modernaires, who participated in the camp’s intramural softball league.
“What position did I play?” she asked. “Left out,” she joked. “Or right field, where they put all the bumbled-fingered ones.”
Another big highlight of her days at Manzanar was meeting her husband, Shiro Nomura. Older than Mary by several years, “Shi” (pronounced “Shy”) was an advisor for the boys club known as the “ManzaKnights,” who sponsored an annual event called the “Turkey Trot.”
Mary was asked to sing, but prior to the event Shi wanted to make sure one
of the ManzaKnights served as her escort to the dance. But it turns out most
of the boys didn’t want to be seen with her because she was taller than them,
so by default, Shi Nomura escorted Mary to the Turkey Trot in November 1944.
And we were together for 55 years,” said Mary.
The couple got engaged on April Fools Day, 1945. (“When we told people we were engaged they thought we were kidding,” said Mary.) And after leaving camp, they married in June 1945.
Unfortunately, her dream of being a big recording star was never fulfilled.
She went on to raise five children. And today, at 84, she has 12 grandchildren, some of whom sing, just like grandma.
“I still love to sing,” she said.
* * *
“The Camp Dance: The Music & The Memories,” featuring a special guest appearance by Mary Kageyama Nomura, will be performed on Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 1 p.m. & 7 p.m. and Sunday, November 8 at 2 p.m. at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. General admission tickets are $25, $23 for Museum members, seniors and students. For tickets and info, call 213.625.0414 / 323.769.5503© 2009 Soji Kashiwagi
|Mary Kageyama Nomura
"The Songbird of Manzanar"
|One of the most romantic love stories of the Internment took place at
the Manzanar Internment Camp, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of
California. It is a story about the magic of music, centering around Mary
Kageyama Nomura, the "Songbird of Manzanar."
Mary's Early Life
Mary Kageyama learned Japanese and American singing and dance from her mother at an early age, having her first public performance at age 4. After the tragic death of her mother when she was only 8, Mary's older brother Frank and older sister Fumi, themselves only 17 and 16 at the time, dropped out of school to support Mary and her two younger sisters.
Mary was able to continue her music studies in school. At Venice High School in Los Angeles Mary sang in the choir and performed in talent shows. In August 1941, at the annual Nisei Week Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture held at Yamato Hall in Los Angeles, Mary won first prize.
In 1942, the US Military, surpressing its own evidence to the contrary and ignoring due process, falsely claimed there was a "military necessity" to intern all 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. Two-thirds of the internees were, like Mary, native-born American citizens under the age of 21. Mary was interned in Manzanar Internment Camp in eastern California.
During the years of the Internment, music provided a rare solace for the internees, distracting them from the bleak reality of their desert prisons. Mary was a member of a girl's social club called the Modernaires and sang at dances sponsored by the club. She soon became known throughout the camp as the "Songbird of Manzanar."
At one of the dances, a young man named Shi Nomura heard her sing - and realized it was her voice that had captivated him in August 1941 at Yamato Hall as she sang "Liebestraum" - "A Dream of Love." He courted her and won her heart, and as the war came to a close they were engaged to be married.
Mary was able to leave Manzanar in February 1945, slightly before Shi. While they were apart, Shi wrote love poems and sent them to Mary in Los Angeles. Mary set two of the poems to music, sang them for a recording - and mailed the records back to Shi in Manzanar.
Mary and Shi married in June 1945 and settled in Los Angeles.
Mary's original recordings are preserved in the Manzanar Room of the Eastern California Museum, in the town of Independance, 14 miles north of Manzanar. In the collection, which Shi started in the museum in the 1970s to preserve the history of the camp, are two other recordings that Mary actually made at Manzanar while still an internee.
The Eastern California Museum and Mary Kageyama Nomura have graciously given permission to use both songs, "Can't Fool This Heart Of Mine" and "Don't Ever Change," together with photographs of Mary and her family, in the virtual reality installation Beyond Manzanar.
Mary Nomura continues to sing, and has passed her gift on to her children and grandchildren. Contemporary performances of Mary's are included in the album "Music to Remember" and the documentary video "Words, Weavings and Songs" interviews her about her life and her art. Both are available at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California.
The information on this page came partly from personal conversations that Tamiko Thiel held with Mary Nomura and partly from a fascinating book that focuses on Shi's life to give a very personal experience of the Internment: "I am an American" by Jerry Stanley.