In this post, Janell describes how her gift for impersonation and desire to entertain led to her meeting Hiroi in Sendai.
Janell Landis: You see, it all comes down to my puppets. And you haven’t gotten–[47:27]
Malina Suity [47:30] I was going to ask you about your puppets. You mentioned working with puppets in America, as well. When did you start–
Janell [47:45] Well I started when my brother went–and my family–I was working in the summer camp, cooking, and helping to clean up and stuff. And my brother and sister and my mother and father went to New York City to visit my older sister who was working for Exxon, or Esso at that time, in the Rockefeller Center area. In the basement there, in one of those malls, he found little monkey puppets. And so he bought two and he gave me one. And that’s what started me with the puppetry. That was back in, hmm, ‘40– see, I graduated from college in ‘48, and this was before college. So around ‘45, ‘46 I started. I used to do imitations and impersonations.
One time I heard on the radio, Fred Waring had one [a comedy bit] where you push buttons and change the stations and then you get a funny connection. And I had a routine using spoons pushing the button and going from one to the other and I had ZaSu Pitts and Bette Davis and roosters and all kinds of stuff.
So that was what started me, and then, when I got the puppet I started with puppets then. And I have them [still], they’re getting ready, I’m going to have a little show coming up next month. But, I have them separated as to the ones that I started with, and then, when I was in Japan I met a wonderful woman who was really creative and she made me twenty-four puppets. Rabbits, and a bear, and an octopus. All kinds.
Malina [49:50] What was her name?
Janell [49:51] Her name was Michii Sato. And she’s gone now, but she was a wonderful friend. One of the teachers at Miyagi, Mr. Ishii, he was a teacher of Japanese and at one time the head of his department there too. He introduced me to her when I first went to Sendai after language study. And she made me a grandma and a grandpa, wonderful puppets uh, and started with that.
And when I was on a TV show for a year, teaching homemakers English with Mrs. Amano’s help, uh, I had three other puppets she made me. A boy and a girl and a mother. And after every show, thirty minute show, at the close we would review what we went through with these puppets so the children would talk to their mother and answer. So, then I was asked by a man in our church in America if I could use puppets and do a Sunday school program, you know for a yearly program, but anyway at that time Michii Sato made me twenty four puppets. And I never got to use them to make that.
Malina [55:45]: And you mentioned doing a TV show? How did you get into that?
Janell: That was through the man that later, after that, he’s the one that got into contact with my top teacher. But when I was teaching at Miyagi in the college, I would have juniors and seniors taking a course, not compulsory. What’s the word I’m searching for? A course that elect–you elect. This one–that year I had a woman named uh, what was her name before marriage? After she graduated from Miyagi she married Mr. Amano who was working for the TBS radio and television station. And um, they asked me, they asked me to have this program for housewives. It was half an hour everyday, Monday through Friday, and Amano-san’s wife, my former student, was my associate. She would use the Japanese to translate and I would always be speaking in English. And she could use English too. So, it was funny, they asked me…they set, up until they set a date and then I thought I was finished, but um, they wanted to keep it on. And I had only gotten permission for one year from my school representative. I said, I couldn’t continue that program more than one year. But the way they had said it sounded, to them it sounded, like forever, but to me it sounded like the end.
It was at that time then, that Amano-san, Mr. Amano, and his associate at TBS asked me to do this program for New Year’s with Mr. Hiroi the top maker. And that was 1981, we taped it and then it was broadcast on the 3rd of January 1982. And then I was accepted by Mr. Hiroi as an apprentice. And from that time I worked first in his home on the lathe, and then he got me in contact with a man who made a lathe for me.
Jan’s Cultural References:
See ZaSu Pitts in action: view a video of her singing “Your Mother!” in 1934’s RKO Sing and Like It.
See Bette Davis in one of her iconic roles, as Julie in William Wyler’s 1938 Jezebel, a Warner Brothers film.
Listen to Fred Waring introduce the song “Buckle Down, Winsocki” from the musical Best Foot Forward on Command Performance in 1942, right around the time Jan would have been listening.