Bessie never forgot her Hanford roots, relishing the occasional opportunity to escort friends through China Alley where she grew up.
“China Alley was once called Sue Chung Kee Alley, after my father,” she said, pointing out historic locations preserved to remind callers of one of America’s earliest and largest Chinese communities in California. Bessie’s father immigrated to Hanford from China in 1886 at the age of 16. He married a Chinese woman from San Francisco. Bessie presumed it was an arranged marriage. Sue (family name first, Chinese style) built a general merchandise store at No. 10 China Alley, which Bessie’s brother later turned into a popular herb shop. The family lived above the store, (Bessie had two older brothers and a younger sister), and when the Imperial Dynasty was expanded in 1958, the Sue residence was incorporated as part of the restaurant.
Bessie offered up stories of her youth in a soft, ladylike voice with a quality of assurance that beseeched people to be quiet and listen. Her tours of Hanford invariably concluded with a multiple-course dinner at the Wing family’s celebrated Imperial Dynasty, another pride of the town, where proprietor Richard Wing would make a show of inspecting each dish before declaring it fine enough for Bessie and her guests. After all, Bessie had known Richard since he was a boy, they were both Hanford legends, and so was the Imperial Dynasty itself,
Bessie’s visits to the famous restaurant always included a special stop -- men and women together -- at the second-floor ladies’ room, where she would proudly point out a most unusual object on display: the black baby carriage of her infancy…in the very room where Bessie was born.
“I can only imagine what you’re thinking,” Bessie giggled, “but I think it’s a hoot to have such a personal memento holding court in such a frequently used room, don’t you?” I admired the polished steel spokes of the antique buggy and made some corny remark about “Loo’s carriage on exhibit in the loo,” causing her to smile with delight and laugh her distinctive laugh, one that got higher pitched as she found something funnier and funnier in a conversation. The laugh built to an occasional throaty guffaw that delighted everyone around her, so it was always a pleasure to make Bessie guffaw!
After dinner, driving home to Los Angeles from Hanford, Bessie spoke of her traditional Chinese upbringing in Hanford, recalling how she felt the tremors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, attending Chinese classes, how she was the first person in her family to embrace Christianity, one of the first Chinese to graduate from Hanford High School and the “very first” Chinese girl from Hanford to attend college (UCLA, then San Francisco Teachers College, where she graduated in 1928). She met her future husband, Richard Loo, in Northern California when he was attended UC Berkeley.
After teaching for a year at Commodore Stockton School in San Francisco, Bessie married Richard in 1929, which automatically terminated her teaching contract: “Married women were not allowed to teach back then, can you believe that?” Then the newlyweds made their “bold move to the bright lights of Hollywood.”
I took notes as Bessie drove. The more stories she related, the more amazed she seemed to become at the life she’d lived, realizing what a pioneer she had been: “a woman’s libber before women libbed,” she joked.
The notes I made while she drove included my “admiration for this little old lady’s remarkable memory” and my wish that she would let me take the wheel of that big, baby blue Cadillac of hers, because, even perched on a special pillow, Bessie could barely see over the dash, and it was getting really dark!
Strong-willed, independent, in control, resourceful, proper, elegant, fastidious, well-groomed, proud, a really gutsy woman -- those attributes I scribbled became lasting impressions of the once-powerful agent who was now retired. I was getting to know Bessie in her senior years. She had been my agent, a seminal force in the progress of my acting career who even shelled out cash for my Screen Actors Guild membership, which I repaid with my first acting paycheck. Now, in her early 80s, the legend had relinquished her Bessie Loo Agency (America’s first talent agency to represent Asian Americans exclusively) to partner Guy Lee. Guy had been an actor and Bessie’s client, becoming her agency partner in 1973, eventually taking over the business.
Now Bessie had time on her hands, and was becoming a close friend. She was eager to share her expertise, her contacts and her history to benefit me. Her expertise was punctuated with good old-fashioned values. Her contacts were generous and helpful. The history of Bessie Loo…priceless.
Though she was of my mother’s generation, Bessie became like a protective auntto me…a professional with more worldly sophistication and ambition than most of the average Asian American women of her time, certainly compared to my mother, an illiterate woman from the old country. To those closest to Bessie in her time -- her small nuclear family and large circle of friends and clients -- she was known for her upbeat zest for life, common sense, deep faith in God, no-nonsense work ethic, and a true heart for her Chinese heritage.
To Hanford and throughout the Chinese American community as well as the Asian American showbiz community, Bessie Loo and her legacy as an Asian American pioneer in the movie and TV industry are an enduring treasure.
Bessie was a Hollywood player in that “golden” era when studios were in power and run by people like Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Jack Warner; when the movie business was even more of an exclusive men’s club than it is today in 2006. She was on a first-name basis with the likes of Robert Wise, Gregory Peck, Howard Koch and Albert Broccoli.
In Los Angeles, Bessie and Richard both began working as extras. This outraged Bessie’s parents, who felt their daughter was wasting her college education and teaching skills on a “low class” profession which they didn’t regard as a legitimate profession at all.
Richard managed a pajama store to bring home a regular income while he and Bessie pursued work in Hollywood. (They were to divorce eventually, a subject she kept very private.) Bessie landed bit parts in “The Rainbow Pass” (1937), “The Good Earth” (1937) and “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” (1939). In the latter two films, Richard had larger roles. It was while working on “The Good Earth” at MGM that Bessie’s bilingual skills and outgoing personality made her a valuable liaison between the production team and the dozens of Chinese extras, many of whose English language skills were limited.
Central Casting recognized this outstanding resource, offering a job to Bessie in 1939; she held out until the venerable casting company agreed to set her up to work at home with a special phone line.
“I was raising the twins by then (Beverly Jane and Angela Marie, born in 1931), and I didn’t want to leave them with a sitter,” Bessie recalled. “Richard’s acting career was taking off. He was a very good actor, especially in bad guy roles. As for me, I saw the light where acting was concerned – my opportunities were only as an extra or a maid. Even in ‘Good Earth’ I was stuck in the kitchen! The roles for Orientals were very limited as well as stereotyped. Maybe the other actors didn’t look upon the roles that way back then, but I did. They used Caucasians to portray us in the main roles. I felt getting into casting was much more stable a job, and they let me work from home so I could care for the girls. I managed to be a working wife and mother. I was proud of that.”
When Hollywood began turning out WWII movies, Bessie’s workload increased. Also, because Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, the movie jobs for Asians fell to the Chinese, Filipinos and Koreans in Los Angeles.
“We were all just called Orientals back then,” Bessie said. “They couldn’t tell the difference in casting, nor did they care. I focused on the number of jobs available for actors, and decided I could make more money as an agent. I knew all the performers, I knew where to find them, I had connections as a casting director, and I was very confident the Bessie Loo Agency would be successful.”
With her husband Richard as her top client, Bessie quickly signed up a corral of “Oriental” men and women, and never looked back. She and her agency staff (including daughter Angela at one time) made the rounds of studios every day, dropping off photos and gathering employment opportunities for clients.
“It’s so much easier to be an agent nowadays,” she said. “Now, all the roles are broken down and put on a big list that’s delivered to the agents every morning. When I started the agency in the early 40s, we just wore out our shoes. But I had a wonderful time and met everyone I could. Being an agent seemed to be my true calling. I handled 75 clients at one time.”
Every producer and director who needed Asian actors was soon automatically calling Bessie Loo. By the time she retired, the highly regarded Bessie Loo Agency had enjoyed a 40+-year run.
“I had the best martial artists and the best Asian actors,” she said. “It was a pleasure to nurture new talent – I felt like a mother hen to most of them. Those were wonderful years, very busy and glamorous.”
Bessie maintained a bustling office on Sunset Boulevard and a home in the once-segregated Los Feliz area, where she and Richard entertained regularly. She said she was involved with the casting of too many movies and TV shows to remember, but if there were Asian-American performers in the films and TV episodics of the 50s and 60s, one could be sure most of them were represented by Bessie Loo.
“We had the long run of war movies, and big pictures like ‘Keys to the Kingdom,’ ‘Blood Alley,’ ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,’ ‘Soldier of Fortune,’ ‘King and I,’ ‘Flower Drum Song’; then there was TV – ‘Adventures in Paradise’, ‘Hawaiian Eye’, ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Kung Fu’, shows like those, lots of supporting roles on the small screen…yes, there was plenty of work for my clients. No big starring parts, sadly, but there were roles to be had, and the agency was booming. A writer for Parade Magazine actually called me a tycoon!”
While operating her agency and being a mother, Bessie also founded Crown International Travel Agency and devoted time to a variety of organizations and charitable causes. She was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, served on the board of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, was president of the Los Angeles Chinese Women’s Club, China Society of Southern California and the Committee to Conserve Chinese Culture, and a life member of the Ida Mayer Cummings Home for the Aged. In 1978, she was appointed to the California State Economic Development Committee, sworn in by another Hanford legend, Superior Court Judge Delbert Wong. Bessie also supported the Screen Smart Set, the Motion Picture Relief Fund, the Chinese American Museum (in its early formative years) and East West Players.
In fact, all seven actors in the ranks of the nine founding members of East West Players – America’s first and foremost Asian American theatre organization – were clients of Bessie: James Hong, Guy Lee, Pat Li, June Kyoko Lu, Mako, Soon-Teck Oh and Beulah Quo. Some of the Bessie Loo Agency’s other well-known clients were Keye Luke, Benson Fong, Lisa Lu, Robert Ito and John Lone.
Of all her community work, Bessie was proudest of her efforts for China Relief during WWII and the tumultuous times leading up to the communist takeover.
In 1976, she was presented an Outstanding Volunteer Service award by the Los Angeles Human Rights Commission during its Bicentennial Salute to the Women of L.A. She was, in addition, honored by the Los Angeles City Council during Mayor Tom Bradley’s term of service; the State of California, the L.A. City Employees Asian American Association, and AAPAA, the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists.
James Hong was president of AAPAA in1982 when the organization produced a major tribute on Oct. 24 called “An Affair With Bessie.”
He remembers moving from Minnesota to Los Angeles in the early 50s to try his hand at acting. The first Christmas after meeting Bessie, he and a comedy partner dressed up in their bulkiest Midwest winter clothes to pay her a surprise visit.
“She was living in the Hollywood Hills above Franklin Avenue,” Hong said. “On a beautiful day you could see Catalina. We went up to her door, lit a candle, and knocked, then began to sing ‘Silent Night”. Bessie opened the door, looked at us, and became totally emotional. This was during Christmas. She never forgot it. She became my agent and we were friends for life.”
That agent/client friendship was signed, sealed and delivered with a hilarious comedy routine which James created and performed to the delight of audiences at parties and special events. Bessie herself loved the sketch, relishing Hong’s way of mimicking her at work, fielding calls with two telephones at once, barking orders, negotiating bigger bucks for her stars.
“If he had on my wig and a dress, I would swear that’s really me up there,” Bessie laughed and applauded when James reprieved his hilarious routine at the AAPAA tribute. “He’s got me down pat, hasn’t he? What a talent, that James Hong!”
James attributes Bessie’s success as an agent to her “charm and fearless quality. She would bulldog her way into anybody’s office. She treated them like they were equals. She had no competition. A couple tried, but it was useless. She was all-encompassing. She didn’t want to lose anything. She was never a so-called high-priced agent like MCA or the conglomerates. She worked for too many clients, had too much going on for too many people. Bessie Loo did something for everybody.”
Robert Ito remembers his initial contact with Bessie in the early 60s, when he was dancing in Steve Parker’s “Holiday in Japan” at the Frontier in Las Vegas. Bessie saw the popular extravaganza, arranged to meet the young Canadian entertainer, and urged him to look her up if he ever got to L.A.
He did, after touring with “Flower Drum Song”, and signed with the Bessie Loo Agency. Her advice to him: “Play the real person. Don’t play the stereotype character they expect you to play.”
“Bessie was always concerned with her clients’ welfare,” Robert recalls. “Two weeks before the TV series ‘Quincy’ was scheduled to shoot, I hadn’t even gotten an audition and guys were being called back already, so Bessie worked hard to get me an interview.” That interview for the role of Sam Fujiyama led to a seven-year gig for Ito.
“Bessie was really, really nice to us,” he says. “She never forgot us. She had class and ran with some of the biggest names. The credit she deserved, she didn’t get. The thing was – her major objective was to get Asian actors working.”
April Hong, because of close relationship her parents (James and Susan) had with Bessie, grew up calling the agent “Auntie Bessie” and began getting acting jobs through the Bessie Loo Agency by the time she was four.
“It was a Disney print job in 1982,” April recalls.
Now a multifaceted, busy young woman and card-carrying actor, April is one of today’s generation of Asian Americans who recognizes the value of Bessie’s life work.
“I realize more than ever what an influence she has been to me as a child and now,” April says. “She left a legacy, and her example of living has inspired me to do what I feel will make a change in the world. Through hard times, I often think of Auntie Bessie and say to myself, ‘If she could do it, I can do it’. She was a woman and Asian on top of that. Women didn't have many rights and neither did Asians. This is why she's an inspiration to me.”
April speaks of visiting a very frail Bessie in the hospital a few days before her death on Oct. 28, 1998: “I went to see her with my parents. The TV was on; she’d always been very much into watching Christian TV. Bessie couldn't speak much at all, only mumble, but she was smiling and spirited. I'll always remember that day, how she was pointing to something in the corner behind my parents and me. I don't know what she was pointing at, but I thought it could have been the presence of an angel waiting to take her on to the next world.”
Actually, that would make perfect sense if Bessie Loo herself had anything to say about it, a perfect segue in her remarkable life…from Hanford to Hollywood to Heaven!