Oscar Levant Plays the Mikado

Mikado Inn 011

Oscar Levant, the quick-witted pianist, composer, actor, author and quiz-show panelist, had his first "extended engagement" at the Mikado Inn in 1922. In his 1965 book, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, Levant wrote about those days, which must have been quite an experience for a young man who was then just 16 years old.

Oscar Levant at 17 (right), with his brother Howard on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Oscar Levant at 17 (right), with his brother Howard on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

"During my second year in New York I played the piano in a Japanese roadhouse in the town of Harmon-on-the-Hudson, where I shared sleeping quarters with twenty or thirty Japanese waiters in the cellar. . . .

A three-piece orchestra played on weekends but during the week there was just the piano and violin. We alternated between classical and popular music. The place was called Mikado Inn. The rival restaurant . . . was the Nikko Inn. Japanese restaurants were comparatively scarce, so it was ironic that the leading proponents of Japanese cuisine should have been within such a short distance of each other. Consequently, the rivalry was keen.

The upright piano on which I played had a horizontal string across it, on which hung a one-dollar bill—a not too subtle hint for tips, which were mostly forthcoming as the evening progressed and the clientele grew boisterous and drunk. The most popular request was that great American spiritual "Show Me the Way to Go Home." Almost as popular were "Charlie My Boy," and "Yes, We Have No Bananas." For dinner we played concert music.

The proprietor, a rotund, jovial Japanese whom we addressed as Admiral Moto, was completely dominated by his forbidding Irish wife, a tall, dictatorial and quite respectable woman. Every Saturday night Admiral Moto would get loaded . . . There was great activity in the vast kitchen where the chef was a twenty-year-old Italian boy from nearby Croton. He had achieved his Oriental culinary skill under the tutelage of his predecessor, a Japanese chef who had left after a fight with Admiral Moto. This was an interesting anomaly: an Italian chef running a kitchen which served only sukiyaki.”

Coming soon: Admiral Moto’s “forbidding” wife saves his life—”grapples with attempted murderer [and] . . . chokes him into unconsciousness.” Years later she’s named in a New York Times article on the case against an ex-detective who is “vague on $99,240 in deposits” collected from “speakeasies” when he was a “plain-clothes man in the Eighth Inspection District in the Bronx.”

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