Mary Kageyama Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar.” (Densho)
By BRIANNA ISHIBASHI-LAPKE
All she ever wanted was to sing.
Ever since she could remember, Mary Kageyama Nomura wanted to be a singer. She would sing at home, at school, in talent shows and choir — even while doing chores and homework. She dreamed of becoming a professional singer and performing her favorite tunes in front of a famous big band, namely The Harry James Orchestra.
In 1942, when the war broke out, Mary and her family were sent to Manzanar. She was only 16 years old. Though her dreams of being a professional singer were put on hold, she continued her love of performing through camp dances and programs. Her talent was encouraged by her music teacher, Louis Frizzell. Mary soon became known throughout camp as “The Songbird of Manzanar,” a delightful moniker that still follows her to this day.
At one of the camp dances sponsored by popular gents’ service club The ManzaKnights, Shiro “Shi” Nomura realized special guest Mary was unescorted. He volunteered for the job. When Mary took the stage, Shi was floored to realize that his date was the same young girl whose singular voice had captivated him years before at a J-Town talent show in Los Angeles. It was not long before they were engaged to be married.
After the war, Shi and Mary relocated to Los Angeles and Garden Grove, raising five children and running a successful grocery store. Mary settled into domestic life, her dreams of a professional singing career put on hold once again.
Though Mary kept up her singing chops over the years with the occasional community event or show, it wasn’t until 2015 during the Great Nisei Reunion II when Mary was once again center stage and in the spotlight. Her special guest appearance was brief but well-received, prompting son-in-law Gerald Ishibashi (creator of the Great Nisei Reunion concert series) to ask if the Songbird of Manzanar would once again grace the stage for the third (and final!) Great Nisei Reunion concert.
At 92 years young, Mary is still going strong, an individual symbol of the strength and resilience of our greatest generation, the Nisei. And as the sunset concert of the Great Nisei Reunion Concert series takes its final bow, the Songbird of Manzanar will realize her dream of over 75 years and will finally be able to soar. It’s a moment you will not want to miss.
The Great Nisei Reunion III will be held on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd. in Redondo Beach, and will feature The Harry James Orchestra, The Modernaires, and the Island Crooners. All seats are reserved and ticket prices are $60 and $45. Tickets can be purchased online at www.purplepass.com/ishibashi or by calling (800) 316-8559. For group rates and additional information and ticket purchases, call Stonebridge/Foxhole Buddy at (310) 627-7272.