Isabel Louie

Historical Essay

Source material from Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs by Trina Robbins.

Isabel Louie

Isabel Louie was born and raised in San Francisco's Western Addition. She was bitten by the entertainment bug when she was a teenager, watching dancers on TV variety shows. She started taking dance lessons in high school, and then found Tony Wing’s studio. She recalls, “[Tony] told me they were auditioning at Bimbo’s 365 Club... I went for the audition and was hired on the spot. Friends and family thought I was crazy to quit my secretarial job to sign a three month contract. I don't think my mom liked it when I joined, but she didn't prevent me from it.”

Isabel’s first job at Bimbo’s was intense — three shows a night, seven days a week for twelve weeks. That twelve-week introduction to the stage was exciting and challenging for Isabel, and shaped the course of her life. She performed with Takeuchi Keigo at Bimbo's, and he asked Isabel to join his dance troupe of Japanese-American dancers, The Geisharellas. Despite the name, Keigo's troupe was not as racy as many of the acts on the circuit. The first half of the show featured traditional Japanese dancing with fans and parasols; the second half featured modern western jazz numbers. Keiko choreographed up to twenty-two numbers in a range of styles, with many quick changes between. Rehearsals ran to four hours a day, and Isabel recalls being exhausted by the hard work.

By this time – the early 1970s – the Chinese nightclub circuit was virtually dead. But audiences still enjoyed “Oriental” shows in other venues, including generic nightclubs, hotels, casinos, and on television. After performing at clubs and hotels in Los Angeles and Mexico City, the troupe traveled to New York City to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Isabel traveled internationally with Takeuchi Keigo's troupe for several years. They spent two years in Europe dancing at five star hotels and night clubs. Isabel’s most memorable trip was their time in Egypt, where she saw the famous pyramids and sailed down the Nile.

When Keigo's troupe was not touring, Isabel couldn't stay off the stage, so she danced with Dorothy Toy's Oriental Revue. That gig was just as glamourous as the Geisharellas, with Isabel recalling champagne drinking contests among the dancers. Dorothy Toy was just as demanding of her dancers as any choreographer but Isabelle didn’t mind the challenge.

Isabel met Cynthia Yee while dancing with Dorothy Toy's revue, and they continued both a friendship and business relationship for many years. Isabel continued dancing for fun and convinced Cynthia to take tap lessons with her. In the 1990s, when Cynthia wanted to create a revival of the Chinese nightclub shows as a charitable endeavor, Isabel became one of the first members of the Grant Avenue Follies.