OBITUARY: Rodney Kageyama, 77; Actor and Little Tokyo Community Icon

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Rodney Kageyama relished the opportunity to play Shogun Santa in Little Tokyo, along with fellow actor John Tamaki. The two met working in television and remained the best of friends thereafter. “We became very close, and we’d talk and gripe over lunches. He was the only one I really felt I could spill my guts to.” (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer

The stage is empty and the script is blank.

For innumerable friends, community members and colleagues, the news Sunday was a shockwave out of nowhere.

Rodney Kageyama, as much a community icon as perhaps anyone possibly could be, passed away suddenly in his sleep at the age of 77, leaving a stunned pall over all who knew him.

Actress Tamlyn Tomita was among those at a loss for words.

“I guess heaven needs a little more lively spirit,” she said.

Rodney Kageyama, pictured with one of his beloved pugs, was a fixture at community events, often serving as emcee.

Kageyama was a fixture in Little Tokyo and within the Southern California Nikkei community. Whether he was dancing at an Obon, emceeing a festival or taking photos with kids as Shogun Santa, Kageyama’s heart was always with the JA community.

Despite suffering a stroke earlier this year, Kageyama continued to make public appearances and attend community events. His strength and stamina sapped by illness and age were belied by his continued cheer and sense of humor.

He was honored last month at the Aquarium of the Pacific’s annual Autumn Festival and he was among the cast in this coming weekend’s production of “A Little Tokyo Christmas,” reportedly more than willing to play his part while in a wheelchair.

Tomita said those involved with the show had told him to take it easy, but there was no keeping him from the community stage.

“At the last rehearsal, he showed us the dedication, what kind of OG he was,” Tomita said. “He just wouldn’t say no when it came to the community he loved.”

Tomita and others agreed that given his physical condition, Kageyama’s passing may not be a huge surprise – but it is a jarring shock.

“I hear that he would be in the hospital one day, then he’d be at some community function, cracking jokes, the next,” she said.

Scores of friends have been leaving messages of love and sorry in online tributes.

“This feels like a knife to the heart, to lose you,” wrote actress and playwright Jeanne Sakata. “But your life force looms so large that we won’t ever really lose you.”

Former Nisei Week Queen Tori Nishinaka Leon hinted that Kageyama’s exit was befitting his way of living.

“You’re leaving us in style, as you always did unapologetically, blowing up Facebook with all the comments and farewells of all those who loved you,” she wrote.

For many others like Helen Ota of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, simply formulating the words was a challenge.

“I will miss you more than words can say,” Ota said.

Visitors have traveled to the Montebello home Kageyama shared with husband Kenny White, in a steady stream of support. Partners for more than 30 years, the two were legally married in 2013.

Kageyama volunteered many hours as an emcee for events held by community organizations, including the Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Monterey Park Cherry Blossom Festival, East West Players, Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), Nisei Week Japanese Festival, and Tanabata Festival.

One of Kageyama’s favorite events of the holiday season was the opportunity to play Shogun Santa for visitors in Little Tokyo. Along with the late John “JT” Tamaki, he entertained visiting youngsters with a grandfatherly charm and an infectious laugh.

Rodney Kageyama was well-known to many as the emcee of several Japanese American community events, including the annual Nisei Week Grand Parade. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“Five years ago, when the Little Tokyo Business Association decided to resurrect Shogun Santa, a character that first appeared in Little Tokyo in the 1970s, we needed someone to play the Japanese-style Kris Kringle,” said Ellen Endo of LTBA. “His response was quintessential Rodney: ‘Sure, when do you need me?’ I don’t recall Rodney ever saying ‘no’ to a request from the community. He had a big heart matched only by his outgoing personality. We will never forget and forever be grateful.”

Kegayama began his career in San Francisco as one of the founding members of the Asian American Theater Company. While there he participated as actor, director, and designer in several productions, including Frank Chin’s “Year of the Dragon” and Ed Sakamoto’’s “Yellow Is My Favorite Color” and “Voices in the Shadows.” Kageyama attended the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre, where he later became the registrar.

In 1979, having moved to Los Angeles “to play with the big guys,” Kageyama became a member of East West Players, the leading Asian American theatre group in the United States. He worked there as actor, costume designer, and director for their new playwright series.

Kageyama was known to stretch the comedic envelope, at once bawdy, naughty and a breath of fresh air, all with a plain and endearing sweetness. Amy Hill was among his fellow actors in San Francisco, and heeded his advice to move to L.A.

“Sexy, dangerous and talented,” Hill described him in a tribute she posted to Facebook. “I saw jobs and dogs come and go, but his spirit was always supercharged. He lived fully and loved supremely – a love that was matched by those whose lives he touched.”

Rodney Kageyama was familiar to millions through is acting on stage and television, and in movies like “Gung Ho” (1986). He is pictured with Gedde Watanabe and Michael Keaton.

Kageyama also acted in many films and television shows, including “Gung Ho,” “Karate Kid II,” “The Next Karate Kid,” “Hiroshima Out of the Ashes,” “Pretty Woman,” “Teenwolf,” “Home Improvement,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and “Quantum Leap,” just to name a few. He was also seen in “California Dreams” at Disney’s California Adventure theme park.

He was honored in 2016 with the Nisei Week Inspiration Award. Kageyama was involved with Nisei Week from 2003, serving as Baby Show chair for many years and as a board member of the Nisei Week Foundation.

He also produced such events as So-Phis Fashion Show, A3M Charity Benefit, and JACCC Children’s Day. For the past 10 years, he has been volunteering his time as a part-time docent at the Japanese American National Museum, where he initiated a storytelling program for children.

Kageyama was also devoted to his pet pugs and helped place animals in loving homes.

Plans are reportedly under way for a public memorial, possibly to take place in early to mid-January.

“I just hope none of us have taken him for granted,” Tomita added. “Although he was really the star, he never acted like it. He just did what he could to make everyone laugh and ensure we all had a good time.”

Rafu Editor-in-Chief Gwen Muranaka contributed to this report.

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