I began my career as a child actor in 1956. But as a performer, simply putting food on the table was a challenge, especially as a 5th generation Korean American. So when it came to my career, you might say that I had to be a little "creative," just to get by. That creative moment came when an old friend and I decided to go to a local karaoke bar, one of those smoky places where people get drunk just to prove what bad singers they are.
So when my friend challenged me so sing, I immediately refused. "You're a COWARD!!" he said, the one word that he knew I detested more than any other word in the English language. So in spite of myself (and against my better judgment), I took another sip of liquid courage, then boldly walked up to the mic. As much as I can recall though my alcohol-induced stupor, the tune was, "Can't Help Falling in Love," an Elvis song that I had always admired. After I had finished, my buddy appeared to be a little bit surprised.
"I don't know if it was the margaritas, but you sounded pretty good! You should actually practice that... I think you could actually make money doing this."
The word, MONEY" stuck in my inebriated brain like a hungry duck on a june bug. I had to at least give his suggestion a try, no matter how crazy it sounded.
Yoshi on stage at the Gong Show, Hollywood, California
That week, I purchased a cassette tape of karaoke music (those plastic gizmos now only seen in museums) and began practicing in the front seat of my faded green 1981 Chevy Bel Air, flying down the street in my own world and pretending to be “The King.” I practiced as I drove, and better yet, no one would ever hear me. But not only was it a lot of fun, but I slowly began to improve. Then one summer day, that same old friend called me to ask, "Have you been practicing like I told you to? They're looking for "weird and unusual" acts for The Gong Show, and I think you'd be perfect for it." It was the hottest show on TV. But when I replied, "NO WAY," he pulled that old knife out of the drawer... "You're a COWARD!!" I at least had to try.
It was only eight in the morning when I showed up to the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in Los Angeles in my rusty old Bel Air. There must have been at least 200 excited contestants standing in line with stars in their eyes, anxiously waiting for a chance at the brass ring. I had been to enough auditions to know that I didn't stand a chance. I wanted to leave, but the mere thought of facing the wrath of my old friend forced me to stay. So I sat for hours, with many more to come. I gamely bit my lower lip, and waited... and waited. I warmed a bench for six long hours just thinking about how I was going to do my very first Elvis routine.
I theorized that if I spoke in my usual perfect English, becoming Elvis wouldn't be very much of a stretch. But if I walked in as a JAPANESE TOURIST, then suddenly morphed into "The King"... now, that would be funny! I would become "Yoshi Suzuki," borrowing the first name of my favorite sushi man and the last name from the famous motorcycle. I rushed to the drugstore on the corner and picked up some tacky sunglasses that some how resembled Elvis’ shiny silver shades, with the last five dollars in my pocket. I was ready.
When I got back, the producers and casting directors were already waiting for me, six men sitting at a long plywood table, with a single mic in front of it. It had all the warmth of a firing squad, without the blindfold. I was terrified. But after I performed my profoundly goofy act, they all began excitedly talking and chuckling out loud. At least my routine was worth a laugh.
The very next day, my telephone rang curiously early. It was the producer of The Gong Show. "Is Yoshi Suzuki there?" he asked. Evidently, they had all actually believed my "Japanese tourist" routine, and all laughed out loud again when I told them that it was all just an act.
I could hardly believe it: My ruse worked, and better than I had ever imagined. They told me to "do the same thing I did for them at the audition," then let the audience decide my fate. I was shocked to my tennis shoes when I actually won, even with my cheap canvas coveralls, gaudy plastic sunglasses, and that phony Japanese accent.
But little did I know in 1988 how that brief television appearance was about to change my life... forever.