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conducted Friday, 26th July, 2002

I had the great fortune to be able to speak with Joanna Pang about her time on Isis and what she was up to before and after that time.

When did you become interested in acting?

Joanna Pang: I started performing when I was very, very young, about five years old. I started at San Francisco Ballet and I sort of grew up in the ballet world. Besides studying ballet, my brother and I became interested in musical theatre. We auditioned for a theatre group in San Francisco and started performing in musical theatre productions. We really enjoyed doing that. My brother and I danced together and we became a ballroom dance team. Before I was even 13 years old, we performed on a show called The Ted Randal Show, which was like American Bandstand, but taped in San Francisco for KPIX. After Randal left, it became Dick Stewart's Dance Party and we danced on that TV show every day.

So, did you grow up San Francisco?

JP: Actually in Berkeley and Oakland, the Bay area.


Who were some of your role models?

JP: I guess my mother was and still is one of my role models. She had been a child performer [near the tail-end of the Vaudeville era] on the movie circuit. She sang and danced and later, she joined San Francisco Ballet and was asked to teach. She taught at San Francisco Ballet for many, many years. I always admired her teaching ability, her performing ability and her role as a mother and mentor to many of her students.

What was your first professional acting job?

JP: My first real professional job was when I was five years old and I was the youngest person to perform with the San Francisco Ballet and actually get paid. My first professional acting job when I got my SAG card was an old movie called "Once a Thief" with Ann Margaret and Alain Delon. I had an agent in San Francisco and I was sent to audition. It was my first movie and I think I had four lines. It was great, I loved it!

The first time I said my line, I was projecting my voice (having come from a theatrical background) and the sound man said, "Oh, my God! Not so loud!"


What led to you being cast on Isis?

JP: I was living in New York to pursue a career in the theatre. When I moved to New York I had an agent already and it turned out I had a lot more work in TV and film than theatre. I had been performing in a TV series for WCBS in New York, The Patchwork Family. It was syndicated in many cities around the country. I did that for a couple of years and I also did a couple of specials for CBS. One that I really liked a lot was CBS Festival of the Lively Arts. It was a Chinese opera and I was the on-camera narrator for it. I did a CBS Daytime 90 special (as an airline stewardess). I seemed to be working for CBS quite a bit!

I think it was those two productions that made CBS Children's Programming executives aware of me and consider me for Isis. One of the heads for children's programming for CBS called my agent and I went to meet him in New York. He said they were doing a TV series called Isis and told me a little bit about the series and asked if I would be available to fly out to audition [because] they were interested in me for the part of Cindy Lee.

I said, "Yes, I'd love to!" I was very excited. I flew out in the morning. The next day I had my audition and that very afternoon, the producers told me I had the part. It all happened really fast. I had maybe a week's time to fly home, pack up some stuff and move out there.


I'm not really familiar with Patchwork Family. What was that about?

JP: That was a wonderful show! It was hosted by a woman named Carol [Corbett] and her sidekick was a puppet named Rags. They had a bird lady, a plant lady, a math lady and my segment was music and dance. Sometimes I would have a small group of children and I would teach them (on-camera) a dance and then I would say to the camera, "stand up and dance with us." This was a way to get the audience actively involved in the show. Sometimes, my segment was with John Canemaker, an animator who has since gone on to do animation for Disney and other studios. He and I would do some music and song segments together.

How about your appearance on CBS Festival of the Lively Arts?

JP: The Chinese opera [which was the subject of this broadcast] had been performed at a theatre off-Broadway in New York and I was not involved in that. A CBS producer saw the production and thought it would make a great TV special. They felt a Chinese opera for children needed a narrator, so before each segment of the opera, I would come out and explain what was going to be happening with the characters. They had me dressed up in a beautiful Chinese jacket and my hair done with two buns and long braids hanging down.


At the point you signed up for Isis, was it still a detective/crime solving setup or had the concept already been changed to the school setting we're familiar with?

JP: I was very surprised to hear that the whole concept had [originally] been something completely different. I was never aware of that.


Was Filmation an enjoyable place to work? How did you get on with the show's producers?

JP: I loved working there. It was a fun time. I loved being on the TV series and thought it was really exciting. Once I got the part, I didn't really have a whole lot of contact with them (Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott). I met them at the audition and sometimes they would come out on location, but we really didn't see them that much.


What was it like working on a show with a limited budget like Isis?

JP: Patchwork Family didn't have a huge budget either. Most children's shows have a smaller budget than prime time shows. I didn't really think about it. I think the three of us (myself, Joanna Cameron and Brian Cutler) were in a "favored nations" contract, so there wasn't really very much negotiation. I was excited to be on a TV series.

I didn't really think about "production values" and that sort of thing. I was more into getting my script, learning my lines, working with the director and that sort of thing.


Did the studio furnish any of the clothes, or were you like Brian, supplying your own?

JP: Some of it I provided, but I remember being able to go shopping with the wardrobe person. She would let me pick out things that I liked and she would buy them, and sometimes I would buy things and I could give them the receipt. It was a combination of a lot of things. They did have me in those blue overalls an awful lot!


Do you think Isis succeeded in its mission to be both informative and entertaining, and do you think the show could hold the attention of today's children?

JP: I think Isis is kind of a timeless show. It was entertaining but also with a lesson, [not] a lesson that hit you over the head, it was just a lesson within the story. I have always been surprised that Isis didn't come out on video, or that they didn't try to replay it, or put it on Nickelodeon.

What was it like working with your castmates?

JP: The cast members were great and the crew members were great. I loved our directors! Two special directors were Hollingsworth Morse and Arthur Nadel. I remember Hollingsworth Morse very well. He told me the most important thing about acting was to be a good listener. He was a wonderful man.

My best friend in the show really was Brian. I had moved out very quickly from New York to LA, so I didn't really know a lot of people, and Brian became like a brother to me. He and his wife were just great. I felt like they were a second family for me. I was with them a lot.

We worked together every day, but I never got to know Joanna Cameron very well. I didn't know Albert that well, either, but he was always very nice, very pleasant, very easy to get along with.

I became good friends with Joanna Cameron's stand-in. Her name was Jill. She was another good friend and all the crew people were really nice and friendly.


Were you given much to go on as far as Cindy's background, or did you have to come up with it yourself?

JP: I pretty much had to wing it as I went along, because in the beginning they never defined whether I was a student or the "teacher's assistant/aide/helper," so in some of the scenes, the way the dialogue was written, I would call my teacher Miss Thomas. In other scenes, I called her Andrea, so it was never clearly defined for me, but the way the scripts developed and the way my character developed, I really felt as though I was a student, because I was in the classes, I did raise my hand and ask questions and that sort of thing. I seemed to do a lot, also, with the teachers, so I think I was one of these "enthusiastic" students who really liked to be around the teachers and help them and get involved in all kinds of projects. I just followed the script.


Well, here's the one question that is probably in the mind of every viewer reading this interview: why were you replaced in the second season?

JP: That's a great question and I don't know the answer! I have no idea. After we finished our first season, the show had become very popular and a big success. I had heard that we were rated #1 in our timeslot. The show was really popular. We used to get a lot of fan mail and I always answered my mail with a letter and a picture.

The following year when everybody was getting ready to go back to shoot the second season, I called my agent, and I said, "what's going on? Did they pick up the show or are we starting again?" and he said, "they're starting again, but they're going in a different direction, so they're not going to be using you this season." So, I never really knew why.

I was disappointed and I don't really know what happened. I know that they were always pleased with the show and the characters.

How satisfied were you with Cindy as a character, and do you think she was used well on the show?

JP: I liked my character a lot because she was a lot like me: positive, active and enthusiastic. A lot of times, things would happen to me. I remember on one show, we went on a field trip, I wandered out into the woods, I fell and my foot got caught in a trap and they had to come rescue me. I think mostly I was used to good advantage.

It was funny that [in the context of the show] we couldn't recognize Isis when she was our schoolteacher, and when she was Isis, she didn't really change all that much: her hair got long and she took off her glasses, but it's okay. I thought it was great fun!


What have you been up to since Isis?

JP: I'm very involved in arts in education. I got married and have a son, who is going off to college in September. I really wanted to get involved with his education when he was going to school and I wanted to think of a way that I could "give back."

I had the opportunity to travel to many countries with an Asian dance company. I was performing classical Chinese and Japanese dancing, and modern dance also, and I thought with all this knowledge I had gained from spending time in these countries, learning about their culture, background and ethnic dances, how could I share that? So, when my son was in kindergarten, I volunteered at his school one day a week to do international dancing with the kindergarten class. The students and the director of the school loved it so much, that for the Kindergarten graduation program, my husband wrote a play for them incorporating all the international dances they had learned. That was exciting. I have been developing my arts in education programs and doing multicultural dances and assembly programs in schools all around New York and New Jersey.

I go to schools all around the area as an artist in residence [where] I stay at a school for maybe 4, 6 or 8 weeks and I teach up to 100 or more students different dances from around the world and at the end of my residency, we put on a big show for the school, parents and community. I've been teaching for quite a long time. I love working with the children!

I am a teaching artist and performer for several different organizations. One is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Early Learning Through the Arts - The New Jersey Wolf Trap Program. I am also a teaching artist and performer with Arts Horizons and Arts Council of the Morris area.

I also was in the word premiere production of Sayonara, which was at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the state theatre in New Jersey. That was very exciting. Sayonara is based on the James Michener book and the old Marlon Brando movie and they turned it into a musical theatre production. I was involved with that from the very beginning stages. I was in it when they did a staged reading with only five or six people in the cast, then we did a workshop production with maybe 25 people in the cast and after that, we did a big multi-million dollar production with a full cast.

I did so many productions of South Pacific as the character Liat. I did one with Jane Powell and Howard Keel, one with Betsy Palmer, one with Jerome Hines and, some people will remember, Dorothy Collins from Your Hit Parade. I did a production of The King and I as Eliza with Ann Jeffries...all these old-time stars. It was great getting to know them and to work with them.


You also still worked in TV as well, didn't you, in guest appearances and commercials?

JP: Yes. I played a waitress on Harris and Co. [a 1979 prime-time series starring Bernie Casey that was cancelled after only four shows]. I think at the time I either knew the director or CBS just wanted to keep me working. I also worked on Saturday Night Live and did a skit with Gilda Radner called "Jewess Jeans."

How about movies?

JP: I did the first original movie for Showtime. It was a movie called Don't Miss the Boat. The concept was to do a comedy special with Joanne Worley and other famous comedians (including Rip Taylor). They decided to write a mystery story around these characters. The detective, instead of being Charlie Chan was Charlie Chan's widow and I played the "Number One Daughter."

That was just a fun movie because we actually went on a cruise and filmed the movie while on the boat. We stopped at three different islands to shoot scenes in the towns and on the beaches.

Another movie I really loved doing was called Voices. It starred Amy Irving, who played a deaf girl who wanted to become a dancer. I was a dancer in that movie.

I did another interesting movie, but you can't see me in it. I worked on a Woody Allen movie, Stardust Memories. I worked on it for three weeks, but ended up on the cutting room floor. Still, it was very interesting to work for Mr. Allen.


You probably did a number of TV commercials, too.

JP: One of the interesting commercials I did was for Florsheim shoes. Actors and performers aren't working all the time, so they always look for other jobs. Besides doing the TV commercials for Florsheim, they also hired me as their shoe model.

I also worked for Dr. Pepper. I was in their first song and dance commercials [the "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?" campaign]. The commercial I was in took place in a library. The librarian was very prim and proper with glasses and her hair in a bun and there were about six students in the library and we were all reading our books and drinking Dr. Pepper. So, finally, we give her a Dr. Pepper to drink and all of a sudden, her glasses come off, her hair comes down and the chair goes up in the air, swirling around,and she starts dancing with us. That was the first of the "I'm a Pepper, You're a Pepper commercials."

[If you've seen it], you probably wouldn't know it was me, because even though I auditioned the way I always look, with my hair down to my waist, they put me in a short wig! In fact, in a lot of the commercials I did, I wore a short wig. They just wanted a different look. Some of the other commercials were for Lee jeans, Singer sewing machines, United Airlines and Banquet frozen foods.


As far as performing, do you have a preference of one style over the other, whether dancing, the stage or film/video work?

JP: I like it all [but] it depends on where my focus is at the moment. When I got married and had a child, I decided I really didn't want to travel anymore. I had travelled a lot, not only around the world with the Asian dance group, but I also travelled doing tours of South Pacific and travelled with my husband to different movie locations. After I had a child, I decided I wanted to do something that kept me closer to my home base.

When my son was in middle school, they [did] theatrical productions every year and for many, many years, they did the typical Broadway shows as their theatrical production. One year, a new principal came in and wanted to do something different. I went in to meet her and for the next five years, my husband and I were involved in doing the middle school theatrical productions. My husband wrote three plays: "Getting to Know You,' "In the Mirror" and "Independence," all with topics that relate to middle school students. I directed and choreographed the productions.

It's hard for me to pick one thing. When I was doing the TV series I loved it, I did a lot of TV commercials and I loved doing commercials, I love the theatre and I love my teaching now. I don't think that there's any show or job I've had that I can't look back on and [see] some positive aspect of it.

Another show was my grandmother's favorite of all the things I ever did, The Lawrence Welk Show. When my brother and I were dancing on The Ted Randal Show and Dance Party, we were invited to perform on Welk. We appeared on his show twice.


I guess they still run those on PBS.

JP: They do still run the Lawrence Welk Show somewhere on cable, but I've never seen the shows that my brother and I were on. Shortly after we did the appearances on his show, they hired a couple who came on and [became] regulars on his show doing different kinds of ballroom dancing. Mr. Welk always said that we were too young for him to ask us to be regulars on the show, because we were from the Bay area and the show was taped in Los Angeles and he knew we couldn't uproot the family and move down there, but he never gave us the opportunity to say "yes" or "no." Whenever I see some of the old shows, it's with the other couple dancing, not my brother and me.


Were you aware that Isis still has a devoted following?

JP: I knew the show was popular back then, but I had no idea that there was a huge following now, however, with computers and Internet access, one time I went on eBay and I thought I'd type in "Isis" and see what's there, and I found a whole bunch of memorabilia from the show for sale, and there was one of my pictures there! I went to my husband and said, "can you believe they're selling my picture on eBay?"


Would you do TV or film again if the opportunity arose?

JP: I guess it would really depend on what it is. It's been so long since I've been out on an audition, but I'd never say "no" because you just never know what's going to happen.


Even though it's unlikely, if someone were to mount a revival of Isis, would you be interested in taking part?

JP: I think so, sure. I think it would be fun!


Do any memorable incidents stand out in your mind of doing Isis?

JP: One time I had to drive a car and I didn't know how to drive a stick shift and they had to help me. I enjoyed "Fool's Dare" (where Cindy gets trapped in the junkyard). I remember the two boys who played my friends, they were fun. All the shows were fun.

One interesting experience I had as a result of Isis: there's a big cherry blossom festival in Medford, Oregon and the people who ran it contacted me and asked if I would be the grand marshal of their parade. My mother travelled with me, we arrived in Medford, I looked out the [airplane] window, turned to my mother and said, "I wonder who's on the plane? They have a red carpet and musicians out there!" My mother looked at me and she said, "I think it's for you!" I had no idea that they had done all of this for my arrival. I thought it was really exciting.


Anything else going on that you'd like to share with us?

JP: 12 years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was really tough on me and my family. I had to have a 13 hour surgery [and go through] six months of chemotherapy. After that, though, I felt fine and I've been fine ever since then, until April, [when] I was diagnosed with breast cancer again. It was a shock to be diagnosed with cancer again. After surgery, all my test results came out so good, I'm not going to have chemo.

I wasn't sure whether or not to bring the experience up, but I talked it over with my husband, and he said "it's not a secret that you had breast cancer twice, and you can be an inspiration: you've had it twice, you're recovering, you'll be teaching and performing again and you're doing fine."

If you saw me now, you'd never think that I had been sick. I'm doing much, much better and now I am teaching and performing again.


I'm glad to hear that! Do you think you'd be interested in doing some convention appearances?

JP: It would be great fun. I'm thrilled that people are interested. I'm thrilled that you're interested. It's great that people still like Isis.


Thanks, Joanna!

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