Move over Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Madonna and Lady Gaga. You may be icons to the gay community and some feminists, but the “over-the-top” thing didn’t start with you. Tip your hats to the one and only Sophie Tucker, both an original and the last of the “red hot mamas.” Bold, bawdy and brassy, she may very well define the word “broad.”
“Sophie who?” you might be asking if you weren’t born before 1970. Sophie Tucker was a friend to kings, queens, presidents, mobsters and even infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (who, as a close friend, closeted cross-dresser and homosexual, once asked her to give him one of her dresses; she reportedly said he wouldn’t fit in it). But she especially loved the every day Joes and Janes who she made friends with everywhere she performed.
The new documentary, “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is a love letter to this Amazonian female performer, perhaps best known for the song “Some of These Days (You’re Gonna Miss Me Honey).” It was also the name of her autobiography. Side note here: she may very well have been the first person to set up book signings. She sold the books, wouldn’t sign unless you bought one and she didn’t give change. All the extra money was donated to Israel, her particular charitable cause.
Tucker’s career spanned many decades of the 20th century, from 1907 to the 1960s, and every available form of the media at the time, from vaudeville and burlesque to Broadway, from the beginnings of radio to the birth of TV, in newsprint and on the published page. She was a welcomed regular with Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Durante and The Tonight show, names that young’uns might not recognize today, but were the big TV stars of their day.
And she was one smart cookie when it came to the business of marketing herself. Not so smart in love but you can’t win them all. She was among the first to lend her name and visage to endorsements for all kinds of products and even had a brand of soap named after her. She hand-wrote notes to people she met in every city she performed, and let them know when she’d be back. And she played to sold-out houses everywhere.
If she were still with us, you can bet your life she’d be an outsized presence on social media.
She was, indeed, an outsized presence, both physically and as a performer. She made the most of her size as the key feature of her act. Her big, strong voice was the draw, as were her utterly astounding costumes.
Born on a boat coming over from Ukraine, Sophie’s Orthodox Jewish parents settled in Connecticut and opened a kosher restaurant. She hated working there as a waitress, but began entertaining the customers with her powerful voice and singing for tips. At 16, she married Louis Tuck and had a son, Albert. Very shortly thereafter she divorced him, leaving her son with her parents but adopted Louis’s last name, adding “er” to it as she began establishing her career as a performer.
Following vaudeville performances requiring her to sing in blackface, but “forgetting” to put on her makeup one night, she won over the audience with her vocal talent. She was hired for the famous Ziegfeld Follies, but was let go after upstaging the star. This turned out pretty well for her, because she caught the notice of theater owner and future talent agency giant, William Morris. The rest is show business history.
Given the long life she led, she must’ve known she might be forgotten after she left us, so she made it easy for anyone who wanted to tell her life story to do so. She kept a treasure trove of more than 400 scrapbooks covering every aspect of her professional life, and when producers and narrators Lloyd and Susan Ecker discovered them it was as if the documentary made itself.
That’s her backstory but the ups, downs and pioneering aspects of her career are worth knowing too. Among those interviewed, famed TV anchor Barbara Walters knew her personally because of Sophie’s relationship with her father Lou Walters, owner of the famed Latin Quarter nightclub in Miami where Sophie was a frequent performer based strictly on a handshake arrangement.
Sophie got through the Prohibition era by befriending the mobsters who controlled the liquor supply and ran the clubs, and she often played cards with Al Capone. She was notorious for making everyone, family included, pay up if they lost.
While her marriages (there were three) were failures and her son was both a major disappointment and contracted syphilis at a young age, she remained a force of nature to the end. There are hints of her bisexuality too, as she was surrounded by very close women friends throughout her life, and letters between them are especially intimate.
The song “My Yiddishe Momma” was written for her, and there’s a remarkable story about an American soldier who drove his platoon crazy by carrying this record with him to war, playing it on his phonograph between battles to the irritation of his fellow soldiers. But when he was killed, those soldiers honored his final wish, carrying that record into Berlin with them and rigging up loudspeakers on their truck, blasting it for hours at the Nazis.
There are many interviews, video, film and audio clips and some clever animation of old photographic images that bring them to life.
But Sophie herself is the reason to go see “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.” It opens on July 24 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles. www.laemmle.com.