by Jeff Klayman
Before there was a Bette Midler, a Lady Gaga, a Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Mae West and countless other “divas,” there was a woman named Sophie Tucker. Her friends called her “Soph. She was big and “fat”—yes, she called herself that, political correctness be damned. Loud, brassy, bawdy, unapologetically self-promoting as hell, those modern ladies of song owe a huge debt of gratitude to this iconic towering figure of stage, screen and television. No one was like her, no one ever will be. One thinks of Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Carol Channing among a select pantheon of voices that are immediately identified by their first note and for whom there is no mistaking anyone else.
Those of a certain age will remember her frequent appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, where, with a large white handkerchief affixed to her right hand (Pavarotti, are you listening somewhere?) she’d belt out her signature songs, always ending with the one she will be eternally identified with “Some of These Days” (You’re gonna miss me, honey!) Miss her we do and for those who do not, there is this splendid new documentary written and produced by Susan and Lloyd Ecker and directed by William Gazecki.
“Outrageous” or not, the film provides a rich tapestry, not just of the artist, but show business as it was and will never be again.. ‘Soph’ was born in 1887 to Russian/Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. From that unpromising beginning, no one could have foreseen the dramatic rise to stardom that would crown her as “Last of the Red-hot Mommas.”
Not pretty in any conventional sense, she compensated with a force-of-nature drive and determination to escape the poverty of her childhood. Vaudeville was in full swing and Tucker “blacked it up” as was the style then, along with fellow luminaries such as Al Jolson. Her voice was god-given and came from deep in her ample chest and rang out across the footlights with no need of amplification.
Only die-hard fans would know that during prohibition, she struck a strong friendship with Al Capone with whom she often played cards until the wee hours. In fact, she knew “everyone”– kings, queens, 11 U.S. presidents and most revelatory for this viewer, became a life-long friend of J. Edgar Hoover. According to the film’s narration, Hoover came over to Sophie after one of her shows and whispered to her that he wanted the dress she wore on stage that night. Soph replied, “Honey, you’d never fit into it!” After her third husband died and enduring the bitter disappointment of her only son, Bert, Sophie surrounded herself 24/7 with a succession of “close” female friends. The intimations are strong that she went that way but we’ll never know. Chances are she wouldn’t have given a damn what people thought, even about that. She had the guts to stand up to racists in Florida who protested the appearance of expatriate singer Josephine Baker when she returned to America after World War II. You didn’t mess with this “momma”—no way, no how.
The film ends with great poignancy as Tucker suffers a stroke during a last T.V. appearance but trooper to the end, finishes her act and dies several weeks later, surrounded by family and fans.
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens on July 24th at the Laemmle Encino Town Center and other theaters in Los Angeles. Check local listings.
Jeff Klayman grew up in New York and had his first play produced at the legendary off-broadway mecca, La Mama E.T.C. Other plays have been produced in Los Angeles and London, England. He has authored a book of children’s stories and was a winner of the A.F.I. sit-com writers competition which brought him to Los Angeles, where he lives with his two cats, Misty and Ben, and his guitar.