The Last of the Red-hot Mamas
Sophie Tucker peered from behind the curtain. It was two o'clock, show time, at Tony Pastor's Theatre in New York City, where big-time agents came to look for new acts of vaudeville. The seats were empty! "What's the matter?" she asked a stagehand.
"It's always like this," he said. "They don't start coming in till after two-fifteen."
At 2:28 the pianist played the introduction to her first song, and Sophie went out and started to sing. She was overwhelmed by the sudden tramp of feet coming down the aisles, the rattle of wooden seats as they were folded open, and the talking and laughter of arriving patrons. She stopped singing. The piano fell silent. Her robust voice shot across the footlights. "What for you-all so late gettin' in hyar? Hyar I am all dressed up and with some most special songs you-all ain't never heard yet. Don't you-all know you're keeping the show waitin'?"
She got a big laugh. What's more, she got the audience's attention. After five songs, the audience clamored for more. Sophie wondered later, "Where did I get the nerve to holler out like that to a New York audience?"
If there was one thing Sophie Tucker was never short on, it was nerve. Nerve propelled her from her family's restaurant in Connecticut, where she waited on tables and sang the occasional song, to New York City and show business. Eventually, nerve got her into big-time vaudeville, and not just as one of fifteen or sixteen acts in a show but as a "headliner" -- one of a handful of performers who saw their names shining in electric lights on theater marquees across the country.
Her timing could not have been better. In 1908, when Sophie was twenty-one and shouting down the audience at Pastor's Theatre, vaudeville was fast approaching its peak as the most popular form of entertainment in America. Nearly every town had at least one vaudeville theater where traveling troupes performed a variety show at very low prices. People went once, even twice a week. And why not? For a quarter or fifty cents, you might see a strong man who could tear a telephone book in half; a boxing kangaroo; a pair of comedians; a one-act play; eight dancing girls; a troupe of talented mules; or a female singer in a glamorous gown. Some twenty thousand vaudevillians were traveling the railroads on their way from one theater to the next. Among them was bawdy songstress Eva Tanguay (whose theme song was "I Don't Care"); escape artist Harry Houdini; the brother-and-sister dance act of Fred and Adele Astaire; Will Rogers, the cowboy who roped a horse onstage; ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his smart-aleck dummy, Charlie; and "The Twelve Speed Maniacs," who assembled a Ford automobile in two minutes flat. And there was Sophie Tucker, whose big, belting voice "put the trombone in its place and made the electric lights flicker" -- or so it was said.
Sophie was a large, buxom woman. She wore her golden hair piled on her head and, once she was earning big money, favored extravagant clothes: long, flowing dresses, dainty shoes with ribbon bows, lots of diamond jewelry, and a feather headdress that shot up eighteen inches into the air. She always looked elegant, even queenly. And yet in her manner she was anything but aloof. She was open and kindhearted, a pal to everyone. She could tell bawdy jokes without offending people -- important in a clean, family entertainment like vaudeville.
Sophie was born on January 13, 1887, somewhere in Poland. Her mother was emigrating from Russia to America with her baby son when she went into labor in a wagon. The wagon driver left them by the side of the road. Fortunately, people in a nearby house took in mother and son, and delivered Sophie.
Three months later, the family joined Sophie's father in America. To evade Russian authorities, he had changed his last name from Kalish to Abuza. He settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he opened Abuza's Home Restaurant.
Everybody in the Abuza family worked. Sophie got up at three o'clock in the morning to wipe the frost off the salami and bologna and to slice bread for sandwiches. She wrapped her feet and stuffed the front of her dress with newspapers to keep out the cold. Then she did housework, ran errands, and peeled vegetables for soup before going to school. If she fell asleep every morning in geography, she was wide awake during music class, and was often called on to lead the singing. After school she waited on tables.
One day when she was about eleven, Sophie sang "Break the News to Mother," a popular song about a dying soldier, for the customers. The song brought tears to many eyes and extra tips to Sophie. Her father got excited and told his wife, "You see, someday, with that great big voice of hers, she'll make big money for us."
At the city park concerts, Sophie began to accompany -- on the piano with one finger -- her younger sister Anna, who sang. Then something marvelous happened. "I was going on thirteen, and already I weighed about one hundred forty-five pounds," Sophie recalled. "I was gawky and self-conscious. Gradually, at the concerts, I began to hear calls for 'the fat girl.' Then I would jump up from the piano stool, forgetting all about my size, and work to get all the laughs I could get." She picked up jokes at Poli's Vaudeville Theater in her hometown. She learned songs from the show people who came into the restaurant, who scribbled the lyrics, not the music, on scraps of paper for her. "I couldn't have read the notes if I had had them," Sophie said. "And I had no need of them. I was born with a quick and true ear."
When she was about seventeen, a young man named Louis Tuck asked Sophie to a dance -- her first. Two months later, she married him. They had a son, Bert. Tuck worked as a driver for a horse-drawn beer truck, but brought home little money because he gambled. He, Sophie, and their son moved in with her parents, and Sophie went back to working in the restaurant. When she told Tuck to take care of his family and get a better job or leave, he left. The marriage had lasted two years. Sophie, meanwhile, saved one hundred dollars from singing and, in the fall of 1906, she begged two weeks' vacation and left baby Bert with her parents. She had no intention of returning. She wrote her parents from New York City: "I have decided to go into show business. I have decided that I can do big things and have definitely made up my mind that you will never stand behind a stove and cook any more, and every comfort that I can bring you both I am going to do, and I know I can do it, if you will let me alone."
Sophie found a room for five dollars a week, including breakfast, and a restaurant that would let her sing for her supper. She changed her name to Sophie Tucker, because "Mrs. Tuck didn't sound right for a singer," she said. Sophie was completely dedicated, even to a job that paid only in food, not cash. "Every morning I turned out of bed and marched myself up to the music publishers' and got the pianists to go over new songs with me."
"Got something new, boys?" was her standard greeting. Already she had formed the philosophy that was to serve her for fifty years. "From those days to this my motto has been: 'Get something new. Keep fresh. Don't get stale, singing the same songs.' I made it my job to learn all the new popular numbers as they came out and to have these with me."
Sophie had her eye on German Village, a classy restaurant on West Fortieth Street, that employed fifteen to twenty singers. When the manager told her she was too young, she bought a new outfit "on time" (paying one dollar a week until the full payment was reached), put her hair up, and got the job. She sang as many as one hundred songs a night for fifteen dollars a week plus tips. True to her word, she sent a weekly money order to her family.
Sophie then landed a spot on Chris Brown's amateur night, a place far uptown on 125th Street, where newcomers could be seen by agents booking the vaudeville circuit, and her career took a sharp turn. As she was about to go onstage, Mr. Brown said, "This one's so big and ugly the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up. She'll kill 'em." An assistant quickly rubbed burnt cork on Sophie's face, ears, and neck. He painted on a grotesque mouth with lipstick, tied a red bandanna over her hair, and thrust a pair of black cotton gloves on her hands.
Just like that, Sophie became a blackface comedian. "Blacking up" to look like a Negro was a popular vaudeville tradition, practiced by whites and blacks alike. Blackface actors performed caricatures of blacks, typically a bumbling, ignorant type known as a "coon." Singers who blackened their faces and sang Southern songs were called "coon shouters." Today it's hard to find the humor in such openly racist gestures, but at the time, blackface had appeal to both races -- for different reasons. Anyone, black or white, could enjoy feeling superior to a fool, but black audiences got an extra kick out of seeing white folks' "imitations" of black people. When the actor was black, the humor became more complex: Blacks laughed at a black blackface actor making fun of the white blackface actor who imitated black folks.
"All right, you're on," said the stagehand. Sophie felt sick with fright. The pianist thumped out the opening chords, jolting her out of her fear. She strode onstage and sang three songs, which the audience liked so much, they refused to let her go until she had sung three more.
On the way home that night Sophie recognized a booking agent on the subway train. She went up to him, her face still sooty. "You heard me sing?" she asked. "Did you like me? Do you think you could book me?"
Yes, he did. Sophie spent the next year on the small-time circuit of second-rate theaters in New England for thirty-five dollars a week. Despite the low pay, she was thrilled to be in her first vaudeville job and described herself as "a big, husky girl, carrying her own suitcase, attending to her own railroad tickets, boarding places, looking out for herself, as capable and independent as a man." It couldn't have been easy to manage as beautifully as Sophie did. The vaudeville life was rough and it was lonely. Performers typically stayed a week in one theater, and took a train on Sunday night to the next town on their schedule. They ate poorly. "Home" was a filthy, cold, rat-ridden dressing room by day and a single room in a cheap boardinghouse at night. But working in vaudeville offered a remarkable level of independence in an era when women did nothing alone, not even walk down the street. Sophie made her own decisions about what to sing, how to sing, and what to wear. Later she recorded a song that expressed her satisfaction: "I do what I choose, whenever I choose / I go where I choose and take what I choose / And I'm not taking orders from no one."
Except in matters of makeup. Every time she asked the booking agent if she could work in whiteface, the same answer came back: "No. Blackface is what we want." She resented having to wear a disguise but accepted it as part of her training. "I never liked it, but I stumbled into the discovery that I could do it and that people liked it."
The critics liked it right away. "Seldom is such a vivacious, intense and entertaining personality found in one body," said an early review in the New York Dramatic Mirror. "Miss Tucker fairly lifts a person out of his seat. She has a very powerful voice of the 'coon shouting' caliber, but which she uses to such good advantage that the harshness of it is forgotten and her higher and lower notes are quite pleasing. But it isn't her voice. It's her ability to act...."
Arriving for a show in Boston in 1908, Sophie got bad news: Her trunk had been sent on to another town by mistake, and inside it was her entire blackface getup -- the black greasepaint, gloves, and horsehair wig. Posters announcing sophie tucker: world-renowned coon shouter were plastered all over the city. What was she going to do? The theater manager was unperturbed. "Go on in your street clothes, the way you are. A good-looking hefty squaw like you don't need black makeup."
Encouraging words. But Sophie was terrified. She had never walked out onstage without some kind of disguise, and here she was in a skirt suit, white blouse, and no makeup except lipstick, a dab of rouge, and a dusting of white powder. "You-all can see I'm a white girl," she began. "Well, I'll tell you something more: I'm not Southern. I'm a Jewish girl, and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song." She started with "That Lovin' Rag," and the audience was attentive. All the while she was thinking, "I don't need blackface. I can hold an audience without it. I've got them eating out of my hand."
When the trunk finally arrived in Boston, the theater manager intercepted it on its way to Sophie's dressing room. "Throw out that trunk," he said. "The kid doesn't need blackface." Sophie was free.
Two years later, in 1910, she made her entry into big-time vaudeville, where she did just two shows a day instead of the usual three or four and more, up to fourteen. Big time also meant big money, but not immediately. While Pauline, a famous hypnotist, was raking in $4,000 a week, and the equally well-known Julian Eltinge, a man impersonating a woman, was making $3,500, Sophie started out at $40. She gave her work everything she had, and her salary increased to $75 by the second week, then jumped to $100. The critics commented cruelly on her size -- "speaking of elephants and ladies, there is Sophie Tucker" -- but it was clear she was holding her own in big time. Variety, the national newspaper for theater, and other publications wrote of her "magnetism." In the Chicago News, a critic gushed: "She is a perfect cyclone of animation and makes such a terrific racket while singing and talks so loud and urges natural-born laughter to such extremes that her vitality is a tonic and a treat."
That same year, Sophie saw her name in lights. She took a picture of the marquee in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with her Brownie camera, and cried. She was a headliner at last.
"There's no getting round it, success does things to you," she said. "Makes you feel different, act different. I was strutting now." For the first time in her life she did not have to worry about money. Her salary went to $500 a week in 1911, when the average worker earned $750 a year. She sent money regularly to her parents and to Anna, who was raising Bert; paid Bert's private school tuition; put her brother through law school; and made a down payment on a house in Hartford for her parents -- and still had cash to spare.
Sophie developed a taste for finery, the showier the better. She had four rings made of bright green stones to enhance the performance of one song, "Angle-worm Wiggle." She slid her hands up and down her body, hoping for a naughty effect, and she was not disappointed. In Portland, Oregon, the City Department of Safety for Women tried to have her arrested. She left the show while the authorities straightened out the matter. When the district attorney read the song's lyrics, he threw out the case. Sophie went back into the show, only now with a line at the box office that was three blocks long.
Sophie had a strong, unfailing sense of good business. Before she left each theater, she asked the manager for a return date, promising new songs. Unlike some vaudevillians, who kept the same act for several seasons, she changed her act frequently. One who shared her philosophy was the great blackface comedian Bert Williams, a black man, who mused, "If I could turn myself into a human boomerang; if I could jump from the stage, fly out over the audience, turn a couple of somersaults in the air, snatch the toupee from the head of the bald man in the front row of the balcony, and light back on the stage in the spot I jumped from, I could have the world at my feet -- for a while. But even then I would always have to be finding something new."
For Sophie, "new" meant new songs from the "boys" in Tin Pan Alley, new clothes, new photos for the publicity men, new props. She sailed to London in 1922 and was a success there, but returned penniless because she spent everything she earned on gorgeous gowns and a one-thousand-dollar stage setting: black patent-leather drops that turned all colors when the lights hit them.
Sophie used her business sense in other ways, too. In contrast to her contemporary Eva Tanguay, who once tossed a stagehand down the stairs when he got in her way, Sophie made it a rule never to fuss backstage. She gave monetary tips to the stage crews and orchestra leaders, so that when she came back to their theaters, she'd have friends who would help her to be a success. She kept a file of seven thousand names of people she'd met over the years, and sent each of them a handwritten note when she was appearing in their community.
Being a good businesswoman paid off. Sophie earned top fees by the late 1920s, $3,500 and more per week. She performed for the king and queen of England, and in Paris, where she earned an astounding $7,000 a week.
She easily could afford to throw a grand wedding party for Anna when her sister got married in 1928. Otherwise Sophie found it difficult to maintain much of a family life. She stayed in touch with her son, but their relationship was always troubled. She married three times, briefly and without much happiness. Her felicity lay elsewhere. "I have just two passions in life," she said in 1913. "One is a fifty-horsepower go-as-you-please automobile and the other is a ragtime song with about the same amount of speed behind it."
Her most famous song, "Some of These Days," is hardly a powerhouse, at least on paper. The lyrics are rather bland: "Some of these days, you'll miss me honey / Some of these days, you'll feel so lonely / You'll miss my hugging, you'll miss my kissing / You'll miss me honey when you go away." It was Sophie's vigor that transformed the song into a showpiece. On TV in 1957, when Sophie was seventy, she sang the song to a Dixieland beat, fast and cocky, swirling her frothy skirt, flashing surprisingly slender calves, waving a chiffon scarf: "You're gonna miss your big fat momma some of these days."
Another favorite song was a sentimental number, "My Yiddishe Mama," sung in English and in Yiddish: "I need her more than ever now, my Yiddishe mama, I'd love to kiss that wrinkled brow." Sophie sang bawdy, seductive songs, too, about how she could "make a bald headed man part his hair in the middle" because she was "a red hot mama." With that song, introduced in 1928, she got the billing and nickname that stayed with her for the rest of her life: "The Last of the Red-hot Mamas."
Sadly, by then vaudeville was beginning its decline. Talking movies arrived in the late 1920s, and although many theaters offered a combination movie-and-vaudeville show, it was clear that audiences came to see the movie, not the live show. Vaudevillians got to be known as "coolers" because they stayed onstage only as long as the movie projectors needed to cool down. Sophie eventually accepted a pay cut and let her headliner status go to a movie actress, just to keep working. "Show business is changing all the time. If you want to stay with it, you have to change with it," she said.
As movies got longer, the vaudeville portion of the show shortened until it vanished altogether. Some vaudevillians went to Hollywood in the 1930s, but many abandoned the entertainment business altogether. Sophie kept working. She made six films, of which Broadway Melody of 1938, where she played Judy Garland's mother, was probably the best. Sophie needed a live audience, and did her best work in nightclubs. Her classy club act was the talk of the town for two more decades. She walked around the room and bantered with individuals in the crowd, spreading humor and goodwill like confetti. It didn't hurt that she wore outrageously expensive gowns and kept up a steady supply of new songs.
Sophie never retired. Before she died on February 10, 1966, at the age of seventy-nine, Sophie summed up her career in a few words: "God has been very good to me. He gave me special things that I took advantage of -- I didn't sit around and let anybody beat me to the punch."
Copyright © 2001 by Roxane Orgill