Sophie Tucker (1884-1966)
Internationally renowned entertainer Sophie Tucker was star of burlesque, vaudeville, screen and television during her lifetime and referred to herself as “the last of the red-hot mamas.” Her signature songs include: “Some of These Days” and “My Yiddishe Mama” both of which she performed all over the world.
One of four children, Sophie was born Sonya Kalish in Russia while her mother and elder brother were en route to the United States. Her father was already living on Salem Street in Boston’s North End as “Charles Abuza.” Earlier he had served as a Russian soldier but planned to desert the army and immigrate to the United States. An Italian soldier whom he had befriended on his way became sick and died while they were on the run. He took the soldier’s papers, name, and his identity—then left the country for the U.S. Sophie lived with her family in Boston for her first eight years of life and attended the Charlotte Cushman School on Parmenter Street in the North End.
When they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, Sophie’s parents opened Abuza’s Home Restaurant overlooking the Connecticut River. They served old-world Eastern European food to many Yiddish theater and vaudeville performers stopping over in Hartford. Sophie would listen to them talk about their travels, sang to entertain them and also would sing outside the restaurant to attract customers.
She married Louis Tuck—her first of three marriages—after she graduated from high school at just 16 years old. Together they had a son, but she dreamed of becoming a professional entertainer. When their marriage ended, Sophie was encouraged to pursue show business by entertainers who regularly dined at the restaurant and had heard her sing. She left her son behind in Hartford to be raised by her sister and mother and headed for New York City.
At an early audition for Chris Brown’s Amateur Nights at the 125th Street Theater, she swapped her married name for the stage name “Tucker.” That performance marked the official beginning of her career. During her early days, she was only given work if she agreed to sing in “blackface” a route also taken by Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, among others, in the early 1900s before they became known. Sophie went on to perform with the Park vaudeville circuit, in towns across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. At a pivotal point in her career, while scheduled to perform back in Boston at the Old Howard Theatre, her make-up kit was lost. She went on stage as herself without the usual make-up and was a huge success—she never performed in blackface again.
Sophie was also a pioneer recording artist and recorded “Some of These Days” for the Edison Company in 1911. (Some of those Edison recordings are still available on You Tube). Songwriters Jack Yellen and Lou Pollack wrote: “My Yiddishe Mama” for Sophie in 1925. She initially performed it at the Palace Theatre in New York and later across the United States—especially when she knew that there would be a large Jewish audience. It surprised her that many people whether Jewish or not, loved the song even if they could not understand the Yiddish words. People were able to feel her emotion in the music and its universal theme. She was asked to perform the song in Berlin by the Berlin Broadcasting Company in 1931—but after Hitler came into power in 1933, her records were destroyed and the sale of “My Yiddishe Mama” was banned.
From the beginning of her career, she chose each song that she performed very carefully and often opted for those songs written by emerging Jewish and black artists from Tin Pan Alley including a young Irving Berlin. She wrote in her autobiography that having selected her own songs, instead of just performing the popular tunes of the day, made her act unique and helped her to create her own persona. Lighthearted humor and banter with the audience was also an integral part of her act—often her jokes were bawdy and, at times, self-deprecating. Always generous and considerate of everyone from the stage hands to other entertainers, she was well loved throughout her entire career and inspired many other women performers who followed, including Joan Rivers and Bette Midler.
Sophie was also known for her generosity. As soon as she was earning money professionally, she sent weekly checks to her parents in order to support her son and make life easier for her family. When she traveled, Sophie often stayed in rooming houses and would befriend, and give money to, many young women who were working as prostitutes. Shortly after World War II she established the Sophie Tucker Foundation and extended her philanthropy by donating time, as well as resources, to hospitals, Brandeis University, and Israel. Sophie served as president of the American Federation of Actors, and also contributed to several Theatrical Guilds and the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
Sophie Tucker is frequently quoted as stating the following witticism: “From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents, from 18 to 35 she needs good looks, from 35 to 55 she needs a good personality, and from 55 on she needs cash.”
– Helaine Davis