BEFORE THERE was ever such a thing as a supermodel or a Kardashian, the world's best-known multimedia sex symbol was a loud, fat lady named Sophie Tucker.
Possessed with a formidable girth and an even fuller voice, Sophie Tucker reigned over every single performance platform that existed in the early 20th century, from vaudeville and Broadway stages to radio to film to television. For six decades, audiences flocked to see her sing and perform her self-deprecating shtick, and the batwing arms of her celebrity reached around the world.
“She was as big as Elvis. Or Madonna,” confirms former fellow nightclub act Tony Bennett in a new feature-length film, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, closing out the Savannah Jewish Film Festival this Saturday, Jan. 31.
Born in 1887 somewhere in between the pogrom-infested Ukraine and the golden streets of America, Sonia Kalish was the daughter of Jewish immigrants who settled in Hartford, CT. The whole family cooked and cleaned in their kosher restaurant, which proved far too boring for the gregarious young girl, who used to belt out tunes for tips in the doorway.
She eloped at 16—but when she found marriage and motherhood just as oppressive, she ditched her schlemiel of a husband, left her son with her parents and split for New York City.
She renamed herself Sophie Tucker, and her first showbiz gig came soon after—performing in blackface as a ring shouter for a vaudeville director who told her she was “too big and ugly” to go on as herself. She conveniently forgot her makeup kit while on tour and marched on stage anyway. After a stint with the famed Ziegfield Follies in 1909, the bawdy Jewish babe with the big hips became a headlining act all over the country with her signature songs “Some of the These Days” and “My Yiddishe Momma.”
Known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Tucker touted feminine sexuality and empowerment long before the term “slut shaming” darkened the lexicon. In an era when it was indecent for women to show up in public without white gloves, she was adamantly unapologetic about her sexual ardor and even less so about her size, promoting big beauty body acceptance with songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” and “No One Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love!”
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker chronicles her rags-to-riches rise, charming tenacity and legendary generosity through interviews compiled by husband-and-wife Sophie Tucker superfans Sue and Lloyd Ecker. , who produced the film as well as a Grammy-winning CD of Tucker’s recordings and a forthcoming book about their shared idol’s life.
The Eckers became enamored of her on their very first date: They attended a Bette Midler concert, in which the red-headed entertainer referenced Tucker’s genius throughout the show. Afterwards, they researched the lady who inspired the Divine Ms. M’s dynamic act and found a once-bright star that was fading, but not forgotten.
“Anyone we wanted to talk to, all we had to do was mention Sophie Tucker and we were in,” says Lloyd, who was able to schedule facetime with Bennett, Paul Anka, pianist Michael Feinstein and other musicians who had worked with Tucker.
The documentary also draws from 400+ scrapbooks kept by Tucker herself, now archived at the New York Library and Brandeis University. Within are playbills from the 1920s, notes from U.S. Presidents and place cards from dinner with the Queen of England.
“Not only did Sophie keep all her show biz memorabilia, but she also kept every single card, letter and telegram that anyone ever sent to her,” Sue marvels.
“It took us four years to read everything,” says Lloyd with a grin.
Almost a hundred years after her heyday, Sophie Tucker isn’t exactly a pop culture meme these days. Still, the film has found a niche among older Jews who remember their parents’ adoration of her, and it’s also attracted a strong following in the gay community.
“We knew we had a Jewish audience for this film, and we’ve been really pleased that it’s found a gay audience as well,” says Neil Friedman, President of Menemsha Films, who released The Outrageous Sophie Tucker in eight Florida theaters last fall to sold-out runs.
“Apparently there are a lot of impersonators and drag queens who perform as Sophie around the country and Canada.”
It’s no shocker that Sophie Tucker endures as a gay icon: After all, she did mentor Judy Garland, and her dear friend J. Edgar Hoover reportedly coveted her gowns.
The real challenge is to help younger generations understand that every pop star who tells us that “it’s about that bass” owes their shtick to Sophie Tucker.
“Sophie did it first,” reminds Friedman.
“And our job with this film to see how young we can make the audience.”