She was the original red hot mama.
Bold, bawdy and brassy, and invariably attired in feathers, sequins and jewels, Sophie Tucker was a huge star in her day, enjoying a 60-year career in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, film and television.
William Gazecki’s documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, distributed by Menemsha Films, draws a rounded portrait of a legendary entertainer. Narrated by David Hyde Pierce, it draws on archival clips, Tucker’s 400 scrapbooks and interviews with a broad range of friends and acquaintances.
Born in 1886 aboard a ship en route to the United States, Tucker — a Russian Jew whose name was originally Sonya Kalish — began singing at her parent’s kosher restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, at a young age. At 16, she eloped with a beer truck driver from whom she would derive her stage name. In 1906, she gave birth to a son who turned out to be a wastrel.
After she and her husband — the first of three — separated, she sang in cafes and beer gardens. She segued into vaudeville, which flourished from the 1880 to the 1930s.
Tucker, decked out in blackface, was a “coon shouter” singer until she broke into the Ziegfeld Follies. Due to the refusal of the show’s star to share the spotlight with Tucker, she was fired. William Morris, a theatre owner and the founder of an eponymous Hollywood talent agency, appreciated her talents and signed her up as his first client. Their relationship endured until her death in 1966.
Since most clubs after Prohibition were in the hands of the mob, Tucker got to know gangsters like Al Capone. They respected Tucker because she was a great draw. Ironically, she was also on friendly terms with J. Edgar Hoover, the cross-dressing director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And she knew seven U.S. presidents.
Ample in girth, she was the world’s most famous female entertainer by the late 1920s, titillating fans with risque songs. Her rendition of My Yiddishe Momme brought tears to Jewish audiences. Tucker was close to and mentored Judy Garland, with whom she appeared in a movie.
Smart and savvy, Tucker was a marketing genius who endorsed commercial products long before the practice became common. And she built an enormous fan base by taking the trouble to connect with fawning admirers.
Retirement was never on her agenda, as the film suggests. “I’ll die with my boots on,” Tucker said a few weeks before she succumbed to lung cancer.
She was a one-of-a-kind personality, and The Outrageous Sophie Tucker makes that abundantly clear.