Would you like to go to the movies? Yes? That is exactly what about 80 people did on Nov. 25 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, thanks to the wonderful combined effort of Jewish Seniors Alliance and Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, which co-host a movie screening scheduled on the afternoon of the last Tuesday of every month.
Upon arriving, we were treated to a light buffet of bagels, sweets, fruit and beverages, then we headed to the large auditorium, where VJFC director Robert Albanese welcomed the audience and introduced the day’s film, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.
After Gyda Chud, on behalf of JSA, made some announcements, including that the previously scheduled JSA Empowerment series talk Oy Vey, My Back! will be presented in March, Albanese spoke of the variety of films that the film centre will be presenting over the next few months. Then, Sophie Tucker “entered” our world.
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish to Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1886 as they fled from czarist Russia. She only became Sophie Tucker after she adopted her former husband’s name, Tuck, and added the “er.” That name became a password that could be used to gain entry to celebrities and even presidents.
In the film, authors and biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker relate much of Tucker’s story.
When very young, she worked in her parents’ kosher restaurant, a job she did not enjoy. One day, her father asked her to distribute pamphlets at theatres as the actors left, since most of them were Jewish. He thought it would increase the number of diners.
While doing this task, Tucker heard the music from inside a theatre, she snuck in and what she saw changed her life forever, as well as the lives of her future audiences. She ran away to New York, leaving her family, but knowing where she belonged.
She tried vaudeville but, not being a classic beauty, she had difficulty being accepted “as is,” so she sang in “black face.” Eventually, her powerful voice began to be heard. When she forgot her makeup one day and sang as herself, the show was a success – she never performed in black face again.
Irving Berlin wrote music for her and she “stopped the show” when she sang. Tucker worked without a contract; her word or a handshake was sufficient.
Tucker was respected and she respected others, asking for their names, numbers and addresses upon meeting them and entering those contacts in a book, which eventually housed 10,000 names. She would write to these people if she were coming to their towns, asking them to come see her perform. She was the original Facebook – only it was the Tuckerbook.
Ted Shapiro, her accompanist for 46 years, had the unique talent of being able to interpret the mood that Tucker wished to portray.
In later years, mobsters took over the ownership of many nightclubs and Tucker befriended Al Capone. He enjoyed having her sing, as she brought people into his Chez Paris. He called her a “human cash register.”
In the years to come, Tucker decided to share what she knew and opened a school teaching young women how to be “Red Hot Mamas.”
She knew how to market herself: in the 1930s, she was the spokeswoman for soup; in the 1940s, she advertised blouses for the fuller mamas, saying she enjoyed being overweight – “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” She prided herself on having creative and huge hairdos, calling herself the “Modern Marie Antoinette,” and always carried a large filmy handkerchief as she performed.
In 1929, the biggest entertainer was Al Jolson and he sang in the first talkie. That same year, Warner Bros. had Tucker debut in the movie Honky Tonk, where she sang “Some of These Days,” a song with which she is still identified. Judy Garland learned how to “sell a song” from Tucker.
During the war, Tucker was one of the performers to whom soldiers wrote and received answers. She was a pinup girl along with Betty Grable.
There was a young Jewish soldier who was obsessed with music and hauled around his records, vowing that he would play Tucker’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mameh” in Berlin when he beat Hitler. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish this goal but his fellow soldiers fulfilled his vow, much to the anger of some German soldiers, as that song had been banned in Germany. The victors played it for eight hours through the streets of Berlin.
Tucker remained on top for 58 years, into the television era. Along the way, she befriended many, including Josephine Baker, who, because she was black, was having a hard time being allowed to perform – until Tucker invited her to sing with her.
Tucker’s talent and her voice were both immeasurable, but her true outstanding ability was in marketing herself when there wasn’t the media infrastructure there is now. She was indeed the last of the Red Hot Mamas, a glowing ember, memorable, still admired, still inspiring!
Expressing what we all felt, Chud thanked Albanese for enriching our lives with this movie, then we all went home with the echo of a song in our hearts, “Some of These Days.”
Binny Goldman is a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.