November 19, 2018

Sophie Tucker’s Outrageous Truth

In 1929, America’s top male and female entertainers were Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker, both Jews born abroad and raised by Orthodox parents.

Tucker was born Sonya Kalish in 1887, shortly before her parents left Ukraine and settled in Hartford, Conn., where they opened a kosher restaurant.

The renamed immigrant evolved into a larger-than-life show-business phenomenon as a bawdy, raucous singer dubbed “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” a shrewd self-promoter, and as a self-proclaimed “perfect 48” in bust, waist and hip measurements.

Much of her turbulent 60 years in the limelight — accompanied by the evolution of the phonograph, radio and television — has been captured in the 60-minute documentary “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.” In its Los Angeles premiere, the film will kick off the 2015 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 30, followed by a Q-and-A with the producers and husband-and-wife team of Susan and Lloyd Ecker.

Before tackling their film project, the Eckers spent more than seven years reading and researching Tucker’s unpublished autobiography and combing through some 400 scrapbooks as well as her correspondence with just about everyone she ever met, from kings and presidents to GIs during World War II.

“Sophie was like the Forrest Gump of the first half of the 20th century,” Susan Ecker, joined by her husband, said in a phone interview. “She was close friends with seven U.S. presidents, King George VI, young Queen Elizabeth, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and just about every other notable of her era.”

Perhaps oddest, she was simultaneously pals with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and top mobster Al Capone.

The film, directed by William Gazecki, abounds with anecdotes about Tucker, told by such entertainers as Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Shecky Greene, Mickey Rooney, Chubby Checker and Connie Stevens. A more surprising narrator is TV journalist Barbara Walters, whose father owned the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York and took young Barbara there to meet the performers.

The veracity of Tucker’s own voluminous recollections and writings is, to put it kindly, open to doubt. After digging through Tucker’s massive output, Lloyd Ecker estimates that 15 percent may be true, and 85 percent probably made up.

“Though she obsessively documented her life, Sophie loved to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Over the years, she told multiple versions of each important event. At the end, not even Sophie knew the difference between truth and tall tale,” he said.

However, Ecker maintains that through diligent research, his documentary is 85 percent fact, and as for the other 15 percent … “Who knows?”

Tucker’s first public appearance was as a teenager singing popular tunes of the time for customers at her parents’ deli, but her professional career began in 1906 and lasted until her death in 1966.

During most of that era, the racism of American society was blunt and open. Tucker did her first vaudeville appearances in blackface and, given her high-volume presentations and fake Deep South accent, she was widely advertised as “The Greatest of the Coon Shouters.”

That changed in 1908, when Tucker, performing in Pittsburgh with a traveling burlesque show, lost her luggage, which included her makeup kit. Going onstage, she stunned the audience by saying, “You can all see I’m a white girl. 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.”

Tucker was also well ahead of her time in befriending and defending Black artists.

In 1951, when Black singer and dancer Josephine Baker was to appear at the Copa City nightclub in Miami Beach and insisted that the audience be integrated, she was met with physical threats from some townspeople. When Tucker heard about this, she announced that she would personally introduce Baker on the stage.

Tucker also befriended the great Black tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and when her sister got married in 1923, Robinson was invited to the wedding banquet. When the hotel manager insisted that Robinson enter through the back door, Tucker persuaded all 250 guests to also enter through the back door and the kitchen, Lloyd Ecker related.

Also unusual for the time, Tucker, as a show-biz personality, did not hide her Jewishness, and a newspaper article about her was headlined “Kosher and Proud of It.”

Her ethnicity became part of her repertoire in 1925, when she introduced “My Yiddishe Momme” as her personal theme song.

During World War II, Tucker entertained the troops and became an unusual pin-up girl. The film contains an anecdote, which one fervently hopes is true, about a Jewish soldier who somehow lugged a wind-up phonograph with him, along with a single record of Tucker’s “Yiddishe Momme.” He announced that he intended to play the record in conquered Berlin.

The soldier’s constant playing of the song drove his fellow GIs crazy, but when their Jewish comrade was killed in action, his buddies took the record with them to Berlin, mounted loudspeakers on top of the Brandenburg Gate, and played “My Yiddishe Momme” for three hours running.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” will premiere as the opening event of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at 7 p.m. April 30 at the Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. The film will reprise at 7:15 p.m. May 3 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. For additional information and to order tickets visit