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Our Jewish Hollywood: 5 facts about Sophie Tucker, the Red Hot Yiddishe Mama

The singer and actress who didn’t want to lose weight, went on stage in black make-up and performed a song that was forbidden by the Nazis

It’s impossible to imagine Hollywood without Jews – Charlie Chaplin, Roman Polanski, Elizabeth Taylor, the Marx brothers, Harrison Ford, Woody Allen, Natalie Portman, Liza Minnelli, Adrian Brody, Sean Penn, Ben Kingsley… the list is endless. For over 100 years, the Hollywood film industry has seen thousands of directors, actors, screenwriters, producers, camera operators etc., a huge number of them with Jewish ancestry. And some of them, in their turn, were emigrants or descendents of emigrants from lands that are part of modern-day Ukraine. After completing the project “Jewish Ukraine: 5 facts about…”, JewishNews.com.ua is launching a new series: “Our Jewish Hollywood: 5 facts about…”, dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish Hollywood celebrities of the past and future. And the first article in the new project is dedicated to the “Red Hot Yiddishe Mama” Sophie Tucker.

Sonya Kalish, known to the world as Sophie Tucker, was born into a Jewish family in the town of Tulczyn, which is now in the Vinnitsy Oblast. When Sonya was a child, her entire family moved to the USA, settling in Hartford, Connecticut, and for unknown reasons changed their surname to Abuza. Although there is a theory that her father, who was the first to emigrate, chose it before the entire family moved to the States – Kalish took the name of a deceased Italian passenger named Abuza as a precaution to avoid anti-Semitic aggression.

In Hartford, her parents opened a small restaurant, and the talented girl began to provide the “entertainment section” – from time to time she played the piano and sang for tips. In 1903, Sophie married the beer cart driver Louis Tuck, who was fond of idling, had a son with him and continued to work for her parents, to feed her young family. But the striking and artistic Sophie Tucker wanted a different life. Three years after her marriage she divorced her husband, took his surname (changing it to Tucker), left her child with her parents and went to conquer New York (to Sophie’s credit, we should say that she sent a considerable percentage of her earnings home to look after her son).

Her unsuccessful attempts at marriage strengthened Sophie’s character – in this marriage and her two subsequent ones she learnt to rely solely on herself. “Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal' and 'a good sport,' the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you've cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself,” she said ironically.

However, it wasn’t as sad as all that – the free and independent Sophie Tucker had diamonds, and orchids, the admiration of fans, and the respect of colleagues in both the musical and cinematic world. Right up until her death (at the age of 79), Sophie was incredibly popular, and her memory lives on to this day.

1. “I don’t want to get thin”: Sophie Tucker was proud of her plumpness

Sophie Tucker was always a fat girl, but was never ashamed of it. In her performances, especially in her early career, she emphasized her plumpness. Tucker said that in 1906 she was accepted into the vaudeville troupe of an East Side theater precisely because she was “fat and ugly” and fit ideally into the vaudeville burlesque repertoire (incidentally, because of this reason the classical drama stage was barred to her).

“Nobody loves a fat girl, but O, how a fat girl can love!” and “I don’t want to get thin”, she sang, playing the piano. But the audience did not love her for her grotesqueness, and certainly not for her excess kilograms, but for her powerful charisma. Sophie Tucker was always distinguished for her bluntness on stage – she was not only ironic about her appearance, but often made jokes below the belt, which could cause prim people’s ears to turn red. For example, one of her songs was called: “I May Be Getting Older Every Day, but Younger Every Night”, and another “I’m the 3-D Mama with a Big Wide Screen”.

Tucker never tried to turn herself into a languid and fragile beauty – on the contrary, she was proud of her shape, and her large size was always her trademark. When she was asked about her success, Sophie reported: “I’ve gotten even bigger and more popular!” Once her doctor advised her to lose a little weight, but Tucker categorically refused – to slim down meant risking her stage image, which audiences loved so much.

Incidentally, thanks to statements like these, which were very bold for their time, she became known as the “Red Hot Yiddishe Mama”. In the 1970s, the American actress of Jewish ancestry Bette Midler, whose appearance was also far-removed from the canons of classical beauty, borrowed many of Sophie Tucker’s witty jokes for her performances.

2. All that blues: Tucker adored Afro-American music

In her early career, from 1907, Sophie appeared in the role as a… “black diva” in a so-called “blackface show”. (yes, in America at that time political correctness was very much in its infancy). The show organizers thought Tucker was too plump, and would be better off appearing as a black woman. Before her performance, Sophie carefully put on makeup, covering her face in black paint, and for several years appeared on stage in this guise.

In 1908 (or according to some sources, in 1909), an incident took place – Tucker didn’t get the suitcase with her belongings and makeup in time, and she had to come out on stage with her face in its natural color. “You all can 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. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song,” said Tucker, appearing on stage without makeup. But there wasn’t any tragedy – on the contrary, the audience accepted Sophie, calling for several encores.

Sophie Tucker became famous for her performances of songs written with an Afro-American influence – even after appearing without make-up, she did not change her style, and worked with the finest Afro-American composers of the time, learning to sing from such black divas as Mammy Smith and Ethel Waters. Along with classical motifs, a considerable part of Tucker’s repertoire consisted of songs in the ragtime and blues style – incidentally, she was the first artist in the USA to release a commercial disk featuring recordings of ragtime compositions.

3. Tucker leaves Broadway for 10 years

Tucker’s path to Hollywood, as for many other actors of that time, lay through Broadway. In 1909 she was invited to participate in the “Ziegfeld Follies”, a series of performances by the American impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, who based the show on the Parisian Folies Bergère, but with American performers. His show was a kind of symbiosis of Broadway production, intricate vaudeville and variety of a high class.

Sophie Tucker’s success in these productions was stunning, but did not last long. Ziegfeld’s other divas opposed their new rival and did not want the audience’s attention to be drawn to Tucker, who took over the stage with her charisma. Sophie decided that she wouldn’t perform in groups anymore, and began her solo career, leaving Broadway for 10 years.

It was solo performances that became the main focus of her creative career, but over time she also agreed to take part in productions as part of a troupe. Tucker sang in another three shows on Broadway, the last of which was staged in 1941.

4. Tucker as the president of the American Actors’ Federation

And although Sophie Tucker’s did most of her work on the music stage, her talent also revealed itself in films. The first film Sophie appeared in was the musical “Honky Tonk “ (1929) by Warner Bros. Naturally, Tucker played the lead role of a singer in a night club, Sophie Leonard, who does everything to send her daughter Beth to study in Europe, but keeps her job a secret from her, since it is hardly very respectable. After receiving an expensive education, Beth returns to America and is shocked to discover the true source of her mother’s earnings, and refuses to see her again, which breaks Sophie’s heart.

Tucker subsequently appeared in 10 feature films and short clips. In 1938 she supported the American Actors’ Federation, and as a sign of gratitude Tucker was elected as its president. Although she did not remain in this position for long – in 1939 the organization was disbanded by the American Labor Federation because of financial violations. Its successor was the American Guild of Variety Artists.

5. Tucker’s hit forbidden in Nazi Germany as an anthem for Jewish culture

In 1925, Jack Yellen, an emigrant from Poland, wrote the words and melody of the song “My Yiddishe Momme”, and Lew Pollack wrote the music. This composition, which in Yiddish sounds much sadder than it does in English, quickly became a hit in American cities where many Jews lived. Sophie Tucker was one of the first singers to perform it – she first sang it after the death of her own mother in 1925.

“Even though I loved the song and it was a sensational hit every time I sang it, I was always careful to use it only when I knew the majority of the house would understand Yiddish. However, you didn't have to be a Jew to be moved by ‘My Yiddishe Momme’. ‘Mother’ means the same thing in any language,” Tucker recalled. Sophie dedicated her autobiography “Some of These Days” to the “great poet and great friend” Yellen.

The song “My Yiddishe Momme”, which became an anthem not only for mothers, but for the entire old Jewish world, was translated into several languages. It became popular in Germany, but after the Nazis came to power, they banned it as a symbol of Jewish culture.


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