The Outrageous Sophie Tucker Tells the Tale of Mae West's Scandalous Mentor

Sophie Tucker on Hollywood Beach, Florida, circa 1934.
Sophie Tucker on Hollywood Beach, Florida, circa 1934.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, a documentary about a comedian/singer/actor who made her name in vaudeville, radio, and early television, will have its world premiere in South Florida this Saturday.

Though she's a character of a bygone era, Tucker was a huge name in entertainment during the early part of the 20th Century and demonstrated characteristics of today's pop stars. She worked a fan base like Taylor Swift, was arrested for indecency for singing about having sex (not even Miley can do that now), and was possibly bisexual (though Lady Gaga can casually throw that out there nowadays, people would only whisper about it back then). She also spent much of her time in Miami playing the club and hotel scene.

The documentary's producers and costars, Lloyd and Susan Ecker, will be touring the many area movie theaters showing the film for the next week or so. They spent eight years putting the documentary together with director William Gazecki. Taking a beat from the marketing savvy of Tucker, they also have with them copies of the first of three planned volumes of her biography, I Am Sophie Tucker; a soundtrack; and a calendar.

We met the Eckers on Tuesday night at the Ball and Chain, a bar off Calle Ocho in Little Havana, where, across the street, their film had a special sneak preview screening at Tower Theater. We could tell immediately that they haven't tired of their project, completing each others' sentences while discussing their journey discovering Tucker, which began at a Bette Midler concert in 1973, on their first date. They said Midler shared stories of Tucker onstage, but they had no idea who Tucker was, so they did research and fell in love -- with each other as well as Tucker. Here's how some of our conversation went, as re-created postbar via email.

New Times: How many of Sophie's scrapbooks did you read through, and how did you get access to them?

Lloyd and Susan Tucker: All together there were 400 plus. Back in August of 2006, we made our first trip to the New York Public Library-Lincoln Center, Billy Rose Theater division. We were shown a handful of the scrapbooks from 1906 to 1910 and told that the rest were unavailable due to a flood in the basement and its ongoing repair. After six months of nagging, Susan and I offered to donate the money to have all the scrapbooks microfilmed, and that got the attention of the upper management and speeded up the process.

There were also scrapbooks from 1958 to 1966 in the Brandeis archives. Those were available to us immediately. In addition, we had access to 14 other archives in the U.S. and England that had Sophie photos, audio and video recordings, and miscellaneous Tucker personal items.

You have some major voices contribute to the film: Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters, and Carol Channing! Who were some of the more challenging interviews to get?

Carol was the first and easiest after we met someone who knew her late husband's last name and the town they were living in. We simply looked him up in the phone book, and there he was. One month later, we had the pleasure of spending the whole day with Carol.

Barbara Walters and Tony Bennett took three years to pull off. The key was a friendship we have with a longtime business partner. He knew Barbara's chief financial adviser, and he put in the good word for us. Then we won a charity auction to meet and greet Barbara at a taping of The View, and when we shook her hand and mentioned our mutual friend, it started the ball rolling.

Two years later, we were in Barbara's dressing room between tapings, and we got a wonderful interview. A short time later, after working on Tony Bennett for the same three years and meeting him at one of Bette Midler's spring charity picnics as well as backstage at one of his Atlantic City casino appearances, we had the privilege of sitting with Tony in his Central Park South apartment.

Sophie really seemed to embark on her own early in life, giving up her first born to her younger sister to start a show-biz career. Did her relationship with her parents and siblings change after her success?

Before Tucker's success, her mother was not happy with her decision to leave her husband and child behind to pursue a show-biz career. The rest of her immediate family stood behind her throughout. And since it was not socially acceptable for a woman to abandon her family in 1906, when Sophie came home to visit in those early years of her career, she was met with shunning from her former friends.

But after Tucker got into the Ziegfeld Follies and it was reported in the Hartford Courant, the magic of stardom seemed to wash away any past indiscretions. Sophie's stubborn mother took a little longer to come around. It wasn't until Tucker showed her mama her first big vaudeville contract, paying her $1,500 a week, that her mother let her off the hook. We get into all of this in detail in our new book, I Am Sophie Tucker.

In the documentary, we see Judy Garland became a protégé of hers. Who were some of the other artists she mentored?

Mae West, Belle Baker, Milton Berle, Joan Crawford, George Raft, Mary Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, and Dean Martin, just to name a few.

Even though she calls herself "the last of the red hot mamas," she seems to be the first female popular music star to harness her sexuality for entertainment value and controversy. Did she get into any trouble for it?

Right from the beginning of her career, she got in trouble. One of the incidents we discuss in both the film and book happened in 1910 in Portland, Oregon, when she sang one of her new songs, "The Angle Worm Wiggle." It was full of sexual innuendos and carefully choreographed gyrations and hand movements, which got her arrested for indecency. But the more she got in trouble, the more she got into the newspapers and the higher her salary got!

It makes you think about the female singers who seem to want one-up each other in today's pop world. She really broke ground for people like Miley Cyrus, Niki Minaj, and Lady Gaga, and before them Madonna and Jayne Mansfield, among others. Didn't she?

Absolutely, and female comediennes too. We loved Joan Rivers, but we got a kick out of some of the quotes in her obituaries a couple of months ago, attributing her as a breakthrough woman performer. Without Sophie Tucker first, there would have been no Joan Rivers or any of the others you mentioned.

She also had incredible savvy in the engagement of fans, before Instagram and Tumblr. How did she accumulate such awareness and a devoted following in the pre-internet age?

A lot of that came from the teaching of her mentor, William Morris. Before he was the man who started the biggest talent agency of those times, he owned theaters and was a master marketer in his own right. But Sophie also had an innate sense and came up with her own innovations to keep her name in the public eye for 60 years.

She was the first to take names and addresses from every single person she shook hands with. And then, right before she came back into whatever town she was playing, she would drop everyone on her mailing list a postcard to remind them to come to her show. We can only imagine what she would have done with email back then. Tucker probably would have crashed Facebook's servers.

 

You and your wife never even heard of her when she was alive, but yet, you point out a poll early in the film, from 1962, where 95 percent of people associated the name "Sophie" with "Tucker." What happened that she fell so far off the radar?

Unfortunately, she was 10 years too old to fully participate in movies. She was the first major female entertainer after Al Jolson to make a talkie for Warner Bros. But in 1929, Tucker was already 45 years old, and they cast her as a mother. The reason people know Mae West today is because she was still young enough to be a sex symbol in the 1930s. There is no doubt in our minds that if Sophie was the same age as Mae, we wouldn't have been the first to document her life and revitalize her unprecedented 60-year career. So now that's what we are going to do. By the time we are done with our documentary, three books, a Broadway show, a major Hollywood musical, and our 60-episode TV series, no one will ever forget Sophie Tucker again.

Finally, there's a Miami connection with her. What was it?

Sophie started coming to Miami in 1929. The reason was simple. For whatever reason, hotels started to pop up down here; people from the North started to winter in the Gold Belt, and, as always, Sophie was one of the first to smell the money to be made by entertaining the same exact people that already knew her from over 20 years of vaudeville and nightclub appearances.

Once she showed up in '29, she rarely missed a winter season through the '30s at the Hollywood Club, the '40s at Lou Walter's Latin Casino on Palm Island, the '50s at the Beachcomber and Copa City, and the '60s at the Fontainebleau and Deauville. She just plain loved Miami and all its people forever, till the day she died.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens in several Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach county theaters on Friday November 7, including AMC Aventura 24, Regal South Beach 18, MDC Tower Theater, AMC Coral Ridge, the Last Picture Show, Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood 16, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, and Cobb 16 Palm Beach Gardens.

The producers will introduce the film and hold Q&As during several screenings. More details can be found at the film's official website: www.sophietucker.com

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.

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