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The Red-Hot Hartford Mama

Exhibit Recalls Glory Days Of Sophie Tucker, Bawdy Songstress Of Vaudeville Legend

June 3, 2007
By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer

Sophie Tucker rose from the streets of Hartford to become one of the most famous singing stars in the world, but she never forgot her hometown. Now her hometown is remembering her.

Tucker's remarkable career, which brought her fame on Broadway, in Hollywood and overseas, is celebrated in "Hartford Remembers: Sophie Tucker, The Last Red Hot Mama," an exhibit opening tonight at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.

More than anything, the exhibit is designed to shine light on Tucker's life. There are rare photographs, bits of sheet music, recordings as well as Tucker's old banjo and evidence of her close ties to Hartford and the surrounding communities.

"All of us who worked on this became mesmerized and enchanted with her," says Estelle Kafer, the society's executive director. "I had heard of her, but I don't think I ever knew about her persona. I've come away with an appreciation and admiration for her and with a desire to share this with people. I think it's so important that people learn about her."

The extent of Tucker's fame can be measured in those who turned out to honor her. At a 1953 dinner at the Grand Ballroom of New York City's Waldorf-Astoria, which celebrated Tucker's 50th year in show business, the guests included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Martha Raye, Edward G. Robinson, Deborah Kerr, Tallulah Bankhead and Adolph Zukor.

Notes of congratulations came in from Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and Abbott and Costello.

But it was true to Tucker's nature that on this night of stars, time was reserved for words from folks back home.

John Sudarsky, then-vice president and treasurer of The Courant, took Tucker all the way back to her days at the Brown School.

"Let us set the scene," he said. "Christmas exercises in senior room #22, Miss Clark presiding. Voices raised in singing Christmas carols. The innocent Miss Clark calls on a young lady I know to sing a solo. No Christmas carol that! `Hello, My Baby!'

"Poor Miss Clark slumps in a state of near collapse, but it was a hit nonetheless, and probably your first public applause."

Early Days

Tucker was born in Russia as Sophie Kalish.

Her father changed the family name to Abuza when immigrating into the United States because he had deserted the Russian army.

The family opened a diner and boardinghouse on Morgan Street in Hartford that served, among others, many of the Yiddish theater entertainers traveling the country.

Tucker persuaded her parents to allow her to sing for customers while waiting tables. She was an instant hit, although not an instant star.

One hurdle was her parents, who feared the showbiz lifestyle and wanted their daughter to be married.

She did get married (three times), but it didn't take.

As she would sing later in her life, "As you all know, I've had three matrimonial wrecks, and there's not going to be any fourth Mr. Ex. I'll be darned if I'll pay any more alimony checks. I'm living alone, and I like it."

(She married Louis Tuck at age 16 and had a son, Albert. She used Tucker as her stage name.)

Tucker's first break came in 1907, when she was heard singing at a Chris Brown vaudeville amateur night in Boston.

Brown insisted that Tucker was too tall and too heavy to perform as a white woman. She was forced to sing in blackface if she wanted to sing at all.

That changed one night in Boston, on the Joe Woods' New England circuit, when her makeup and costumes were lost.

She took the stage without the makeup and declared, "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."

She never wore blackface again.

Tucker did continue to work with black musicians throughout her career. In 1910, she met African American composer Shelton Brooks. He wrote "Some of These Days," which was one of Tucker's most popular songs and also served as the title of her autobiography.

When modern artists recall Tucker, as Bette Midler does during her stage act, this is what they aim for. Tucker's booming alto voice, her saucy wit and her taste for glamorous costumes made her into a larger-than-life performer.

But Tucker never forgot her heritage.

Her most famous song, penned by Jack Yellen in 1925, was "My Yiddishe Momme," which she sang in city after city. Tucker said she was careful to sing the song only in places where she knew a majority of the house would understand Yiddish.

But the song was so popular, audiences demanded it even in places where it was controversial.

Tucker often told the story of performing the song in Paris in 1932. She sang the first verse in English to a receptive audience but was shouted down by anti-Semites when she began to sing in Yiddish.

Adolf Hitler ordered all copies of "My Yiddishe Momme" smashed and the sale of them banned. Tucker said she sent him an angry letter and was still waiting for a reply.

"You never think that there was a Madonna before there was Madonna, but she was," says Elizabeth Lewis, senior exhibit designer at the Connecticut Historical Society who worked on this exhibit.

"I'm not [normally] star-struck, but with her I am. I really wish I could have known her because she comes across as such a good person, and there is that realness about her. I think Hartford should be shouting about her."

Too Big For The Big Screen

When film began sweeping away vaudeville, Tucker found herself working with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but her outsized personality was hemmed in by the silver screen.

The lustiness of her voice and her demeanor, so evident in songs such as "I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night)," were at odds with Hollywood's notion of what a woman should be, at least a woman of Tucker's size and age.

She preferred Broadway and performed in hits such as "Leave It To Me" and "High Kickers." The musical "Sophie" was about her life but did not have a long run as Broadway began to wilt under competition from movies and TV.

But Tucker kept working. She performed for the last time weeks before her death in February 1966. And she never forgot about Hartford.

Known for her philanthropy, Tucker said she never turned down a benefit show, and many of those went to causes back home.

"Hartford is a beautiful city," she told The Courant's Louis Black in 1933. "I'm a bit young yet, but that hasn't stopped me from dreaming of a time when I can return home and remain there."

Sophie Tucker is buried in Emanuel Cemetery in Wethersfield.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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