Bette Midler rode to international fame telling “Those Wonderful Sophie Tucker Jokes.”
“These stories come from the files of the late and great Miss Sophie Tucker,” Midler once told a roaring crowd in Cleveland. “Go ahead and applaud the old girl, she’s dead but she is not forgotten, at least not by me. She could tell you to ‘Kiss my tuchas and plant a tree for Israel’ at the same time.”
The first female superstar of the 20th century, Tucker became known worldwide for her bawdy, bombastic entertainment style. She spent many winters in South Florida, singing, telling stories and generally promoting herself, according to a new film documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, which opens Friday in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“She was larger than life. Of course I was smaller,” says Emmy-winning writer-performer Bruce Vilanch, who first saw Tucker perform when he was a boy vacationing in Miami Beach. “She had all that incredible star energy.”
Vilanch, 65, describes a typical Tucker performance:
“She’d make you laugh like crazy. She would belt. She still could blow the roof off the joint. Then she would do something incredibly schmaltzy, she would turn on a dime and make the audience weep: My Yiddishe Momme Has Liver Cancer, or something like that,” he says. “Then as soon as you were done crying, she would turn around and do some bawdy song. ... Everything she said was with the force of a judge making a sentence. She didn’t speak, she made policy statements.”
Vilanch says he “thought this was fabulous” and recalls telling his pal Midler about Tucker in the early 1970s, when The Divine Miss M was just starting out as a concert performer.
“I was sharing all of this with Bette and telling her some of the jokes I vaguely remembered. Most of them were jokes that other comedians had done of that vintage. I recast them as Sophie Tucker jokes. Some of them were originals. Bette did them one night in 1973 at The Palace, as a riff, an ad lib, and it brought the house down, so it stayed in,” Vilanch recalls.
Sophie Tucker was born in the Ukraine in 1887 and immigrated as a child to the United States. Hating to work in her family’s Jewish restaurant, Tucker became a stage entertainer in her teens. Heavy-set, she became known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” a persona that took her through vaudeville, nightclubs, radio, recordings, movies and television. She died of lung cancer at 79 in 1966.
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, produced by Tucker fanatics Susan and Lloyd Ecker, features vintage movie and TV clips and new interviews including Vilanch, Michael Feinstein, Tony Bennett and Barbara Walters, whose father Lou owned the Latin Quarter nightclubs in New York and Palm Island near Miami Beach.
In the film, Walters recalls a post-performance Tucker book signing at the Latin Quarter: “Now If you did not buy one of her books, don’t bother coming up and saying ‘I loved you and will you sign my autograph.’ Forget it. You had to buy her book. I assume that much of the money from the books went to whatever her charity was. But I wouldn’t swear to it.”
“Mr. Miami Beach” Michael Aller, the city’s longtime tourism-conventions director and protocol chief, knew Tucker when he was a child performer traveling with entertainer George Jessel.
“She was a great Jew,” recalls Aller, 74. “I saw her many times put it down her bra, in her bosom. She'd put $100 here. She did it for Israel. That’s why she and George did a lot together. Because of Israel, the Israeli bonds.”
Aller describes Tucker’s talent: “It wasn’t really singing. It was talking. She wasn’t a great anything, but you put it all together and you have the moxie and the chutzpah of Sophie Tucker.”
Tucker was tough. “Every night there was somebody who’d upset her,” Aller says, recalling a fan who stood at her autograph-signing table one night to “read the liner notes of the album or whatever she was selling. She said, ‘Are you going to read it or buy it? Come on, move on!’”
Aller remembers seeing Tucker perform shortly before her death: “The last thing she did before she walked out [on stage] was to make sure her hair was perfect. She’d feel it, the braids. She made sure her hankie was right. Then she walked out and sang Some of These Days. She was a real trouper. A lady with great pain — cancer ridden — went out and did two shows a night.”
Tucker never performed truly dirty material. It was all innuendo, Aller says, with song titles like Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki.
The lewd Sophie Tucker jokes featuring her lascivious boyfriend Ernie, were “Bette Midler’s imagination,” Aller says.
Vilanch says he recently watched an episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire — “a show that prides itself on its authenticity” — that depicted Tucker performing in Atlantic City.
“The camera pans in and there’s a young girl, because it’s 1924, a young kind of zaftig blonde, she’s onstage and the first thing she says is ‘I will never forget it. I was talking to my boyfriend Ernie,’” Vilanch says. “This is a joke I wrote in 1974. This is nothing Sophie Tucker did in Atlantic City in 1924. And as I’m thinking this, the phone rings and it’s Bette saying, ‘Can we get money from this?’ Because she owns all that material. Of course she was half-joking. We got a lovely cheese wheel.”
If you go
‘The Outrageous Sophie Tucker’ opens Friday, Nov. 7, throughout South Florida:
▪ AMC Aventura 24, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura
▪ Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami
▪ Regal South Beach Stadium 18, 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach
▪ AMC Coral Ridge 10, 3401 NE 26th Ave., Fort Lauderdale
▪ The Last Picture Show, 10036 W. McNab Rd., Tamarac
▪ Living Room Theatre, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton
▪ Regal Shadowood 16, 9889 W. Glades Rd., Boca Raton
▪ Movies of Delray, 7421 Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach
▪ Movies of Lake Worth, 7380 Lake Worth Rd., Lake Worth
▪ Cobb Downtown 16 – 11701 Lake Victoria Gardens Ave., Palm Beach Gardens