The week Sophie Tucker spent performing in Hartford in 1913 was one of the best of her life.
The brash ‘Last of the Red Hot Mamas,’ grew up in Hartford, where she started singing at her parents’ kosher restaurant, Abuza’s Home Restaurant on Front Street. She went on to become one of America’s most popular entertainers in the first half of the 20th century.
She was born Sonya Kalish on Jan. 13, 1887, in what is now Ukraine, while her Jewish parents were fleeing Russia. They changed their last name to Abuza to avoid detection. They first moved to Boston, then Hartford, where Sophie sang and told jokes while working the tables. She competed in amateur singing contests. The audience often shouted “Give us the fat girl!” and Sophie performed.
She learned Tin Pan Alley tunes at Poli’s Theatre nearby. Sometimes she’d stand outside the restaurant and sing to attract customers. She later said, "I … would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions there wasn't a dry eye in the place."
At 16, she eloped with Louis Tuck, a beer cart driver. Sophie’s horrified parents forced them to live apart until they had an Orthodox wedding. The marriage did not last. Sophie gave birth to their son, named him Albert and ran away to New York to pursue a career as an entertainer. Her mother and sister took care of the baby.
Sophie Tuck became Sophie Tucker. She supported herself singing in cafes and beer gardens, sending money home to Connecticut to support her family. In 1907 she started performing on stage – in blackface. Her producers thought the crowd would give her a hard time for being so big and fat.
While touring in Boston, the makeup case containing her burnt cork got lost. Sophie took to the stage as herself and announced, "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." She won the crowd over and never performed in blackface again.
She incorporated wisecracks into her act. “I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better,” she’d say. She sang numbers such as "I Don't Want to be Thin," and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love." For a little while she performed in the Ziegfield Follies, but lost her voice. The William Morris Agency soon signed her and she was on her way. She would tour Europe, make eight films and release a number of hit records.
Brassy and Bawdy
Sophie Tucker returned to Hartford in 1913 to perform at Poli’s Theatre, where a banner announced, “Sophie Tucker, The Pride of Hartford.” She wasn’t sure how her old neighbors and friends would receive her brassy and bawdy act. Her fears were quickly assuaged. The Hartford Courant reported ‘she will be heartily welcomed.’
A brass band and a banner-waving crowd greeted her at the station. She sold out the entire week of performances. Each number was received with a ‘tremendous outburst of applause,’ reported the Courant. She sang so many encores, “it looked for a time as if she was going to sing all night.’
When she finally ended her act, she was presented with flowers and tried to give a speech. All she could do was cry and say, ‘Thank you.’
Sophie Tucker married twice more, once to her accompanist, Frank Westphal, and once to her manager, Al Lackey. Neither lasted long, and she had no more children.
She continued to perform until weeks before her death at the age of 80. During the late 1930s she had her own radio show, and frequently appeared on television throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965, four months before her death on Feb. 9, 1966. She had played at the Latin Quarter in New York City just weeks before she died.
With thanks to Sophie Tucker: First Lady of Show Business by Armond Fields. This story was updated in 2019.
Images: Publicity photo of Sophie Tucker by By unknown - ebay, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43063093.