Chapter 18

Learning

The Boss had about a hundred and fifty ideas for my act before we were even halfway to Great Neck. He had a theory that my extra weight was my biggest asset, noting how Molly and I turned the audience from disappointment to uproarious laughter precisely because we were both the furthest thing from a Ziegfeld girl. I told him he could kiss my asset, but of course, Morris was right on the money. I just wasn’t taking enough advantage of my girth. Being big could be very funny, and very funny won an audience far faster than very pretty.

His biggest problem with my act, though, was that there was no variety. I was ready to leap out of the speeding car if the Boss asked me to be the world’s first singing fat lady juggler, but he was just talking about learning some slow songs. The audience needed a chance to breathe in between my funny novelty songs, and for that I’d need to master a schmaltzy ballad or two.

“Don’t worry, I’ll send you some songs next week when you’re in Rockaway,” he offered.

“What’s in Rockaway?”

“One of my American Theaters,” he said with a wink.

"You've got theaters in other countries?"

"Not yet. But I'm going to make you a star in England too," he promised.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d impressed him enough in the Vanderbilts’ backyard that he thought he could make me a headliner on two continents. The catch was, I had to promise to eat, breathe, and sleep show business. It was the same advice Mr. Elliott gave me when I was a kid in Hartford.

“Okay, Boss, count me in. I’ll eat show business, just as long as it tastes good with mustard,” I said.

“The Boss,” William Morris.

Indeed, for the next six weeks, I ate, slept, and breathed the Boss’s American Theater circuit, cycling through show after show in all his locations around New York City. Uptown, midtown, downtown, Queens, Brooklyn, and Newark; with each performance, I was rounding out my skills as an entertainer and I watched my name creep up the bill. By October of 1909, after three years in showbiz, the Boss raised my salary to a hundred dollars a week and officially made me one of his headliners. I begged Molly to come to New Jersey and cry with me as we watched them install my name at the top of the Newark American Theater marquee.

A few weeks before Christmas, William Morris sent me to New Orleans with two goals in mind. First, he wanted me to experience a Southern audience and second, he thought it was high time I learned about a little thing he called “chariblicity.” There was no one more creative than the Boss when it came to pulling off stunts to get free ink.

When I got to Louisiana I was instructed to comb the local newspaper to find a charitable event, volunteer to help raise money, and get all kinds of New Orleans press in the process. It didn't take long to find that the Times-Picayune was sponsoring an auction to raise money to buy Christmas toys for poor kids, so I marched myself down there before I had even unpacked my bag.

Freddie Harman was the reporter in charge of the auction and he was thrilled I wanted to be involved. I suspected we both had other motives besides a rubber chicken in every toy pot—he himself was something of a go-getter who would one day become the editor-in-chief of the paper. Regardless, neither of us wasted any time using our God-given talents in the name of Christmas.

I promised to rally a troop of entertainers to turn the auction into a real spectacle and Freddie promised to print an article every day covering my efforts. We got permission to hold the benefit in the middle of the busy business district during lunch and Harman made arrangements to borrow one of the paper’s flatbed delivery trucks to serve as our stage.

On the big day, I was the Master of Ceremonies and an old comedian pal of mine named Bill served as the auctioneer. W.C. Fields, as he was better known, had them rolling on the floor, and had Freddie rolling in cash donations for his charity drive.

W.C. Fields started in Vaudeville as a juggler and ended as
one of the biggest comedy movie stars of all time.

We caused a near riot when we auctioned off the last item, which was a kiss from yours truly. Back in 1909 it was rare to see a lady’s ankle. For certain, no one had ever seen a woman willing to trade a wet one on the mouth in exchange for a donation. Scandal aside, I just wanted to make sure Harman had a good story with some funny quotes.

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, a gentleman at the back of the crowd ponied up five whole dollars for a crack at the old Tucker pucker, which gave Freddie the perfect punchline for his piece.

 

When the winning bidder couldn’t reach Miss Tucker, she gathered her skirts and hopped off the makeshift stage.

“Honey, for five dollars these lips will travel!” she said with a smile, and parted the raucous lunchtime crowd like the Red Sea to deliver her prize to the generous gentleman in the back.

New Orleans owes a great deal of gratitude to Miss Tucker and her talented friends for helping to provide needy children with a proper Christmas. Sophie will be performing all this week at the American Theater.

 

Sometimes stunts like that worked, but sometimes I got out-stunted. Take what happened in Dayton in January of 1910. The Boss sent me on a tour with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson around the Ohio Valley. We had some pretty good success because we came up with a novel idea to attract attention as soon as we arrived in a town.

At that time there was a new woman's fashion craze called the sheath skirt, which had a slit along the side that revealed a lady’s leg right up to the knee. It was quite a sexy get-up compared to the ankle-grazing skirts women had worn for a century. The good people of the Midwest had never seen a dress that exposed a woman's knee or anything else, so to get the ball rolling in a new town, I’d put on my finest sheath skirt and Bill and I would walk a block or two in the city center. My calves never let us down. By the time we got to the town square, every breathing male who had spotted my leg was gathered around us with their mouths hanging wide open. Then Robinson would do a little dance, I would sing a little song, and the whole episode would get a nice write up in the local paper. 

This newspaper got the "sheath skirt" story right but put in the wrong picture.
That's not Sophie--but her shows still sold out.

By the time the troupe got to Dayton, we had our routine down to a science. After unpacking at the hotel, Bill met me in the lobby and we found the main thoroughfare to start our promenade. Something wasn't right, however. There were plenty of people walking in the street but instead of looking down at my legs, everyone was looking up to the sky. After we strolled onto our third block full of people with their heads in the clouds, I finally asked one of the pedestrians what, literally, was up.

One of the locals told us there was some kind of exhibition going on that day at the county fairgrounds and the newspaper said everyone should look up around noon for a surprise. Sensing an opportunity, Bo and I went searching for the crowd at the fairgrounds. If Mohammed wouldn't come to the mountain, this mountain would go to him.

When we got there we found thousands of people, so I thought we’d hit the jackpot. Suddenly, though, we heard a jarring mechanical growl. Bill and I couldn't get close enough to see where the noise was coming from.

The engine got even louder and we could see the crowd’s heads following something from right to left. The crowd roared. All of a sudden, there it was: a man operating a winged contraption that was floating up to the sky.

After a show later that week, the operators of that same flying machine visited my dressing room.

"We loved your show tonight, Miss Tucker," said one of the wide-eyed boys.

"Thanks, fellas. Last Sunday, you two put quite a show on yourselves! I finally discovered something my legs can't compete with."

 That’s how I met Orville and Wilbur Wright.

This is what Sophie saw in the sky that day and these are the
Wright Brothers who visited her backstage a couple of days later.

After Ohio, the Boss sent me on to Chicago with instructions to see Jack Lait, who was in charge of public relations for the city’s four American Theaters. I introduced myself to Mr. Lait as soon as I walked into the West Randolph Street theater. Lait was reading the racing results in the paper when I approached him.

"Tucker. Number four spot. Big voice, a little racy,” he said without lifting his head.

"Does it also say I run good in the mud?"

That got his attention, forcing him to look up to check out his new smart-ass filly. Jack was shorter than me and always had a half-smoked cigar hanging out of his mouth. Come to think of it, I never saw Jack light a new cigar in all our time together. I’ll bet that stingy bastard just chomped on the same butt for forty years.

The one day that Jack Lait ran out of cigars.

When he got a load of me I could tell he had an instant crush, which I knew would come in handy someday. He was definitely flummoxed, so I filled the silence by neighing like a horse, and for the first of many, many times I heard Lait's signature high-pitched laugh. I stuck out my hand and squeezed his tiny mitt.

"So you're the guy that's gonna turn me into a star, right? I had a dream that a tall, dark, handsome man who giggles like a hyena would make me famous.”

After Lait stopped his tittering, he agreed to watch my act during that first Monday matinee and tell me what he thought. After three years on stage I wasn't a babe in the woods anymore, but I was going to have to prove myself all over again in the Second City. I needed to adapt my act for the locals and drum up some name recognition as fast as possible.

I gave it everything I had at the matinee and got two encores out of the enthusiastic audience. When the curtain fell I made way for that week's headliner, Consul the Great. He could dance, juggle, and balance things on his head while riding a unicycle, which wasn’t too shabby when you took into account that he was a chimpanzee. While Consul pedaled around on stage, I looked for Jack. The stage manager told me he thought he’d seen him watching my act in the wings, but there was no sign of him anywhere. I waited an extra forty-five minutes before I gave up on him and went back to my hotel. I ate a light dinner and returned to the theater for the evening performance, but still, Jack was a ghost.

I was disappointed for misjudging his interest in me. I was sulking in the wings and waiting for the tap dancer before me on the bill to finish up his act when, suddenly, Jack appeared out of thin air.

"I was about to send a search party after you," I pouted.

"Sorry, something came up. I'll tell you what, though, I'll watch you from here and then we'll talk. Okay?"

I took the stage and wowed them again, Lait nodding his head and applauding like mad from the wings.

"That was perfect! Just like you did it this afternoon!" he said after my third encore.

"How would you know?"

Without answering, Jack took my hand and dragged me behind the back curtain to the other side of the stage. There, near the stage door, Lait introduced me to Amy Leslie and Ashton Stevens.

"Jackie thinks you have a big future,” smiled Amy. “And based on what we saw tonight we're inclined to agree."

"I don't want to be rude, but who the hell are you two?" I asked.

Jack giggled and admitted that he had fibbed a little; he had actually watched my first matinee performance and loved it. As soon as it was over, he ran out of the theater to track down these two friends to convince them to come to the evening show.

"Don't forget you owe us both a steak dinner," threw in Leslie.

"I'll buy dessert if someone tells me what’s going on!” I said.

It turned out that Ashton was the chief critic for the Chicago Examiner and Amy had the same job at the Chicago Tribune, the two biggest papers in town. Lait hadn't tipped me off for fear that I might get nervous and flub a potentially bang-up review. Ashton didn’t disappoint:

 

Speaking of elephants and ladies, there is Sophie Tucker. If life were as large as Sophie Tucker, there would be room for all of us. I don't mind saying at once Sophie Tucker is my headliner, even if the American Theater management does employ other type and position for her. Most of her songs are red, white and blue, and some of them omit the red and white. Miss Tucker can move an audience or a piano with equal address. – Ashton Stevens

 

I spent the next two weeks taking Jack Lait’s crash course in publicity, the most important part of which was learning how to spot an opportunity to stage a stunt. It took me years to perfect the art, but I couldn’t ignore the potential press that presented itself when I moved from the Southside American Theater to one of the Northside locations.

While I was waiting to check in with the rest of our troupe at our Northside hotel, a commotion broke out at the front desk. One of the comedians told me the hotel had no reservation on the books for Consul the Great. His trainer loudly threatened legal action and then took his chimpanzee and stormed off. I did the same, right to the closest phone booth in order to call Jack and tell him my idea for a terrific stunt. He loved my plan and said to stand by while he made some arrangements.

Everything was in place an hour later. When I stepped up to the front desk to register, I loudly asked to see the manager.

"My name is Sophie Tucker and I understand you have no room for Consul the monkey,” I boomed. I signaled to Consul’s trainer and he came over, holding the chimp by the hand.

“If this sad fact is true, Mr. Manager, I would like to give up my suite so Consul has a place to sleep this week. Can you see to that, my good fellow?"

The next day, Consul and Sophie Tucker made the front pages of all the Chicago papers.

Sophie slept on Jack Lait's couch that night, though he
perhaps would’ve preferred they share a bed.

Lait had tipped off three reporters and photographers who lived on the Northside. From the moment I stepped up to the registration desk, every word of my performance was recorded in triplicate. I made sure I handed Consul his room key with my good side facing the cameras.

I’d always heard the saying that no news is good news. Jack Lait, that brilliant little man, taught me that all news is good news. A headline is a headline, even when you’re playing second banana to a monkey.

 Extras

“Hula Lou,” written in 1924 by Sophie’s buddy Jack Yellen, Milton Charles and Wayne King, is a guide to murdering your lover. On April 3, 1924, Beulah Sheriff Annan took the lyrics rather literally and shot her lover Harry Kalstedt in the back and sat drinking cocktails and listening to this song as she watched him die. She then called her husband to say she’d killed a man who “tried to make love” to her. Beulah’s story eventually inspired the character of Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Comedian W.C. Fields was wildly famous for his grumpy, drunk persona on stage. He was so well-known that his stage act became conflated with his true personality, but later biographies established that he was a kind family man. Along with Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, Fields defined what comedy was to be in the Twentieth Century.