Dear Mr. Albee,
My name is Sophie Tucker. Maybe you saw me in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909. Or maybe you have heard one of the ten records I did for my good friend Thomas Edison. After being in show business for five years, I would very much love to work on the Keith circuit.
Enclosed find a dozen notices I have received in the past year. I am ready to work hard and fill your theaters every night. I would like to schedule an appointment at your earliest convenience to start talking about our future together.
By 1911, only the guys who built Big Ben had worked as hard as me to make the big time. Even though I was thrilled with everything the Boss had done for me, I took it upon myself to contact E.F. Albee, who ran the prestigious Keith circuit. It was the highest level you could reach in Vaudeville, but if you wanted to work for Albee you had to follow his very strict set of rules. None of his acts were allowed to use foul language or innuendo, women's costumes had to be tasteful, and he didn’t tolerate any sort of political humor.
While I thought I could just recast myself into the Albee model, the Boss was far more skeptical. Albee was successful because he recruited only the most conservative, tried and true talent from smaller circuits, which meant that he was always behind the times. Despite that, he sold expensive seats that attracted snobby crowds who were willing to pay for a watered down taste of Vaudeville—minus all of the racy parts that made it exciting.
"You're saying I'm not wholesome enough?" I asked Morris.
"Honey, I love you like my daughter, so I mean it tenderly when I say your act is so unwholesome you’d give Albee syphilis. You’re ready for the big time but the big time isn’t ready for you. Albee wouldn’t know what to do with you! Maybe in a few years.”
“Years?” I sputtered. “I could be dead by then!”
“Then put it in your will. I, Sophie Tucker, being of sound mind and body, ask that my ashes be scattered along the Keith Circuit,” the Boss joked.
Instead of sending me to Albee, Morris got me a role in a musical called Louisiana Lou. I knew I was in over my head from the first moment I set foot on stage in the practice hall. We only had two weeks to rehearse before opening night and every day the director took away one of my lines. He loved the way I did my songs but I was still not much of an actress. Even the star of the show, Alexander Carr, stayed late and ran lines with me. I promised the director I would get my act together when the curtain went up, but secretly, I was worried.
On opening night I still had my two songs but only five measly lines. With thirty minutes until curtain I was as nervous as I’d ever been, but I was all made up and ready to put on my big taffeta costume. However, after looking everywhere in the women’s dressing room, it was nowhere to be found. A stagehand ran to the rehearsal hall a few blocks away and, thankfully, returned with my dress just seconds before I was due to make my entrance. Two dressers shoved my arms into my gown and pushed me out on stage. At least the commotion made me forget my butterflies.
"Why Miss Amelia," said Carr, “you look so beautiful. Turn around so we can see all of you."
As I twirled in a circle the audience roared with laughter. You know me; if I get a laugh on stage, I milk it. This time I had no idea why everyone was laughing, but I twirled around that stage six or seven times until the crowd was in hysterics. It wasn’t until I got back into the wings that I learned my dressers, in their hurry to get me out on stage, hadn’t done up the back of my dress and my 100% Hebrew National tuchus was flapping in the breeze.
Between scenes, the dressers closed my trapdoor and I managed to give some pretty good performances from there on out. I grew more comfortable week by week, and even threw in an ad-libbed line here and there. I came up with a real corker when Alexander got a little too fresh during one of our love scenes. I was wearing a beautiful forest green dress, so when he squeezed me much tighter than necessary, I turned to the audience and said, “Mr. Beauregard. Will you please get off my pool table? You're starting to scratch.”
Alexander and Sophie in a promotional shot for Louisiana Lou.
As the months flew by and I got all of my original lines back (and then some!), everyone was surprised to see Alexander, a seasoned performer, become our production’s problem child. The rest of the cast had become one big happy family, but Alexander was jealous that I was getting most of the laughs and encores from the audience and also the lion’s share of the press. What started as a star vehicle for him ended up being a hit show because of me. He got downright nasty for a while, until I suggested we do a few comedy duets in place of my solo encores. A little more stage time seemed to do the trick and we were friends again by the end of our eighteen-month run.
We played our final shows in Boston. A chorus boy named Joey Trinity was a local and his mother, herself a retired hoofer, offered to host the whole cast for a family clambake. Boy, did we get more than we bargained for. On a beautiful day at the end of June, we had ourselves one hell of a party at the Trinity beach house. There was enough food for all fifty of us to have three lobsters, four dozen steamers and six ears of corn apiece. The cast got good and blitzed on several kegs of beer and I even spotted Alexander doing the backstroke in the Atlantic in his full suit and hat.
Suffice it to say, the final matinee the next day was not an award-winning performance.
I have a lot of wonderful memories of Louisiana Lou, but my favorite involved my five-year-old co-star Hazel Robinson. She had all of one job in the show, which was to bring me a basket of roses on stage. She was an itty bitty thing with a big scar on her face from a dog bite she got as an infant. Even worse, she had a nagging cough anyone could’ve identified as the beginning stages of tuberculosis. I used to let Hazel play in my dressing room and I’d slip her candies to soothe her throat, but eventually she got too ill to continue on with us and dropped out of the production.
Some thirty years later I was performing at a nightclub in Pittsburgh. At the end of each show I made a habit of getting off the stage, walking up the aisle and shaking as many hands as I could in thanks. During one of these evening exits I caught sight of a familiar face.
“Hazel, it that you?” I screamed. Little Hazel’s scar had faded, but I would recognize her punim anywhere. She had beaten the tuberculosis and grown up to marry a salesman who’d chosen my show to entertain a bunch of his clients and their wives, all of whom seemed pretty scandalized by my blue jokes. Hazel didn’t give a rat’s ass, though, and greeted me with a big hug and kiss as soon as I came by her seat.
I received a beautiful letter from Hazel’s daughter not too long ago. In it, she said that night led to some fireworks at home, but her mother said it was a small price to pay for one of her favorite memories.
Maybe it was the old dog bite scar but somehow you remembered her. Aside from the birth of my brother and me, she always said that was one of the high moments of her life.
Father was furious. He felt a disreputable past had just been publicly exposed and he had a few words with mother at bedtime. She didn't give one goddamn. The salesmen's wives could drop dead. Sophie Tucker had remembered her!
An excerpt from Hazel’s daughter’s letter.
When the play closed in the fall of 1912, I sat down once again at Reuben’s with the Boss and he decided it was time to send me back to Vaudeville. I thought he’d heard from Albee and, at long last, I was being called up to the majors. Instead, Morris insisted that I take in all of the current shows around New York to see how Vaudeville had changed over the previous year and a half. I knew I’d have to work up a new act, but we reasoned that with a few tweaks to my old material I could slide right back into headlining.
I sat through ten bills over the next five days and watched nearly all of the acts that were on the circuit with me back in 1910. There were a few new ones here and there, but even those were carbon copies of the same old thing. When I found myself yawning through another dusty routine, I understood what the Boss was getting at. Nothing had changed and the audiences knew it. Even Nora Bayes and Eva Tanguay couldn’t pack a house anymore.
"So?" asked Morris a week later, wiggling his eyebrows over a knish at Reuben’s.
"Vaudeville needs to be shaken up worse than flat seltzer!” I exclaimed. Morris nodded in agreement.
"Even E.F. Albee’s shows are slumping. His whole chain has been sleepwalking for the last two years. What he needs is something original. Whoever comes up with the next big thing is going to win all the marbles.”
"I’m shaped like a marble,” I said, taking a bite of a pastrami sandwich.
"You, my dear, are my big, beautiful shooter. Together we are going to conquer Broadway."
First, though, I needed to get my feet wet again. I was too rusty after being part of a large cast to be a top-billed solo act on stage, so I decided to play some small-fry venues to work out the kinks and oil up my joints. The Boss put me on a bill and I began to feel at home after a week or so, but I hadn’t counted on a round of hazing from my veteran trouper friends. The Vaudeville old guard didn't look too kindly on those who crossed over to the legitimate stage and then came back. Luckily, it was mostly in good fun. I’d stayed in touch with everyone while I was touring with Louisiana Lou so there weren’t any real sour grapes, but they still had some tricks up their sleeves that would make even a magician do a double take.
It began one night when I heard someone out front snoring during one of my big sentimental ballads. I ignored it until it got so loud I could hardly hear myself sing, and I motioned to the orchestra to stop playing.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry for the interruption but someone out there seems to have turned in early tonight. Does anyone see our Sleeping Beauty?" I asked.
The entire audience pointed to the stage right upper box.
"Folks, drastic times call for drastic measures. Instead of singing, which seems impossible at the present time, I would like to demonstrate my range of major league pitches, okay? Usually I would use a regular old baseball, but tonight I have something else in mind. Molly? Can you go to my dressing room and bring back all my shoes?"
The audience laughed and applauded while I waited for Molly, who deposited a huge pile of heels in the middle of the stage with a little curtsey. The chainsaw in the balcony continued to buzz away.
"Pitching, my friends, is a fine art. Sometimes you want to start with a strike right down the middle,” I announced, and hurled a pump right up toward the balcony. “Missed by a foot,” I said, winking at my pun. The audience groaned.
"I forgot my windup,” I said, flinging one of my two-tones with tassels as high as I could and knocking off the sleeper’s stevedore. Still, he continued to saw away.
“No more fooling around!” I yelled, grabbing a high heel. “This ought to leave a mark. How about a countdown? Three, two…”
With that, my old friend Jack Rose woke up, waved to me, stood up, and bolted from the balcony. Too bad my missile had already been fired in his direction. Jack had that bump on the back of his head for a month.
Another night, in the middle of the same tender ballad, I was suddenly joined on stage by a midget dressed in a top hat and tails. I stopped the music and looked down at the dapper little man.
"Yes?" I asked, braced for what was sure to be a ridiculous explanation.
"Please don't forget to bring some cat food home tonight, my dear."
“Cat food?” I asked, trying to follow his lead.
“Yes, cat food,” he said, nodding his head. “For our little pussycat, Mr. Whiskers. I’m afraid if we don’t feed him, he’ll confuse me for a mouse.” The audience laughed hysterically.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please forgive me. I’m being rude,” I said, playing along. “This is my new husband Big Bob. In an effort to support President Taft and his new austerity budget, I have decided to cut back on the size of my men…but in height only."
Big Bob turned to the audience and wiggled his eyebrows up and down. The crowd hooted and hollered so hard I thought they’d bring down the roof. At least my fellow actors had the decency to prank my act with good bits.
Sophie with another little person trouper.
From then on, everything went along quietly until the week I played at Hammerstein’s. By then, I had almost convinced myself that my old trouper friends had welcomed me back into their fold. But I should’ve known something kooky would happen at a theater that was famous for nut acts. Over the years, I’d played at Hammerstein’s with a diver who leapt from a thirty-foot platform into a two-foot bucket of water and a high wire act who walked a tightrope strung from the balcony to the stage, over the audience, without a net. There was an old story about a fellow who pitched an act to Mr. Hammerstein. His big finish would be shooting himself in the head. The only reason Hammerstein passed was because the wannabe headliner didn’t have an encore.
The trouble started the first night when I sang a peppy song called "Let's Go Up in Your Tree House and Leave the Rest to Me." There was a high note in the chorus and every time I hit it, someone backstage gave me a loud raspberry.
By the third night it was still going on. High note, then raspberry. I was starting to get a little hot under the collar about it. A good comic knew when to quit, or at least when to show himself. I couldn’t see the culprit from the stage and I’d had enough.
On the fifth night, I was determined to nail the bastard. I saved "Tree House" for last and made sure I was close to the wings so I could dart offstage and catch the joker red-handed. Before I even got to the high note the raspberries started coming fast and furious. Not just one, but a whole series of rude noises that repeated like a slow machine gun.
I came through the side curtain ready to kill, but there was no one to murder except the pony from the dog and pony act. It seemed his ears were sensitive to my singing and he expressed his displeasure by nickering through his lips just like a human blowing a raspberry. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to let a pony get the better of me. To show I was a good sport, I grabbed his reins and we did a duet encore of "Camptown Races." The pony did the “doo-dahs” and we both got a standing ovation.
Sophie and another horse.
Dear Mr. Albee,
After six letters, may I now call you E. F.? As I told you in my last several notes, things went spectacularly with my musical “Louisiana Lou.” But like all good things, this too came to an end and I have proudly returned to the Vaudeville stage.
I have learned so much that performing seems second nature to me, but I realize I still have more lessons to soak up. Of course, I know I cannot possibly reach the pinnacle of success until I play in your theaters. Now that my musical has closed, maybe this would be the perfect time for us to get together. Time's a-wasting. I’m no spring chicken, and I'll never see twenty-six again. I’m ready whenever you are, E.F.!
After six weeks on the circuit, I had a whole new act and I was back at the top of my game. When the Boss called me to meet him at his real office, not Reuben’s, I was convinced that all my letter writing had finally paid off and I was going to get my shot at the Keith Circuit. Instead, I found Morris looking like someone had died. I quietly took a seat.
"I'm being blackballed by Albee,” he said with a sigh. “He won’t book any of my acts in his theaters. He stopped talking to me a couple of months ago when I sold my American Theater chain to the Fritz brothers instead of him, and now it looks like he’s taking it out on my acts.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Well, one by one, my headliners have been leaving me. And then in today's Variety there was a press release from E. F. saying, from now on, Max Hart would be his exclusive booker for the Keith Chain. I’ve got no acts working for him anymore."
"And this guy Hart won't play ball?"
"Would you? If Albee found out he booked any of my acts, he would can Max on the spot."
I was heartbroken. I’d worked for nearly two years to get on Albee’s bill, but I would rather eat dirt than work for someone who’d been such a bastard to the Boss. I’d do anything—another musical, more acts in other theaters, whatever it took to put William Morris back on top. The Boss, however, had other ideas.
“Soph, I appreciate your loyalty, but that’s not how we’re going to play this. You’re going to sign with Max Hart. The big time is finally ready for you. Go and bad mouth me, or do whatever you have to do so Hart takes a shine to you. It won’t bother me a bit. I know we’re still pals. Before long, I’ll come back bigger than ever.”
I was stunned into silence for a few moments, but eventually I stood up and gave the Boss a big hug. "Us good ones gotta stick together, right?" I reminded him.
"Forever," said my mentor, giving me a squeeze.
That day I wrote Hart a letter from the deli, over one of the saddest tongue sandwiches I’d ever eaten. The tongue was still delicious, of course, but it just didn’t taste the same without the Boss chattering nonstop across the table and putting away his third knish. When I didn’t get a response from Hart—or from Albee, to any of my ten previous letters—I asked all my friends on Max’s roster to recommend me. You would think that the combined swinging power of Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin and a dozen other headliners would knock old Soph a homerun, but I struck out. I didn’t hear a peep from Hart.
So, I began going to his office every day. Unlike Edison who burned the midnight oil, Hart arrived to work before I was awake and left shortly after I had to report to the theater for my evening shows. His office door remained firmly closed whenever I was in his lobby.
After a weekend of serious brainstorming, I knew that if I was going to get anywhere with Hart I needed to go undercover. I took a week’s leave from the stage and, that Monday, I got up at five in the morning to stake out the front door of Hart’s office building. I knew what he looked like from his pictures in Variety, so it was easy to spot him when he showed up at eight o’clock sharp wearing a distinctive straw boater with a bright red band. Detective Tucker deduced two important things: first, that Max would be easy to spot with that hat, and second, that I could sleep two extra hours each morning for the rest of the week.
After that, I waited. Hart emerged around lunch time and I followed the boater with the red band all the way to the hat rack at Bernie’s Grill. He ate a corned beef on rye with a cup of coffee while reading the New York Tribune, alone. After lunch, he went back to the office until six o’clock, sharp. Then he walked briskly home. In fact, he walked briskly everywhere, which was surprising for a man who looked to be at least sixty.
I stayed back a safe distance from his brownstone on West 24th Street. It was obviously a well-to-do, stuffy neighborhood and I would stick out like a sore thumb in my trendy dress, particularly if anyone spotted me creeping around suspiciously behind a mailbox. I found a dark alley across the street and waited. I was thinking about calling it a night, but my patience was rewarded when out popped Mr. and Mrs. Hart. They walked a block to Broadway and hailed a taxi. I shoved aside a guy getting into nearby cab and hopped in the back.
"Hey lady, my aunt is dying in a hospital!" he screamed.
"Don't worry. I die once a week on stage! There's nothing to it," I said as I waved goodbye.
Then, for the first and only time in my life, I got to say that immortal phrase of the silver screen.
"Follow that cab!"
By the end of the week I knew every one of Max's lunch spots, where Mrs. Hart shopped and got her hair done, and all the couple's favorite restaurants and night clubs. With a little help from some friends who were playing those same clubs, I put my master plan in motion.
First up, I had to get to Mrs. Hart. After all of my detective work I knew exactly where Gertrude was headed whenever she left her house, so my number one order of business Monday morning was to idle around Gialetti’s Curio Shop. That’s where Mrs. Hart always began her week, picking up some high-class tchotchkes for her house.
Once I saw her step into the store, I waited a few moments and then made my big entrance. I strode up to the shop owner and projected like I was trying to sell my story to the cheap seats.
"How do you do? My name is Sophie Tucker. I just moved into the neighborhood and I was looking for some new items for my apartment," I announced.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Tucker. Please, take a look around. I would be happy to show you any of our merchandise. Welcome to 25th Street," said the woman behind the counter.
Since the shop was the size of a shoebox, there was no way Mrs. Hart could’ve missed the conversation. She investigated a set of silver candlesticks while I investigated her from behind a beautiful armoire, and eventually she left and went on with her shopping down the street.
I didn't want to be too obvious, so I sat tight for the rest of the morning, and then headed uptown to close my matinee at the 108th Street Theater. I made it back downtown in time to beat Gertrude to a lovely little flower shop called The Daffodil Place, a spot she visited every evening before dinner. I hustled into the shop, did my little routine about being new in the neighborhood, and told the florist exactly what sort of bouquet I was looking for. Gertrude entered while the florist was gathering my bunch of flowers.
"Here we go Miss Tucker,” said the florist, handing me an enormous arrangement of irises and black-eyed susans.
"Oh please, call me Sophie. We’re gonna be old friends!” I said, handing him a dollar and stepping to the side to allow Mrs. Hart to approach the counter. I pretended to rummage through my purse.
"I have your usual Monday order ready to go, Mrs. Hart. Irises, carnations, and black—isn’t that funny! It's almost the same order as Miss Tucker. What do you think of that?"
"I think you have two customers with very good taste in flowers," smiled Mrs. Hart.
I took the next day off, but was right back to work the following day for an operation that required me to be quick on my feet. I knew that Gertrude liked to go clothes shopping on Wednesdays, but I wasn’t sure which store she would go to first. I followed her from her house to the corner of 7th Avenue, where she made a right. That meant she had to be going to Aberdeen’s. I sprinted three blocks north on the opposite side of the street and managed to make it inside the store and into the fitting room before Gertrude arrived.
“Hello Mrs. Hart, how are you today?” asked Marian, the shop girl. “We have a whole rack of new dresses that you might like.”
“Thank you very much,” Gertrude replied kindly.
I seized the moment and burst out of the dressing room.
“Oh, Miss Tucker! That dress looks divine,” said Marian.
“I do like it, but I think it makes me look fat. What do you think, sis?” I asked Gertrude. “I think Marian here works on commission. I need someone who’ll tell me the truth.”
“I think it’s stunning,” answered Gertrude. “That’s why I bought the same one last week.”
“You did?” I exclaimed, playing dumb. “Well, I bet it looks beautiful on you. You’re a pencil. It’s a little harder to find something that suits us redwoods.”
With that, I returned to the fitting room and put on my original dress. When I came out, I thanked Gertrude for her advice and handed the dress back to Marian.
“Why don’t you keep this on hold for me until I lose a hundred pounds?” I asked. I could hear both women chuckling as I walked out the door.
I put my gumshoe routine on ice until the weekend, when it was time for my next big play. I needed an accomplice for this one, so I bribed James Bennett, a new tapper low on the bill at the theater, to play along as my date to one of the Hart’s after hours clubs. He whined about how tired he was until I promised to buy him no less than four Old Fashioneds, which put a sudden spring in his step. We were going out.
Jimmy and I got to the Cotillion Club around eleven and the maître d’ sat us in the cheap seats. Since Jimmy was about to clean me out paying for his booze, there was no way I could afford to grease the wheels for a better spot. Besides, tonight wasn’t about seeing the show from the front row. I urged Jimmy to drain his drink so we could get on the dance floor and casually waltz past Mr. and Mrs. Hart, who were seated ringside. We slowly made our way to the front row of tables. Jimmy swirled me around and I pretended to see Gertie for the first time. I waved hello, got a wave back and motioned for her to join us on the dance floor.
"What’s the big idea?" asked Jimmy, longingly eyeing his second Old Fashioned being served at our distant table. This kid could have hired himself out as a telescope.
“The big idea is getting me on the Keith circuit. That woman is the power behind the throne,” I said.
Sure enough, Gertie coaxed Max out of his chair for the next song. I knew Max wasn’t much of a dancer from the other times I’d followed them to a club, but he would usually take Gertie for at least one spin around the dance floor each night. I knew that this was likely the only chance I’d have to make my move, so I told Jimmy it was time to earn his booze. We two-stepped over toward the Harts and purposefully bumped right into them.
"Excuse us!” I apologized. "James is teaching me this new dance. Hello again! It seems like I'm bumping into you a lot lately."
Mrs. Hart smiled and asked me how I was settling into my new apartment, proving that she had been listening to me, the human megaphone, during all those planned run-ins. She introduced me to her husband just as the conductor of the orchestra was calling for a partner swap. I shoved Jimmy toward Gertrude and grabbed Max, and off we spun around the dance floor. I wasn’t just getting my face-to-face time with him—we were practically cheek to cheek. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.
"I thought you said you were just learning this dance," said Max, after it became clear that I knew the steps after all.
"Oh, you know how boys can be. They always like to think they're teaching us girls something or other. You seem like a man who likes a straight shooter though, Rex. What’s your business? Are you a cop?"
“It’s Max,” he said. “And no, that’s not what I do.”
“Are you a barber? No, that’s not it. I’ll bet you shine shoes in Grand Central.”
"You're way off,” he said with a smile. I was winning him over. “I’m in show business.”
"I thought you looked familiar!” I exclaimed. “You're Ernesto the knife thrower! I didn't recognize you without your turban. Is Gertie your assistant?"
"Not even close. I’m a booking agent."
“You’re a bookie?” I hissed in a stage whisper. “Then keep your voice down! No respectable girl wants to be seen dancing with a criminal.”
"Not a bookie, a booking agent!” he laughed. “I’m Max Hart. I'm the fellow who decides which acts go on the Keith Theater stages."
When the song ended, I grabbed Gertie and Jimmy and we all returned to the Harts’ table. This time, I did slip a few bucks to the waiter for an extra couple of chairs, which appeared like magic. Jimmy looked at me like he was a puppy and I was eating a steak dinner, so I quickly ordered him another Old Fashioned.
“Gertie,” I said when we were all settled. “I just found out you’re married to Max Hart, the great booking agent.”
“He’s not so great,” laughed Gertie, playfully slapping his arm.
“Even though you aren’t a bookie, Max, I’d like to make you a friendly wager. No money, just a favor if I win. Gert, what’s your favorite song?”
“I don’t know…'You Made Me Love You'?” she answered.
“I like that one too. Okay, here’s the bet, Maxie. I’m gonna go up there to the bandstand and sing your wife’s favorite song. Gertie, you’re going to be the judge. If you think I’m good enough to work for a week at one of your husband’s theaters, all you have to do is say so. If not, I’ll buy us all a round of champagne.”
“I like the sound of that,” smiled Mrs. Hart.
“What if the band doesn’t know the tune?” asked Max.
“Want to make it two weeks on your stage if I win?” I wisecracked.
“Never mind, just go sing the damn song,” he said with a smirk.
I got up and sang the sweetest rendition of "You Made Me Love You" anyone had ever heard, making sure not to deviate too much from the record in order to keep Gertie happy. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I happened to hear her mention to a shop owner that this particular ditty was her favorite. Nor did it hurt that the conductor was the brother of a tap dancer I played with in Elmira, New York in 1907. It also didn’t hurt that I’d gotten this conductor the musical arrangement from the sheet music company courtesy of Irving Berlin, as well as three other night spots the Harts frequented just in case they’d gone elsewhere that evening. I also thought about giving all two hundred people in the club a ten-spot each, but that turned out not to be necessary. When I finished, I got a standing ovation.
"Max, if you don’t hire this girl you’re an idiot,” insisted my new benefactor Gertie as soon as I got back to the table.
"Sure, sure, but I think I've been snookered. Now I remember where I’ve heard your name before," frowned Max. “Aren’t you the girl that’s been sitting outside my office for a month?”
“Well, I’ll be! Aren’t you that guy I’ve been trying to see for a month?” I exclaimed, acting surprised.
"Be in my office at eleven tomorrow," directed Hart, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you did it, but you did. I’ll put you on my schedule. Just promise me you won’t be appearing out of thin air anywhere else we go, okay?”
“Mr. Hart, I only appear out of fat air,” I said. “But you don’t have to worry. I’ll make myself disappear until tomorrow morning.”
The next day, I rematerialized in Max Hart’s office. While he seemed game enough the night before, once he was behind his desk he was all business. Overnight, he did some detective work of his own, and thankfully all of my pals in the business said I was a good egg. I joked that I was also shaped like one, but Max’s stony face made it clear that he was no William Morris. I instantly missed the Boss’s wiggling eyebrows.
"Listen, Mr. Hart,” I said, trying to level with him. “I’m going to make Mr. Albee a lot of money. Nobody works harder than me. I’ll play in any spot—I’ll even sing in a chorus. And I promise, if you book me next week anywhere on the Keith Chain, I will be your top headliner in a matter of months."
“Are you finished?” Max asked. I nodded. “I’ve got some things to say, and I don’t like being interrupted. You’re here because I want to stay married, and that’s about it. Do you understand me?” he asked.
I nodded. Suddenly, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
“First of all, I don't care where you’ve worked before because you've never worked an audience like a Keith audience. These people aren't a bunch of bums, like the crowd at the American Theaters. The Keith clientele pays top dollar to see classy shows. I'm sure you've heard all about E.F. Albee and his strict rules, so we won't have to go over that. But you can bet your bottom dollar on this: if you decide to test the waters with some blue material just once, you'll be banned to the hinterlands forever. You won’t even be able to get a job singing for nickels on the corner. Am I making myself clear?"
I nodded yes, again.
"Repeat it back to me."
"The Keith audience shits strawberry ice cream, and I better not fuck around with E.F," I summarized.
"You won't last a week,” he said, rubbing his temples.
After my meeting with Mr. Hart, I went directly to Reuben’s for a sandwich. Eugene and Willie Howard were at the restaurant and, once they understood that I’d just come from a meeting with the infamous Max Hart, they showered me with kisses and offered up their remaining sour dills. The Howard brothers had long been on the Keith circuit and were excited that perhaps we’d finally share a bill. However, their faces turned paler than their china plates when I told them Max had assigned me to the Keith Theater in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
After Willie finished choking on his sandwich, he took a deep breath and grabbed my hand. He patted it gently.
"Here's my advice to you, Soph. Get yourself a suit of armor and two six-shooters with extra ammo. That theater didn’t earn the nickname ‘Dante’s Inferno’ for nothing.”
I thought they were pulling my leg. After the Barbary Coast in San Francisco I thought I’d seen everything, but Willie and Eugene swore they’d rather play the Coast for a week wearing tutus than set foot on the Flatbush Keith stage ever again. The entire audience was controlled by a clique of thugs who sat up in the balcony and ate new acts for lunch. The leader was a huge bruiser named Benny the Brute, who would command his cronies with a thumbs down or thumbs up after each act. Most got the thumbs down, which was the signal for the balcony to rain pennies and fruit down on the stage. Eugene insisted he’d once watched Benny make a magician disappear with a flying watermelon. Worse yet, the theater was half empty because no one in their right mind would sit in the orchestra level for fear they might wind up covered in the balcony’s off-target tomatoes.
"Boys,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m gonna be the first rookie act to make it in Flatbush. You’ll see. If I managed to get into Hart’s office, I can win over some sons of bitches in a stinking Brooklyn theater. It’s gonna be great."
"What is? Your eulogy?" cried Willie. The Howards shook their heads and raised their seltzer glasses.
“To Sophie Tucker,” intoned Eugene gravely. “She was a fine performer, felled tragically in a freak hailstorm of pennies. May she rest in one cent pieces.”
I had just a handful of days to prepare for my Flatbush debut, so I quickly decided on my songs and gathered my charts for the orchestra. Then I came up with some snappy new entrances to spice up my old routine, and arranged a special rental agreement with a dress shop so I’d have easy access to fourteen different gowns, one for each performance.
I wasn’t set to debut until Monday, but I arrived at the Flatbush Keith early Saturday afternoon and bought a gallery ticket for twenty-five cents. That was the biggest hint that Max Hart had screwed me; all the other Albee theaters charged fifty cents for their balcony seats, so this was truly the bottom of the barrel of the elite Keith circuit. Since the show didn’t start until 2:30, I had my pick of the seats and I set myself up in the highest row. I wanted to be as invisible as possible.
An hour later, the clique started to file into the gallery's center section. Even though it was a nice sunny day they were all wearing long wool overcoats, which I soon found out were hiding enough fruits and vegetables to feed China. Then, five minutes before the curtain, the king arrived. There was no mistaking him. Benny the Brute greeted his fellow hecklers like a general addressing his troops.
As the lights dimmed, Benny stood up.
"Are we ready?" yelled the Brute. His buddies hooted and stomped their feet. “Then let the games begin!”
The first act's name card was placed on an easel off to the right of the stage, but I didn’t even have time to read it before it was knocked down by a flying McIntosh. The hecklers cheered as the act, a brother dance team, took the stage. They weren’t bad, but after a minute or so of decent soft-shoe, the Brute stood. Up went his fist. Down went his thumb. I could see the two boys on stage wince just before they were pelted by so many pennies it looked like the plague of locusts had arrived. They sprinted off the stage.
It didn’t go much better for any of the performers who followed, though I noticed that older singers seemed to get the worst of it. An elderly baritone took the stage and only managed to boom out his first note before the audience turned him into a tossed salad. An older soprano was hit by so many grapes I’m pretty sure she could’ve opened her own winery and retired. At least that proved Benny had a heart—if he’d called for cantaloupes, they would’ve had to carry old Brünnhilde off the stage on a stretcher.
Brünnhilde appears in Richard Wagner's
opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.
There was only one act the Brute deemed worthy of respect. Benny raised both arms and signaled for silence the moment The Smith Sisters’ easel card was placed on stage. Regardless of what the card said, though, I knew the moment they glided out from behind the curtain that it was actually Rosie and Jenny, the Dolly Sisters. I’d met them at a few big benefits around town and, while they were very elegant on stage, the minute the curtain dropped they were wild women who were game for anything. They’d recently been signed to Ziegfeld’s 1913 Follies so I assumed they were breaking in a new act under an alias at the worst shithouse of a theater they could find. If they could make it in Dante’s Inferno, the Follies would be a slice of heaven.
The Dolly Sisters
Benny was obviously a thug, but at least he was a thug with good taste. If the Brute was only going to the cut-rate Flatbush Keith, he had no idea that the Dolly Sisters were one of the biggest and best acts in the country. Still, he knew they had something special. Maybe there was hope after all.
At the end of the matinee, I followed Benny and his boys to a neighborhood joint called Mike’s, all of their now empty winter coats slung over their shoulders. The fifty of them piled into the little bar and, after a few deep breaths, I squared up my shoulders and strode into the lion’s den. Once I got inside, though, I found the bar to be empty. I stood staring at the bartender, who I presumed to be Mike, the owner. A faint commotion was coming up from a rickety staircase in the corner that led down to the basement. It seemed like Benny was using that spot as his little clubhouse. I made for the stairs, but the bartender dove out from behind the bar to stop me.
“You can’t go down there, sister. That’s a men’s club. Get it?” he said, turning me around and pushing me back toward the bar.
“Yeah, I read you loud and clear. Men’s club—hearts, darts, and farts.”
“Hey, that’s no way for a lady to talk!” he winced.
“You want me to sing it? Listen bub, I’m not just any lady,” I said, thinking on my toes. “I’m Benny’s cousin from Rochester. I just got in. He told me to meet him here, at Mike’s, 328 Mercy Street, down in the basement.”
“Pardon me, toots, but you’re full of shit. There’s never been a broad down in that club and I’m not about to break the Brute’s rules,” he said.
Mike seemed serious so I grabbed him by his collar and held my fist an inch from his face.
“Look, Mike. Either you break the Brute’s rules or I break your jaw. Which is it gonna be?”
The barkeep must have recognized the family resemblance, because a few moments later I was heading down the stairs toward Benny’s private club. The moment my bare ankle and high heel descended into view, everybody went entirely silent, like someone had ripped the needle off a record. To hell with it, I thought, and kept going. Maybe they wouldn’t like the rest of my hefty package, but there was no turning back now. I walked my ample girth and girdle right into the middle of the room, which was filled with smoke and poker tables, around which were seated some of the most flabbergasted thugs you’d ever see.
“Which one of you boys is Benny the Brute?” I yelled.
"Who wants to know?" responded an equally loud voice in the back of the room.
“Sophie the Shark,” I answered. “I’m looking for some high-stakes poker and I heard you run a clean game.”
“No broads allowed, hon. Why don’t you scram?” answered the voice.
“I’m no broad. I told you, I’m a shark,” I answered. “And I can’t swim with this purse full of cash weighing me down.”
Out from the back of the room strode a behemoth of a man with a mop of bright red hair. Even though I’d seen him in the balcony, it was hard to appreciate that each of the Brute’s legs were the size of a tree trunk until they were marching toward me.
"When you walk around town, Benny, do you need to carry a building permit?” I asked. A few of his henchmen chuckled, so I kept going. “Mind if I feel your muscle?”
Benny blushed ever so slightly and flexed one of his biceps into the classic muscle man pose.
“I wasn’t talking about your arm, honey,” I laughed as I reached down and grabbed Benny’s giblets. The giant stared at me like I was Jack and I’d just crawled up his beanstalk.
"Mr. Brute, are you gonna glare at me all night, or are we gonna play poker?" I asked.
“D-Deal," stammered the Brute.
I took the invitation and sat myself down at the table. Benny seated himself directly across from me and the rest of his crew gathered around.
"I'll tell you what Mr. Brute, let's start easy and just get to know each other. Nickel, dime, quarter, three raise max, all right?"
He nodded and watched me suspiciously as I dealt the cards.
"I really came here today to introduce myself. My name is Sophie Tucker. I'm a Vaudeville singer and I've been beating the bushes all over the whole U.S. of A. for seven years now, and I'll be honest with you. I was up in your gallery today. I've been to Boston, to New Orleans, out to the Barbary Coast and everywhere in between, and I thought I’d seen every variety of asshole this country has to offer. I gotta hand it to you Brutesy, and I say this with all due respect, you guys are the nastiest of the nasty. You and your boys are the number one meanest group of motherfuckers I’ve ever met.”
I turned over my last card, revealing an ace, which gave me three bullets to win the small pot. I pulled in the coins, stacked them nice and neat and then looked up to see if steam was coming out of the Brute's ears.
Benny pushed back his chair, stood up, slammed his left hand on the table and pointed at me with an index finger the size of a bratwurst. I just about pished my pants until he broke into a big grin.
"Sophie Tucker? I like you!"
The rest of his merry men broke into a loud cheer of approval. I was now an official member of the Flatbush Gallery of the Gods.
The great heavyweight champ Max Baer
was Benny the Brute's little brother.
I completed my initiation that night at the evening performance. Benny had me sit right next to him and I’m not proud to admit that I even chucked a few cabbages. We headed back to Mike’s for a few late night rounds and I worked out the final details of my deal to make Benny’s wildest dream come true, and in return, he promised to keep his crew in check for the next week. We sealed our friendship with two quick pokes from his pocketknife on our thumbs and a handshake. We were blood brothers for life. Or should I say Brute brothers?
On Monday, I arrived in my dressing room at eight in the morning to find that Molly had already arranged my gowns and accessories the way I liked. I met with the orchestra leader and we went over all the music breaks and cues until I was satisfied we were on the same page. After seven years, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so I slipped the maestro an extra twenty dollars to make sure nothing went wrong during my set—which seemed to do the trick, since I received with a big kiss on the cheek and an earful of good wishes before each of my performances.
Dear E. F.,
This is the letter I've been looking forward to sending you for years. So much has happened since my last note, I hardly know where to begin.
A couple of weeks ago I happened to run into Max Hart at the Cotillion Club with his lovely wife Gertrude. The next thing you know, Max insisted I sing a song with the orchestra. He was so impressed he asked when I could start working the Keith circuit.
Although I was booked solid for the following six weeks, I decided to rearrange things and make myself available. Max wanted me to get cracking on the prime route, but I insisted on doing a week out of the spotlight first, to get my feet wet at your Flatbush Theater.
Though the gallery in this particular theater has a reputation for being a little choosy, I’ve found everyone to be rather lovely so far. Every soul, from the orchestra section all the way up to the last row of the gallery, have been perfect ladies and gentlemen. Not only that, the audiences these first four days and nights have also been kind enough to give me several standing ovations. I have been averaging five encores each show.
Thankfully, the results are showing up in the box office. Your manager here, Mr. Felix Leominster, informed me this is the first week in the history of the Flatbush Theater that there have been eight sellouts in a row. Of course, my goal is for all fourteen shows to be standing room only, since it is my fondest hope that I will be your biggest moneymaker for the foreseeable future.
On Sunday night, after the evening performance, I will be throwing a small celebration of my first successful run for you and the Keith family. Needless to say, it would be my greatest honor if you would join us for my Sunday night performance and the party afterwards, at Mike's House of Fine Spirits at 328 Mercy Street in Brooklyn.
Thanks, again, for this wonderful opportunity. I will never let you down.
P.S. Maybe I can help you in a couple of weeks when you open The Palace, your new flagship theater on Broadway in New York.
My letter to E.F. painted a beautiful picture, but I neglected to mention a few bumps in the road that came at the beginning of my successful week. I peeked out of the curtain ten minutes before the start of the Monday matinee to make sure Benny had lived up to his end of our arrangement. Sure enough, the house was packed to the rafters just like he promised. I learned later that many of those theatergoers were strong-armed through the turnstiles fearing for their lives. Nothing like some good old fashioned diplomacy. When the lights came down, the entire house erupted into applause and I knew it was going to be a good show.
I stepped out of the wings to an over the top welcome. I’d asked the stage manager to do away with the easel for the evening so I could act as the emcee, and he was more than happy to oblige me since he was sick to death of having all his easel cards stained with tomato pulp.
"Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Before we start our show, I wanted to introduce a very special dignitary in our audience. No, it's not the Mayor or the Governor or even the President. To me, he's more important than all those guys. As a matter of fact, he's the reason you're all here today. Ladies and gentlemen, the Honorable Benjamin Brutowsky."
As the crowd roared, I had a spotlight shine on Benny in his usual seat. He stood up and took an awkward bow.
"Some of you might not know this, but Mr. Brutowsky has promised that this week's shows at the Flatbush Keith will be free of any flying objects. To prove his sincerity about your safety, sitting right in front of me in the first row, where she will be every show this week, is Benny's lovely mother, Mrs. Brutowsky. Give Mrs. B a big hand. How are you doing tonight, Mrs. B?”
"Call me Mama," she answered me from her seat.
"All right, Mama. Your little boy isn't gonna let anyone throw anything today, is he?"
"If he does, I'll kick his sorry ass!"
"Well, that settles it,” I announced with a laugh. “We're gonna have a great week here in Brooklyn. I'm your host Sophie Tucker and here's our first act: The Eisen Brothers!"
Even though I was introducing all the acts, I wanted my own entrance to be special each time. For the first two days, the band played a fanfare and I was driven onto the stage in Irving Berlin's brand-new chauffeured Alco touring car. One of the Eisen Brothers opened the back door and I stepped out to reveal a flowing light blue chiffon gown. I knew I had hit on something special when the whole audience gasped in awe.
Irving Berlin's weekend car, a 1913 Alco touring sedan.
On Wednesday, I switched things up. I donned a long blonde wig and a flesh-toned bodysuit that covered me from head to toe (making sure not to disobey Albee’s strict dress code) and rode out onstage astride a beautiful black stallion, doing my best impersonation of a very chubby Lady Godiva. The matinee entrance went off without a hitch, but the evening entrance really took the cake when I had trouble sliding down off the horse. There's nothing like watching five guys trying to get my fat ass down to safety. The horse, sensing I was upstaging him, took the opportunity to make a big deposit in the middle of the stage. As I held my nose and the stagehands approached with a shovel and a broom, I saw Mama B. laughing so hard I thought she might have a heart attack.
On Thursday and Friday, I asked the stage manager to dig up the crummiest jalopy he could find. I was chauffeured onto the stage in an ancient Model T that was covered in dents, backfiring and interrupting me at will. Each time it did I’d give it a glare and a kick and restart my song. The audience was in hysterics.
Even with that reception, I saved the best for the weekend shows. One of the stagehands loaned me his motorcycle and another did some quick mechanical alterations before my matinee. Just before my curtain, I slipped back into my nude-colored bodysuit and a stagehand drove the motorcycle onstage with me scrubbing my back in its new bathtub sidecar. To tumultuous applause, the Eisen Brothers came out with a big towel stretched between them to give me privacy while I got out of my tub. Then the boys “accidentally” dropped the towel, revealing my wet tush to the crowd. That entrance went down in the annals of Vaudeville history. It’s a shame it was before television.
On the other hand, though, maybe not.
Sophie pictured in a standard stationary bathtub.
Though I thought I had arranged every detail of my run at the Flatbush Keith, I was livid when someone dressed as a clown rolled an upright piano out onto the stage during my first performance on Monday afternoon. Since Frank Westphal pulled that little stunt back in Chicago, everyone under the sun was using his entrance as a bit in the middle of their otherwise ordinary acts. This time, though, I was furious. I had left explicit instructions that no one was to interrupt my act in any way. Still, there I was with a clown sharing my spotlight and I had to play along.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
The clown held up a finger, pantomiming that I should wait just a moment. Then, to the audience’s delight, he took off four overcoats, six suit jackets, three pairs of pants and eight shirts, leaving him standing there in his red long johns. An assistant came out with a formal suit, and the clown changed into a sharp set of tails and shiny black shoes. He removed his hat and orange wig, and finally buried his painted face in a towel. After a lot of rubbing, he handed the towel to his assistant and took his place on the piano stool once again.
When he spun around to wave to the applauding audience, I realized that I was looking at none other than Frank Westphal, in the flesh. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Even though William Morris and numerous other troupers had advised me to drop Frank like a hot potato, we’d been writing each other love letters ever since I left Chicago to head out West. We’d only crossed paths a few times during the three intervening years. When I was in New York, he was in Omaha. When I was in Omaha, he was in New York. True to form, each of Frank’s hundreds of letters contained a passionate proposal of marriage and each of my responses went back with a polite refusal. Yet somehow, here he was.
I found out later that a couple of our mutual friends on Tin Pan Alley told Westphal the good news about my upcoming first Keith engagement. He was in Pittsburgh at the time and near enough to make it to Brooklyn by Sunday night, just before I started my run. He secretly met with my conductor and used a couple of my love notes as proof that we knew each other. From that show on, we performed together. I couldn’t believe we were in the same place at last.
After my Friday matinee at the Flatbush, I got an unexpected visit from Max Hart. He was waiting in my dressing room, pacing back and forth, fanning himself with his red-banded boater hat.
“I’m here with a message directly from Albee,” he sputtered. “He says to tell you that he got all twenty-five of your letters. Are you out of your fucking mind? No one writes to E.F. Albee!”
“Am I in trouble?” I asked with trepidation.
“No. The son of a bitch loves them,” said the bewildered Max. “He says to keep writing, they cheer him up!”
I just chuckled and sat down at my mirror to remove my pancake makeup. Hart explained that when he was summoned to Albee’s office to talk about me, he assumed he was getting the boot.
“I figured it was the firing squad for me for sure,” continued Max. “But then E.F. says to me, 'Congratulations on Sophie Tucker.' And I’m thinking, what the fuck did she do? But then he showed me the box office receipts and my eyes almost popped out of my head. They’re off the charts! Do you have a lot of family in Brooklyn or something?”
“I do now,” I chuckled.
"Well, I don't know how the hell you did it and, to tell the truth, I don't give a shit. If E.F. is happy, I'm happy. I haven't seen him in such a good mood since Nora Bayes came on the scene. Albee’s so thrilled he’s gonna come to your last show on Sunday and wants to meet you at Mike’s afterward. Who the hell is Mike?"
There was just one hitch. Albee had done a little research and found out my old flame had been accompanying me on stage the last couple of days and his staff had turned up all the same dirt on Westphal that Morris had warned me about. Frank was trouble. Albee told Hart that as long as he got rid of the Frank problem, he was willing to offer me a contract for $1500 per week. I tried to bargain with him, but Max relayed E.F.’s ultimatum. Westphal was a deal breaker.
The best Hart could do was to give me permission for Frank to stay on in the pit, not the stage, with a salary of $150 per week which was to be secretly deducted from my own salary.
When I broke the news to Frank, I lied through my teeth. He cruised in just thirty minutes before the curtain was supposed to go up on our Friday night performance, holding his head in his hands and wearing yesterday’s suit.
“You’re not going to believe the news I got, Frank.” I said as he collapsed onto a chaise in my dressing room.
"Tell me softly. I overdid it this afternoon with that Brute guy. He’s an okay fella, but boy oh boy, can he drink.”
"Instead of getting blitzed with Benny, why weren't you with me? We might only have a couple of more nights together,” I said, hurrying to fix my hair. I’d been running behind schedule waiting for Frank to show up.
“Me and Bennie came up with a great plan so you and me can be together every night. Just ask that Hart guy to add me to your contract as your accompanist,” he said with a yawn. “No Keith accompanist makes less than $300 a week. Hell, they like you so much you might even be able to talk them up to $500.”
“I already asked and I don’t know if you’re gonna take what they’re offering. Max would only agree to $150 per, and you have to play down in the pit.”
“The pit?” he spat. That sobered him up.
Albee has a rule,” I lied. “No accompanist is allowed on stage with a Keith headliner.”
Particularly an accompanist famous for weeklong benders, I thought to myself.
“Jeez, Soph. Did you also negotiate me a bowl of dog food and a leash?”
“As soon as I get to the big Keith theaters, I’ll fix everything,” I promised. “I’ll be bringing in so much money for Albee he won’t be able to refuse me anything.”
“Ruff ruff,” barked Frank. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and left.
Frank wouldn’t so much as look at me that Friday night from his new place below the stage, but I had to admit that E.F. had been right. My act got better. I felt like 150 pounds had been lifted off my back. I used to feel more comfortable with Frank on stage because I could lean on him for jokes, but I had long since moved past that. The less I had to worry about Frank, the more I interacted with the audience. The result was a much more personal experience for everyone—except Frank, that is.
To punish me, Frank would disappear to some bar after each performance and I wouldn’t see him again until the next day. Despite it all, I still loved him. I’ve always been a bit of a brat and I thought I deserved everything—love, fame, and money—but the tricky part was figuring out how to have all three at the same time. Fame always brought me money, but the higher I climbed, the harder it became to find love. After Albee laid down the law about Westphal though, one thing became crystal clear. When Frank threatened my shot to headline the whole Keith circuit, I knew love belonged in last place. Somehow, I’d fix the romance thing later.
By Sunday night in Flatbush, I erased every thought of Frank from my mind and I pulled on my bodysuit one last time. I took my place in the bathtub sidecar, ready to perform the most important show of my life for Mr. E.F. Albee. Once again, Benny had come through with a full house and his Mama was still sitting front and center to make sure the skies were clear. The lack of falling pocket change meant the other acts were performing with newfound gusto and, believe it or not, most of them were asked to do an encore or two. However, nothing could compare to the standing ovation they gave my dripping caboose as I climbed out of the tub.
I waved to the crowd and put on my first gown. Everything was going better than I had hoped, until the entire stage began to rumble. Out from the wings came an upright piano pushed unsteadily by Frank, who was obviously drunk as a skunk. He must’ve had another liquid dinner at Mike’s between shows. He was wearing yesterday’s smelly street clothes and his squashed fedora. I had to think fast.
“Can I help you?” I asked, still smiling for the benefit of the audience but shooting poison darts at Frank with my eyeballs.
“I came to say hello to the great E.F. Albee,” slurred Frank. He began to diddle tunelessly on the keys. “Say, did you ever wonder what the E.F. stands for?”
I started to push the piano back off the stage, but Frank refused to follow. Even when I managed to get the keys out from under him, he just sat on his stool, spinning idly and pretending to play the air. At least the audience was enjoying themselves. They thought they were seeing the best new drunk act since Charlie Chaplin.
“I’m pretty sure the ‘E’ stands for Edward,” Westphal slurred as he rotated. A violent hiccup knocked off his hat.
I grabbed Frank’s arm and stopped his spinning.
“Hiya, Soph! When did you get here? Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Sophie Tucker!”
The audience laughed and applauded wildly. I began to push Frank’s stool toward the wings as well, but he kept wriggling out of my grasp and wheeling back out into the spotlight.
“What about the F? Is it Freddy? Or Francis?” he mumbled. “Oh, I know! The E.F. stands for Edward Fuck—“
The audience definitely heard the beginning of Frank’s punchline, but I finished it with one of Mama’s uppercuts. His whole limp, drunk body flew up in the air and came down like a ton of bricks. The conductor, bless him, had the smarts to play a rousing ta-da and some exit music as two stagehands dragged Frank’s carcass off the stage.
"Wasn't he funny? Frank Westphal, folks. Now where were we?"
Unfortunately, I knew exactly where I was. In ten quick minutes I was elected the mayor of Shitsville. Somewhere out in the audience sat one steaming Edward Fucking Albee, if he hadn’t stormed out of the theater entirely. I was so sure that all of my work was shot to hell that I don’t even remember the rest of my performance that night.
The next thing I do recall was being at Mike’s and accepting everyone’s congratulations. I was told that I got my usual ovations and did seven encores, and the audience went wild for the drunk guy in my act. Naturally, Frank was nowhere to be found. My career was in the toilet, and that’s probably where my boyfriend’s head was too.
Benny the Brute snapped me out of my funk. It was time for me to pay up on my half of our deal, so I took him by his catcher’s mitt of a hand and lead him over to a booth in the back corner.
“Mr. Benjamin Brutowsky, I’d like you to meet your dates for the evening. This is Rosie and Jenny… Smith.”
The Dolly sisters eyed him up and down.
“Well hello, big boy. Sophie told us about your clubhouse,” said Rosie.
“And your muscle!” giggled Jenny.
I was told that Benny couldn't stop smiling for a month after that night. By the end of my week in Brooklyn, I had convinced the Brute that the future good behavior of his clique would guarantee more decent acts. He agreed to never let so much as a single raisin fly from the balcony at the Flatbush Keith ever again.
I escaped downstairs to the clubhouse and found a chair in a quiet corner to sit and sulk. I was so close. Why did Frank have to ruin it? I sat there sipping my suds and thinking about how ten little minutes could change someone's life. If I didn't sing that ten minute song at Riverside Park in Hartford all those years ago, I’d probably still be slinging schmaltz at Abuza’s. If I hadn’t stood outside Poli's stage door handing out restaurant leaflets for ten minutes, I never would have met Willie and Eugene Howard. And if Frank hadn’t come out on stage that night during those first ten minutes, I would have been on my way to the classiest vaudeville circuit in the world.
I was crying into my beer when I heard someone come down the stairs.
“Hello Sophie. I’m E.F. Albee.”
“Listen buddy, I’m not in the mood for a razzing tonight,” I shot back. “Can you just leave me be?”
I slowly lifted my head and found myself staring at a distinguished looking gentleman, elegant from his curled moustache all the way down to his shiny shoes. It was Edward Fucking Albee.
“Sir!” I yelped and scrambled to my feet. “I didn’t think that—after the rough beginning…”
“I’ll admit, I took offense at first that some no-name singer had the gall to write me a letter. But after the fifth or sixth one I actually began to look forward to your notes,” he said with a smile. “Soph—can I call you Soph?”
“You can call me anything you like, sir, after tonight’s fiasco.”
“That’s what I wanted to speak to you about. When E.F. Albee tells someone he will be somewhere at a certain time, he is never late. I broke my own rule tonight.”
“Water under the bridge, sir,” I muttered sadly. “This party will go until dawn.”
“No Sophie, I’m talking about your act. There was an accident on the Brooklyn Bridge and I was late to the show tonight. It’s a shame, because I really wanted to see your entrance in that bathtub I’ve been hearing so much about.
My legs gave out and I fell back into my chair, stunned. I couldn’t believe my dumb luck. Albee had totally missed the Frank debacle. I’ll be goddammed, I thought to myself, you still have a job.
“Well, E.F,” I said, fanning myself so I didn’t faint. “Can I call you E.F.?
“Sure Soph, if you accept my apology for missing your act.”
“It’s forgotten. These things happen! Don’t beat yourself up.”
“I think we’re going to make quite a team. I can promise you a great future in this business, kid,” he said, sticking out his hand for me to shake.
“As a matter of fact, E.F., I just thought of a way you can make it up to me,” I said, taking his hand. “My apartment’s kinda small. I’d really like to move into something a little roomier. Maybe you can set me up in your new Palace?”
Sophie knew how to spot a talented songwriter and befriend him. “Makin’ Wicky-Wacky in Waikiki” from 1931 is a great example. The four people credited for writing this song were James Cavanaugh, Billy Curtis, Burton Lane and Al Hoffman. This group would go on to produce such hits as “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You,” “Look To The Rainbow,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Mairzy Doats,” and “Papa Loves Mambo,” to name just a few.
"Camptown Races" is a minstrel song published in February 1850. Another edition was published in 1852 with guitar accompaniment under the title, "The Celebrated Ethiopian Song/Camptown Races.”
"You Made Me Love You" was written by James V. Monaco and Joseph McCarthy in 1913. It was introduced in the Broadway revue The Honeymoon Express, starring Al Jolson, who recorded the song on June 4, 1913.
Roger Edens wrote additional lyrics to this same song for Judy Garland that cast her in the role of a teenage fan of Clark Gable. Garland sang the song to Gable at a birthday party thrown for him by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM executives loved her rendition so much, she and the song were added to the film Broadway Melody of 1938. Garland fans strongly feel it was that performance which catapulted Judy into superstardom. Garland recorded the Gable version on September 24, 1937. MGM released the song as a b-side in 1939, opposite Garland's recording of "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz.
Broadway Melody was also the first movie that Sophie made for MGM, cast as Garland’s mother. In rehearsals, they hit it off and Tucker inadvertently became her new singing coach. In later interviews, Judy always credited Sophie as the one who first taught her how to best put over a song.
This is the only remaining film of Frank Westphal playing with his orchestra in 1930.