Chapter 23

That Naughty Melody

No one but Houdini could’ve made such a death-defying escape from unemployment. Albee made up for missing my performance by scheduling me directly into the brand new Palace Theater instead of an intermediate joint a rung or two up the ladder from Flatbush. I paid Max Hart a visit the following Monday to sign my contract and make everything official.

Max was on the phone when I walked into his office. He was rubbing his forehead in frustration assuring Gertie, who I’d learned over the last few weeks had a vicious jealous streak, that he wasn’t making eyes at his newest chorus girl.

“Nothing’s fishy, Gertie,” he sighed. “Teresa is just another dancer. You’re the only one for me. I swear on the Bible.”

I decided to have a little fun. I plopped myself down on his lap and cooed directly into the telephone.

“That’s my little Maxie Waxie!” I giggled.

“It’s nobody, dear,” Max said, trying to throw me off his lap like a bucking bronco.

“That’s not what you said last night!” I cried even louder. “Why don’t you tell her the truth and put her out of her misery. You know we’re madly in love with each other!”

“It’s just a prank, honey! It’s Sophie, the girl from the Cotillion Club, Sophie Tucker!”

I motioned for Max to hand me the phone.

"Ya vol," I said in a thick German accent. "Who ist this Sophie Tucker? Who am I? Who are you? Maxie's wife! Maxie, you didn't tell me you were married. Listen fraulein, he's all yours...Hello?...Hello?...She hung up. It must have been something I said.”

Max threw his phone across the room and I returned to my usual seat.

“Calm down, Christy Mathewson. No need to pitch a no-hitter with your hello statue.”

“What in God’s name is a hello statue?” asked the seething Hart.

“You know, you pick it up and say, Hello, ‘stat you?'

As usual, I got no laugh from Maxie.

Hall of Fame baseball pitcher
Christy Mathewson.

“Don’t worry, I’m having lunch with Gertie in an hour and I’ll explain everything,” I swore.

Max glared at me and slid my contract across his desk. As promised, I would be making $1500 per, starting at the Palace in three weeks. Hart explained that E.F. had forgotten that my old friend Nora Bayes was already booked at the new theater, so I was to spend a week in Baltimore and a week in Philadelphia cutting my teeth in some of Albee’s fancier joints. As expected, Max was more than a little concerned that my act was too much for the older, sophisticated crowds who came to those theaters. I suggested he have a doctor take everyone’s blood pressure as my chaser act.

“Stop fooling, Sophie. This is serious. A single morals violation, just one, and you are done. Don't let the nice guy bit from E.F. fool you, either. If you break any one of his rules he’ll chew you up and spit you out like a stick of Wrigley's gum. Promise me you won't work blue, will you?"

I agreed. Actually, I think my exact words were, “Maxie, you haven’t got a single fucking thing to worry about.” Secretly, though, I figured that if I sold out two shows a day for fourteen days in a row in Albee’s biggest theaters, he wouldn’t care if I did my whole act naked but for a pair of pasties.

The next day I was on a train to Baltimore, playing gin with Molly and trying not to wake Frank. He was snoring off another bad hangover and I preferred his chain-sawing to his belly-aching about his crappy salary.

“When are you gonna wise up and get rid of this shithead?” whispered Molly.

"I should have listened to you three years ago," I lamented.

"Well, what's done is done. But that doesn't mean you have to keep doing it," my friend said.

Molly insisted Frank was like a boil on my nose: lance it, and immediately everything would look and smell better. I knew she was right and, truly, I intended to ditch him as soon as I got to the Palace. My problem was that I didn’t have time to stop by Tin Pan Alley before leaving for Baltimore and Philadelphia and Frank, despite his drawbacks, was an excellent writer. That made him my only option to put a new shine on some old material.

Even though I still saw red when I thought about how he nearly sunk me in Flatbush, I convinced myself that the only reason he got so drunk was because he was angry with me. Miraculously, everything had worked out in the end. I hoped that as long as I didn’t let him get anywhere near the stage when he was three sheets to the wind, it wouldn’t be too dangerous to keep him around for a little bit longer.

Frank and I wound up working out a new take on a recent hit called "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone" for me to debut during my first Baltimore show.

Sheet music from I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone

It was a jokey little tune about a woman who bet all of her money on a jockey who ran away with her dough. It ended with the lines:

 

I'd put all my junk in pawn,

To bet on any horse that jockey’s on.

 

Frank rejiggered the lyrics to make it a little racier. It really wasn't hard to turn a tune from nice to naughty. In this particular case, all we had to do was rewrite the final two lines and add a few shimmies:

 

If he comes back, I know we'll win,

'Cause I'll be the saddle [shimmy, shimmy] that he’ll get in.

 

When I debuted the new version for Molly in her hotel room, she didn’t say a word. Instead, she silently began packing her bags. Her vote was clear as to whether or not I should test Mr. Albee’s watertight contract for leaks. The audience went wild for my saucy new ending during my first show that night, but Molly wasn’t entirely wrong. Stanley, the theater manager, was waiting for me in the wings as soon as I got offstage.

Thinking quickly, I lied. I insisted that Mr. Albee had approved my songs in New York, when he was at my party at Mike’s. Stanley was dumbfounded that Albee even knew what a party was, let alone attended one that I had thrown. I guess my story was convincing though, because he bought that E.F. and I were pals and agreed to let me continue to sing my songs with the racy lyrics. Even better, I convinced him that Albee didn’t need to see a midweek report, either. Once E.F. saw my box office totals, I figured that I’d be bulletproof.

Frank was waiting for me in my dressing room, having fled the orchestra pit in record time so he could have his scotch on the rocks in peace. He was the only pit player on the circuit who sipped his drinks on the headliner’s couch, and he liked to soak up the only perk he had left.

"The saddle line killed," said Frank.

"How about my hips? Don't they get any credit?"

"Were those your hips? It's been so long since I've seen them shake I wasn't sure."

"And whose fault is that?"

"I said I was sorry five times, Sophie. I’m sorry about Flatbush! I was a horse’s ass. Besides, haven't I been a good boy since?" he said, clasping his hands together like a little choirboy.

“Good? Good, he says! You still come home every night lit up like a candle!” I yelled, angrily changing into my street clothes. I threw my heavy gown right at his melon and it knocked off his hat with a satisfying clatter of beads and sequins.

"Well, give this candle some money so he can go light up a dark bar somewhere,” he said, sticking out his palm. I grabbed my purse, smashed some bills into his hand and Frank took off. I was so sick of his shtick that I no longer even worried he might be out chasing skirts. His dream girl was one who would fork over money and never nag; my dream man was one who’d already been weaned from the bottle. Neither of us was going to get what we wanted.

So while Frank was getting sloshed in downtown Baltimore, I got busy. That night I treated every theater critic in town to a lavish dinner and rounds upon rounds of drinks. The next morning, I stopped by the newspaper office and made friends with a couple of photographers. For a mere sawbuck and some introductions to a few of the prettiest chorus girls, my little shutterbugs got my mug in the paper every day.

I even worked out a little routine to pitch to my Monday audiences, knowing that you could never underestimate word of mouth. After my last encore, I motioned for the crowd to stop applauding and take their seats.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been a marvelous audience today. Since you were willing to take a chance on me, a new headliner, I was hoping you might also be game enough to help me win a bet against a friend of mine in New York. You might know him. His name is Eddie Cantor,” I said.

The audience applauded like mad. Eddie was one of the biggest comedians in the country.

“Sure, I like him too, but every once in a while he likes to bust my chops. Now, I’m in favor of women getting the vote. Eddie, he doesn’t care so much, but he begged me to get his wife Ida involved in the movement. She’s been nagging him for a summer home and a new car, and he thinks if I get Ida on the picket lines, she’ll forget what she wants and it’ll save him thousands!”

Again the audience applauded, though I think there were husbands and wives secretly appreciating different sides of that joke.

George Burns, Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Sophie and Ida Cantor.

"So, Eddie, he thinks he can outdraw me any day. Well, I love a good challenge! I made a bet that I would have more box office than him this week, and you can help me win. If I do, he promised that he’ll go to one of those Suffragette rallies in New York wearing one of my dresses! And if he wins, I have to wear one of his. If you had a good time this afternoon will you do me a personal favor? Tell everyone you know to visit me in the next six days. I'll have different costumes and new songs for each of my fourteen shows here in Baltimore, so I can promise you won’t be disappointed. Will you tell your friends and family? And if I sing you one more, just to say thanks, will you come back again this week?"

 Sure enough, that was the last show that wasn’t completely sold out. I played that whole first week to standing room only crowds for every matinee and every evening show, regardless of the blue lyrics I slipped in here and there. Everything was rolling along smoothly until Sunday evening, when Stanley motioned me off the stage after my second encore and brought up the house lights, cutting my show short.

"I just got a wire from E.F. Albee himself!” he yelled. I looked over to Molly, who once again began packing up her purse and putting on her coat.

"I can explain about the song," I started.

"What song? Forget the song! You open at the Palace on Tuesday afternoon."

It seemed that there had been a disagreement with Nora Bayes and she, as usual, walked out intending to leave Albee high and dry, having no idea that I was waiting in the wings. I was supposed to bypass Philadelphia altogether and head straight to New York.

I had done it! After seven years of hard work, I had finally reached the pinnacle of Vaudeville: headlining at the Keith’s best theater. Frank produced a bottle of champagne out of thin air and we toasted to the Palace, my latest and greatest conquest. From the first show I saw from the balcony at Poli’s, I had no doubt that I was going to make it to this very moment.

The brand new Palace Theater in 1913.

My body did all the right choreography as I hugged and danced with Molly and Frank, but, oddly, I was feeling a little glum. For the first time in my life, I didn't have a big goal. It was like someone had ripped out my gas pedal and I was just an engine, humming and chugging and burning its gasoline with nowhere to go. If I didn’t come up with a new target to aim for, I knew that I would shrivel up and die at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It didn’t matter if I was the latest darling of Albee’s theaters if all I had to look forward to was some newer act coming along to take my place.

On the train back to New York, I leaned my head against the window and did a great job of feeling sorry for myself. Molly and Frank assumed I was just tired from all the excitement and, thankfully, let me be. When I got sick of the New Jersey countryside I half-heartedly thumbed through the latest Variety and, as if put there by the hand of God, I found my next goal plastered across the top of page four:

 

NORA BAYES VOTED #1 BY KEITH AUDIENCES

 

There was no better way to start my new mission to oust Nora Bayes as the public’s favorite entertainer than to replace her at the Palace Theater. Albee was nice enough to find a substitute for the Monday shows, which gave me a day off to get myself together and Frank enough time to juice up the lyrics of another new song.

I got settled into my suite at the St. Regis and then, figuring the best way to get rid of the knots in my stomach was to fill it with steak, I headed out for lunch at Delmonico’s. That restaurant was the capital of the entertainment industry, where headliners went to schmooze and be seen. Even on a Monday at two o’clock, you could usually expect to see at least a few famous faces. I arrived to a smattering of polite applause from the other diners, as was the custom, but noticed that there was one lone clapper who just wouldn’t quit. It turned out to be my old friend Al Jolson, who came over to my table to catch up.

Al Jolson, the biggest star of early film, made
a name for himself performing in blackface.

“I never expected to see you here!” I said, giving him a hug. “You’re as big a workhorse as me.”

"Broadway’s dark on Mondays, my dear. Just like God, I get one day of rest per week. It's not easy being the male Sophie Tucker!" he said.

"If you want that title, you're gonna have to pluck your eyebrows and put on fifty pounds,” I joked.

Even with Jolie’s nearly nonstop schedule, he’d heard that I was taking Nora’s place at the Palace and was thrilled that I’d finally gotten my big break. Neither one of us could believe that E.F. had taken Bayes back so many times—and that he would probably take her back again—but it was hard to argue with any performer who put fannies in the seats.

I looked at Jolson, and suddenly I had an idea for my own show.

"Hey Al, can I ask a favor? I’m wild about the new number you're doing, the one about Mrs. Rip Van Winkle. Would you mind if I did it at the Palace?”

"It would be my pleasure,” he said, bowing formally.

"Are you sure? It's such a hit for you."

"Don't worry, Soph. By the time you're done with it, nobody will recognize it as the same song. Just don’t get down on one knee like I do—you’ll need a team of he-men to get you back up!"

  

Frank and I stayed up late that night until we were satisfied with our new version of Al’s song. I practiced until my hips were sore from shimmying and I’d practically pulled my winking muscle.

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" asked Westphal as we settled into bed.

"Are you turning yellow on me?"

"I just don't want you to lose everything you’ve worked so hard for."

"If I don't do something to set myself apart from all the Nora Bayeses out there, I won't be around long enough to lose anything. You and the Boss gave me a great gift. Because of you two, I am the only fat sexpot in the world. And audiences eat it up with a spoon! I'm gonna play the outrageous Sophie Tucker as long as the crowds are buying tickets, and if that means doing bawdy lyrics like this, I'm gonna do them till I croak."

"Still, Soph. It’s your first night. Maybe you should play it safe for a few shows at least?"

"Safe gets me back to Hartford washing dishes," I said, and turned out the light.

 

I intended to get to the Palace before everyone else that Tuesday so I could settle in quietly, but Albee was waiting for me as soon as I arrived. He kept a close watch over his beautiful new theater from eight in the morning until after the final curtain fell. I offered him a peek at my sheet music so he could make sure he didn’t find anything objectionable, but he waved it away.

“Max has assured me you understand our rules. I trust you, Sophie. I know you’re going to give us a nice, wholesome show.”

“You heard all of my songs in Flatbush anyway, with the exception of one new one. I got permission from Al Jolson to do his big hit for my finale. Is that one okay with you?” I asked, giving him ample opportunity to put the kibosh on my plan.

“Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle? I saw Al do that on his opening night. It was very funny. That’s a great choice for your last number. I approve," he laughed, patting me on the back. “Just don’t forget: think wholesome.”

As he walked to his office on the top floor of the Palace, I crossed my heart and blew him a kiss.

Sheet music for “Who Paid the Rent
for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?”

Time flies when you’re having heart palpitations. Before I knew it, I was once again in Irving Berlin’s borrowed Alco touring car and making my grand entrance on the Palace stage. Because I was in New York, the whole theater was stocked with friendly faces. In the front five rows alone I spotted Irving Berlin, Jimmy Durante, George LeMaire, Eddie Cantor and even William Morris. I bet E.F. charged him double just to get in, but no feud was going to keep the Boss away today.

What a thrill it was! My act got all the right responses at all the right times. The thousands of performance hours were paying off. The tricks and nuances I had learned from the veterans had turned me into a world-class entertainer. I didn’t have to think anymore. It all came out naturally. After half an hour, the only thing left to sing was my new finale.

“Ladies, gentlemen, friends, it’s been a long road, but here I am! I just wanted all of you to know something very important, especially the press—I know you’re out there too! Here’s your headline for the morning papers: Sophie Tucker is here to stay!”

The crowd broke into wild applause. Jimmy’s schnoz turned pink with delight.

“My last song is on loan from my good pal, Mr. Al Jolson. Hit it, maestro!”

  

Who paid the rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle when Rip Van Winkle went away?

She had no friends, in that place

No one she had, to embrace,

But the landlord always left her with a smile on his face.

OH! Who paid the rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle when Rip Van Winkle went away?

C'mon and tell me,

 

Who paid the rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle when Rip Van Winkle went away?

She never married once again,

She was so lonesome, but then,

You’ll always find a rooster lookin' 'round for a hen.

Who paid the rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle when Rip Van Winkle went away?

  

My altered lyrics hit the bull’s-eye. They had that little Sophie Tucker touch everyone had come to expect: taking perfectly innocent words and twisting them ever so slightly to make them naughty. Needless to say, this was a big deal in 1913, just like "The Angle Worm Wiggle" had been a few years earlier. The difference was that I’d just painted the pure white Keith stage with its first big splotch of blue. Now it was time to see if the Emperor of Vaudeville was going to let me get away with it.

As expected, the second my last friend offered their congratulations and left my dressing room, a page informed me I was wanted in Mr. Albee’s office. I took a seat in front of his big desk and E.F. sat behind it in a plush leather chair, a slight smile on his face. I felt like I was back at school in Hartford catching hell for singing "Hello My Baby" in the middle of the Christmas chorus recital. Luckily, this time there were no paddles in sight.

“You know Sophie, my dear, I’ve reserved this spot for you,” he said as he pointed to an open space on a wall filled with photographs of his many beautiful headliners. “My plan is to make you as famous as the other faces you see up there. But how can I make that happen if you refuse to cooperate with me?” He sighed like a disappointed father.

"I’m sorry about tonight, E.F. and I promise I’ll cooperate from now on. By the way,” I said slyly, “I meant to ask you. How was the box office last week in Baltimore?”

"Record-breaking, but that's not the point. You’ve got to be a wholesome, respectable entertainer!"

“You’re right, of course E.F. Must’ve slipped my mind between all of my encores. How many did I have, anyway? Did someone count?”

“Ten,” he frowned. “Eighteen minutes of encores. But you’re still missing the point, Sophie.”

“Wholesome! I know, wholesome!” I repeated. “Just like Nora Bayes. And, I’m sorry, I’m just so forgetful today. Remind me again, how much did the great Nora bring in last week?

"That's not the po—” he repeated again, until I cut him off.

"That’s exactly the point, Mr. Albee. I doubled Nora’s gate last week in Baltimore and even the week before when I was playing out in that Flatbush hellhole of yours. The fact is, the crowds can’t wait to see what I’ll do next! I’m exciting! You’ll have to pardon me for saying it, sir, but lately Nora Bayes is boring them to fucking death.”

Albee’s face went so white all I could see was his moustache. He looked like the ghost of a walrus.

"Sophie, I'd appreciate it if you would please mind your language."

"I’m sorry Mr. Albee. Let me rephrase that. What I meant to say is that lately Miss Bayes is boring the audience to their fucking demise."

"What am I going to do with you?" he said, throwing his hands up in the air.

"Here’s what you’re gonna do with me. You're gonna send me on tour to every one of your theaters. Why? Because every time I open my mouth, people will line up to give you their money. I know you don’t believe it yet, but I guarantee that I'm the next gold rush and you own the mother lode for the measly sum of $1500 a week. You, Mr. Albee, are gonna usher in the next big blue wave of Vaudeville!"

I stood up.

"Now if you'll excuse me, I think we both have things to do. I have to go downstairs to get you a picture, and you have to go shopping for a gold frame so you can hang my big beautiful face right there!"

I slammed the door behind me and found myself in the empty corridor outside his office. I stood there for ten seconds, catching my breath and panicking. This time I thought I had really cooked my goose but good.

And then I heard it.

E.F. Albee was laughing.

Extras

“I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone?” is a ragtime/blues song written by Sophie’s old friend Shelton Brooks in 1913.The words that are printed on the original sheet music are the cleaned up version. Aside from “Some of These Days,” this title was Brooks’ second most popular tune.

Twenty years later the song showed up in the 1933 movie She Done Him Wrong, in which Mae West once again “borrowed” Tucker’s material, though she sang it with the original lyrics. By then, motion picture censors were starting to exert their influence by eliminating anything even remotely suggestive. Otherwise, West would certainly have used Sophie’s more powerful stage lyrics.

Burns and Allen, an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved great success over four decades.

Burns wrote most of the material and played the straight man. Allen played a silly "Dumb Dora" archetype common in early 20th-century vaudeville comedy. Early on, the team played the opposite roles until they noticed that the audience was laughing at Gracie's straight lines, so they made the change. In later years, each attributed their success to the other.

This is a clip from one of the episodes from their TV show which ran from 1950-1958.

In 1913 when Al Jolson opened his new musical The Honeymoon Express, the big show stopping number was “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle,” written by Fred Fischer and Alfred Bryan. Even though the original words were much less sexually explicit, Jolson routinely had to do at least two encores each night before the show could continue.

In 1930, Al Jolson decided to put the "Mrs. Rip Van Winkle" number in his 1930 movie Mammy. This was four years before the government’s Hayes Code started cracking down with stricter sexual censorship on Hollywood scripts. As you will see in this movie clip, Jolson decided to update his original performance with Sophie’s racier lyrics. We are guessing Sophie returned Jolson’s favor from 1913.