Sophie with Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra at her Friars Roast in 1953.
When Milton Berle called me in 1953 and asked if I wanted to be the first woman roasted by the Friars Club, I asked, “What’s the matter? Did you run out of schmucks?” Truth was, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. No woman was even allowed near the dais until me. After a night of fat jokes and insinuations so blue Elvis would try to wear them as suede shoes, it was my turn to make a little speech.
You guys have given me a good going over tonight, but this old baby can take it. I've been taking it a long time. The only difference is this is the first time you've told me to my face what you've been saying behind my back for years. Don't kid yourselves. I know you've had many a laugh at my expense and I'm glad of it. When you're not playing gin rummy, you're worrying about my age or the size of my tuchus. Yes, I know all those wise cracks. There's been more talk about my bangs than Mamie Eisenhower's. And I know all about you songwriters and your rhymes for Tucker, too.
Then I hit those sons of bitches with a dirty poem I’d written just for the occasion:
My first love was an artist
Of the Louvre he could boast
But he was not hung
Where it mattered most
My next was a jockey
Up the creek with a paddle
But my gentleman jockey
Couldn't stay in the saddle
The piece de resistance was when Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board himself, stood up and sang a song he’d written for me to the tune of “Mother.”
S is for the sweetness she created.
O means she's the one that we adore.
P is for performers she has aided.
H is for her humbleness and more.
I is for the industry that loves her.
E is for her endless curtain calls.
Put them all together they spell SOPHIE.
The only Friar without balls...but we're not certain!
That was far from the first time in my career that I was accused of having a brass set. I guess you might say I earned my pair at the Brown School Christmas pageant of 1900.
I was about to turn fourteen when I attended the first day at my new high school in a blue dress with puffed sleeves that Mama made on her Singer. The summer was over and instead of selling corn at the park, I’d be splitting my days between classes and the restaurant. First day of school or not, we Abuza kids were still expected to get up at the crack of dawn to sell sandwiches. Because of that, by eleven I was snoring in the middle of my first mathematics lesson. The next thing I remember was Mrs. Hickey’s ruler cracking my skull and demanding I go straight to the principal’s office. Not exactly a grand entrance at the Brown School.
Over the summer, I’d heard all kinds of rumors that the principal, Mr. Ames, was a big bully with an even bigger paddle to tan your hide if you dared to disobey your teacher. As I stepped through his door, I was determined to turn on all my charm and explain to this gorilla that I wasn't a bad apple, just a tired one. However, I had to bite my tongue almost in half to keep from laughing when I laid eyes on the terrifying Mr. Ames. The older kids had suckered me. He was tiny mouse of a man. Sitting in the big leather chair behind his desk, his feet barely touched the floor.
I tried to explain that I fell asleep because of my hefty work schedule, but he insisted I should be punished—by joining the school choir. It met every single day at noon.
“No lunch?” I gasped.
“No lunch,” Mr. Ames confirmed.
I should’ve just asked for the paddle.
I sulked all the way to the music classroom and took a seat at the back, sneaking bites of a fat sour dill pickle and my pot roast on rye until the choirmaster arrived. He shuffled a stack of sheet music onto the upright piano and nervously introduced himself as Mr. Elliot. This brand new music teacher had been charged with the task of turning a ragtag bunch of children into an angelic choir in time for a Christmas recital. Trying to imagine my mother’s reaction to one of her children singing hymns to the baby Jesus made me snort into my pickle.
"Is there a problem, young lady?" asked Mr. Elliot. "What is your name? Are you eating in my class?"
"I’m Sophie Abuza," I said with a smile, “and I’m eating a sour dill. I’ve got an extra if you want it.”
“Do you intend on eating through all of our songs as well?” he asked.
"Mr. Elliot, my family owns a restaurant. In the time it takes for you to switch your sheet music I could cook a meal, eat it and still have time to clean my teeth with a toothpick.”
Frankly, I don’t understand why he didn’t send me and my smart-ass mouth right back to the principal’s office. Maybe he hoped my flair for comedy meant I’d make a good performer. Whatever it was, instead of kicking me out, Mr. Elliot got down to business. He made each of my classmates sing a scale so he could figure out what part they would be good for in the choir. When he got to me, I wanted to impress him so I really let ‘er rip.
Mr. Elliot tried not to betray a smile but I knew he liked what he heard. With each note of the scale I got louder and louder and Mr. Elliot’s eyes got wider and wider.
"Well,” he said when I finished. “Miss Abuza, I think you are the alto section."
At the end of class, Mr. Elliot pulled me aside to tell me that I had quite a voice, and a personality to match. I hadn’t a clue what personality meant, but I’m fairly sure Mr. Elliot didn’t know what a knish was so I’d like to think we had things to teach each other.
"Have you ever seen a Vaudeville show?" he asked.
“Is that where the Yiddish actors work? Sometimes they eat at our restaurant,” I explained.
“No, they work at the Empire Theater. Vaudeville at Poli’s is different—I’m sure you’d like it. I fill in for the piano player occasionally. If you’d ever like to see what’s going on inside, just let me know.”
Unfortunately, I was already scheduled to do two shows a day at the restaurant refilling the jars of chicken fat. Still, I was curious about this Vaudeville. I handed Mr. Elliot my extra sour dill as a thanks for not sending me back to Principal Ames and headed on to history class, my curiosity goosed.
When I got home from school that day my parents were arguing, as usual. This time Papa had won a bet from Yitzhak, the local printer. Instead of cold, hard cash, he accepted 250 printed handbills the restaurant didn’t need. Mama was livid. Every Jew within twenty miles already knew about Abuza’s. She was coming up with creative places Papa could store the whole thick stack of flyers when I had a brilliant idea.
"I could bring some of the handbills to the theater downtown and pass them out to the actors between the two shows," I chimed in. “Everyone at the Yiddish theater already knows about us, but maybe the Vaudeville actors at Poli’s might come? My choir teacher told me about it.”
"What is this vode-a-ville?" asked Mama. “I'm sending you to school to learn about bum actors?”
Papa liked my idea, however. The next day after school, I headed to Poli's armed with fifty of Papa's flyers. When I arrived I asked a lady in a glass booth in front of the theater where the actors came out of the building. She told me to go down the alley on the left and look for the stage door, which is where I waited. I could hear faint music coming from inside the building.
Finally someone came out holding what appeared to be a bag of tools.
"Here you go, mister. Come to Abuza's Family Restaurant on Front Street. Five courses for fifty cents."
"Fifty cents? I can't afford that. I'm a plumber, not the star of the show."
"We also have a four course plumber’s special for twenty-five cents. You get soup, roast beef, potatoes, and bicarbonate to clean your pipes!"
The plumber thought my joke was about as funny as an overflowing crapper. As he left, I managed to grab the door before it closed and tiptoed toward the sound of laughter coming from inside the theater. Backstage, people were running to and fro moving big pieces of furniture and racks of spangled costumes. Two men were trading rapid-fire jokes on stage in front of the curtain. The audience seemed to think they were hysterical. Eventually the orchestra played them off and the performers dashed toward me into the wings. The minute they were out of sight, one smacked the other on the back of the head.
"You stepped on my laugh again, putz!”
"What laugh? The way you delivered that line, there was never gonna be any laugh!”
They grabbed each other’s hands and ran back out on stage, smiling and bowing as though they were the best of friends, and then ran back to the wings.
"Why don't you take your shitty timing and stick it up your ass?” said the first one. “Let it bake in there for a few minutes and then serve it to yourself for Sunday dinner."
That was all the opening I needed.
"Or you could try dinner at Abuza's Family Restaurant on Front Street for just fifty cents!" I said with a wink, sticking a flyer under each of their noses. The men stopped talking and looked at each other, confused.
"Are you the new kid act? How old are you?"
"No, I’m not an actor. I’m fourteen. I fill chicken fat jars."
“That must be something to see,” said the second man. “Can you do it on stilts? I’m looking for a new partner to replace this steaming pile,” he said, gesturing toward the other man.
With that, the two walked away with their flyers, bickering all the way to a little dressing room backstage.
The curtain closed and I thought the show was over, but there was a quick flurry of set pieces rolling on and off stage. Suddenly I heard my name and Mr. Elliot—dodging a little dog in a top hat that’d broken away from his handler—ran across the stage toward me. He explained that it was only intermission and, quickly, before he had to return to the piano, he set me up smack dab in the front row of the balcony to watch the second half of the show.
The curtain went up and a man with ten trained dogs coaxed his pooches to jump through flaming hoops; even the little runaway in the top hat dove admirably through the fire. Next, three brothers with flying feet did a complicated tap dance. Then came the Howard Brothers, the comedians I’d met backstage. I laughed until I nearly pished on the soft velveteen theater seat.
Eugene and Willie Howard, pictured later in their career.
The clincher was the final act. The house lights dimmed almost entirely and out from the wings floated Nora Bayes in a sparkling purple gown. The audience was mesmerized simply by the way she walked to center stage. All she had to do was stand there and sing a ballad, and she had the whole theater in the palm of her hand. I was dumbstruck. I watched the crowd hang on her every tiny movement and, in that instant, I knew Vaudeville was my destiny.
I met Mr. Elliot backstage after the show was over. He asked me if I’d enjoyed the acts, and for the first time this loudmouth was at a loss. When I finally found the words to thank him, I blabbered on about how lucky I felt to have seen such a once in a lifetime spectacular. Mr. Elliot chuckled and explained that if I liked the show, I could come back and see a different troupe every week. I almost plotzed in my pants.
"How long has this been going on?"
"For the last twenty years, in every city in the country. This is Vaudeville, kid!”
As if on cue for an encore, the Howard brothers came walking by and both slapped me on the shoulders.
"Hey, Chicken Fat Girl! We're going to try this kosher restaurant of yours," one of them shouted.
"This isn’t some farkakte plot to poison us and steal our wallets, is it?” cracked the other, waggling his eyebrows.
"No, but watch out for my Mama’s stuffed cabbage,” I said with a wink. “From that you might die and go to heaven."
"How about your borscht?" asked the first.
"It’s so good, they say it can’t be beets!”
The Howard brothers took off chuckling and I asked Mr. Elliot why they seemed so friendly now when they’d been on the verge of killing each other earlier. He explained that they’d been fighting all ten years they’d been headliners, a word I’d never heard before.
“A headliner’s the most talented act on a bill, Sophie,” Mr. Elliot said as he walked me back to my parents’ restaurant.
“A bill? The headliners have to pay to sing?”
“No,” he smiled. “The audience pays at the door—we call that the “gate” in show business lingo—and then all of the performers get paid a different share. Me, I make a little for playing the piano. But a star like Nora Bayes? She makes a pretty penny.”
As we walked through Hartford, I asked question after question about how Vaudeville worked and Mr. Elliot patiently explained each foreign term, like “marquee.” Thankfully, that was different than the Marky who sat next to me in grammar school. The only show he could headline was the Breaking Wind Spectacular. I’d never heard of a “chaser” either, which is what Vaudevillians called the act that followed the headliner. They were usually the worst act on the bill, who sang off-key or told rotten jokes to clear the theater so the ushers could clean the aisles before the next show.
"The best guy’s not last? So it’s the opposite of a baseball lineup?” I asked.
“Sorry, Sophie. I could tell you all about what drives headliners, but I don’t know a thing about line-drivers.”
As the weeks went by that fall, Mr. Elliot and I developed a close friendship. He taught me all about Vaudeville and in exchange I explained the suicide squeeze. The things I learned from him that year—how to put over a song, how to project—I still use today. Mr. Elliot could’ve been a real road musician but with a wife and two young babies, he decided to stay put. That’s how he ended up my music teacher. To make some extra money and satisfy his sweet tooth for show biz, he would occasionally fill in at Poli's Theater. When he ran into me, he remembered the excitement of developing a new act. Mr. Elliot helped ignite my ambitions with a little of his own gasoline.
"If you really want to have a shot at going to the top," Mr. Elliot told me, "you have to eat, sleep and breathe show business. There's no room for a personal life. It has to be one or the other."
Boy, was he right. I should’ve embroidered that on a hanky and kept it in my pocket every day as a reminder.
After choir practices, we would spend a few minutes each day working on the latest popular song. By the time winter rolled around, my repertoire had dramatically increased and my tips had doubled at the restaurant. I nagged Mr. Elliot to let me do a solo in the Christmas recital and by Thanksgiving I’d worn him down. When the big night came, the school was packed with parents, family, teachers and Mr. Ames. The entire choir was happy to perform, but no one was more excited than me. It was to be my first headlining slot, with a secret number Mr. Elliot and I had worked out.
My excitement edged into nervousness when I peeked out into the audience and saw my first packed house. That’s an awful lot of peepers pointed in your direction. The crowd at Riverside Park had been more interested in their picnics and their wandering children than in me and my shortnin’ bread.
Mr. Elliot must have sensed my apprehension as he approached me with a small bag in his hand.
"I don't feel so good. Mr. Elliot,” I said. “I think I've got those caterpillars you told me about."
"Not caterpillars. Butterflies! Don’t worry about them—I’ve got a little present to help calm your jitters,” he said, handing me the bag.
I opened it and found a juicy sour dill pickle. My friends know me, and they know me well.
I don’t remember most of the songs we sang that night, but one of them was definitely “Silent Night.” In hindsight, having a choir chock full of Jewish kids singing about yon virgin mother and child was a real hoot. The only other time I’d ever heard the name Jesus Christ was when Sammy the Socket folded at the poker table.
Right before we started the last song of the night, Mr. Elliot turned to our audience and said a few words.
"Our final song is going to feature a solo by Miss Sophia Abuza. Truth be told, Sophie would not be in the choir tonight if it wasn't for our principal. He recognized her talent and sent her to our first practice. So Mr. Ames, on behalf of Sophie, me, and the whole choir, we want to wish you and everyone else here a merry Christmas."
Then he sat down at his piano and played the introduction to “Jingle Bells.” We sang along like usual until right before the first chorus. That was my cue to step to the edge of the stage.
After belting my note to the back of the room for an ear-splitting five seconds, instead of moving on to the second verse, Mr. Elliot and I broke into one of the most popular songs of the day.
Hello my baby
Hello my honey
Hello my ragtime pal
Send me a kiss by wire
Baby my hearts on fire
If you refuse me
Honey, you'll lose me
Then you'll be left alone
Oh baby, telephone
And tell me I'm your own
As I held my note for the second time, I looked around the room and everyone was smiling with anticipation. Well, almost everyone. Over the back of a chair in the third row, I could just make out the top of tiny Principal Ames’s head turning bright red with rage. I made an executive decision to limit my lashings and launched back into “Jingle Bells.”
The next day I got called down to the principal's office and ate crow for our little stunt at the recital. I don’t know if Mr. Elliot got in trouble but I took credit for the whole idea. True to T-Bone’s commandments, I would never screw a friend. As Mr. Ames swatted my behind with his infamous paddle, I hummed a few bars of “Hello My Baby” and hoped my future performances got better reviews.
So, when the Chairman of the Board said I had a set of balls, I took it as a compliment. I earned those fair and square. My tuchus had the bruises to prove it from Christmas all the way until New Year’s Day, 1901.
“Hello My Baby” is a Tin Pan Alley song written in 1899 by the famous team of Howard and Emerson (Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson). It was the first popular song to refer to the telephone. The song was first recorded by Arthur Collins at Edison Phonographic Studios. The tune features similar rhythms to the short piano piece "Le Petit Nègre" by Claude Debussy from 1909.