I got a note the other day from my old friend Brian O’Connell, formerly the National Chairman of the Shriners. We met back in 1918 when he was looking for some saucy entertainment for his five thousand brothers at their national convention in Philadelphia. Brian heard about me through George LeMaire, a buddy from my earliest days in Vaudeville.
I used to conduct all my business meetings at Reuben’s Deli over an original Reuben sandwich.
Sophie’s caricature is in the top right-hand
corner of the cover of Reuben’s menu
The day Brian met me I’d just come from a killer show at the Palace where the audience demanded six curtain calls. Even so, his disposition was as cheery as mine. I liked him from the get-go. Brian had been authorized by the Shriners to offer me $5,000 for one night's entertainment. It was a good thing I’d inherited a decent poker face from Papa, because that was my salary for a week’s worth of engagements at the time. Still, I knew not to accept an opening bid.
In 1918, Sophie Tucker was bigger than the Beatles are today. I often needed a police escort to get to my gigs. Magazines even wrote about my hairstyles—my up-do was the mop top of ragtime! Five grand was a great offer but I was a hot commodity and I wanted something no other woman had ever earned, even beauties like Nora Bayes.
I demanded to be installed as the first and only honorary Lady Shriner in the United States.
Brian chuckled through his Reuben and extended a sauerkraut-covered hand. It was a deal.
It was a long road to that $5,000 Philadelphia payday from the German Village rathskeller and I couldn’t have gotten there without George LeMaire. When I found out the beer hall era was winding to an end, I put out feelers to every theater actor, producer, soft-shoer, juggler, piano player, and joke-teller I’d ever met. When George came into my rathskeller one night for a few pints and some tunes, I recognized him from around Tin Pan Alley and sent him drinks on the house, hoping for a lead that would land me on the circuit. LeMaire was well lubricated by the time my set was finished and I introduced myself. He was still a struggling comedian then, though at that moment he was mostly struggling to stay on his barstool.
"Guess what, Sophie?” he slurred.
"I give up."
"There's going to be open auditions at a Vaudeville theater up on 108th Street and Broadway. They only pay twenty-five bucks a week, but it’s the real deal," he said with a hiccup so forceful it nearly knocked him to the ground. I grabbed him up by his collar and kissed him right on his boozy lips.
Sophie and George LeMaire were in many shows
together, including the Pepper Box Revue in 1923.
I took the whole next day off to visit my pals in Tin Pan Alley and pick up three new songs, which I sang as quietly as I could on the subway up to 108th Street. It sounded like someone had muted a bullhorn, but I didn’t mind the stares.
I’d spent months winning over drunks so surly they couldn’t pay a hooker to be nice, but I’ll admit walking into that theater made me shake right down to my bones. I jiggled like a Jello mold all the way down the aisle to sign up for my slot, but thankfully I heard a familiar voice as I was writing my name on the sheet.
“Hey, Chicken Fat Girl! How’s our favorite waitress?” hollered Eugene Howard. The brothers enveloped me in a hug. It was no sour dill but it did the trick to help calm my nerves.
"Are you here to audition? We’re booked here all week,” said Willie, "I’m headlining. Eugene is just trying to break in his new dog act."
"He’s right. I’ve replaced this shmegegge on stage with a Great Dane. He smells better and never piddles on my shoes, like some people,” answered Eugene. They swore up and down they’d put in a good word to the manager on my behalf.
“Thanks boys,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to visit the powder room and lose my lunch.”
“That’ll be the first time a lunch ever got away from you!” Willie yelled after me.
It felt like there were a hundred acts auditioning that day and they were all over the theater pacing and reciting, sitting and singing, juggling pins over the heads of waltzing couples who were rehearsing their steps for the umpteenth time. The theater manager, Mr. Brown, stuck me at number forty-eight, so for the next four hours I watched every svelte girl on the island of Manhattan warble a little tune. They were lovely, but so indistinguishable it was like someone unfolded a string of paper dolls across the stage.
One of the few standouts of the afternoon was an acrobatic family act with a young boy so funny he made your sides hurt. He had a punum you couldn’t forget. In fact, no one ever did. Little Buster Keaton went on to be one of the most famous faces in the history of Hollywood.
Buster Keaton, one of the biggest stars of silent film.
After a few more wispy girls singing weepy songs, a distinguished-looking gentleman set up an odd triangular contraption that looked like a staircase, with five steps on each side. He wiggled it a few times to make sure it was stable and then gave a nod to the piano player. What followed was a flurry of tap steps up and down those stairs that grew so fast by the end of his act you could hardly see his feet. Everyone in the audience forgot he was our competition and we all held our breath, equally entertained and terrified he was going to break his neck. We applauded wildly when he tapped off the stage, and for years to come audiences continued applauding Bill Robinson, also known as Bojangles. His pal Shirley Temple might’ve had the dimples, but he had the feet.
By eleven o’clock they’d made it through forty acts and there were still a few singers, a comedian who was close to tears with anxiety, and a handful of other performers before my turn. The poor schmuck on the audition sheet before me was a juggler so bad that people assumed he was actually a clown. As he broke egg after egg, though, we realized it wasn’t an act. Selfishly, I was thrilled to be going on after anyone as long as it wasn't another beautiful nightingale.
"Okay, everybody, that's it for tonight,” announced Brown. I jumped to my feet.
"What do you mean?" I screamed. "I'm next. I've been sitting here for five hours! I gave up twenty bucks in tips to be here tonight."
"Well, I’m tired and I want to go home. Come back in a month."
I stormed down the aisle and strode up onto the stage, fists clenched.
"Listen, I’m the girl the Howard Brothers told you about. I've waited eight years for this. Let me sing one song and I'll treat you to a cab and tuck you in." There was an uncomfortable silence while Mr. Brown weighed his options: one more song, or trying to move my ample derriere off the stage himself.
Reluctantly, he took his seat. I gave the piano player my music and stepped to the front of the stage. I may not have been pretty or thin, but after all of my performances at the German Village, I knew exactly what kind of a song would pep up a tired crowd.
The piano player jumped to life and I belted out the debut performance of Irving Berlin’s “The International Rag” into the cheap seats and beyond. I’m pretty sure the girls down on 41st Street and even my family at home in Hartford could hear me loud and clear. There was a stunned silence after my last note rattled the chandeliers.
"Make sure the paint is still on the walls,” Brown said to his assistant. “Then get this broad a contract.”
"Thank you Mr. Brown!” I said, beaming. “You won't be sorry.”
"What's your name?"
"Sophie Tuck, sir," I said quickly, still out of breath from my performance.
"Sophie Tucker?" repeated Brown. “Has a nice ring to it. But we’re gonna have to black you up. You’re so big and ugly I can’t have you scaring the crowds.”
I kept my trap shut. If he liked Sophie Tucker, Sophie Tucker I would be, and Sophie Tucker didn’t have a problem with covering her face in black (or any other shade of) grease paint in order to get on the circuit. Sophie Tuck, on the other hand, felt the sting. I’d been imagining myself as the next Nora Bayes when this Brown guy saw someone that belonged in the funny papers. It was hard to dwell on my hurt feelings when, at the same time, I was so thrilled to have finally made it into Vaudeville.
It was a different world back then. A man like Brown could make you paint your face and you’d do it because you needed the break and audiences ate it up. On the flip side, Bojangles was a headliner, but even a bottom-feeder like me got a better dressing room than he did simply because he was black.
After I got the job, George LeMaire taught me how to swap my Yiddish accent for a Southern one, and managed to hide a fat girl like me inside an even bigger cartoon. Under my breath, I swore to myself I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life singing with shoe polish on my mug.
Sophie in burnt cork and long black gloves for her first Vaudeville job.
I was placed third on the bill on the five and ten cent New England circuit, where the headliner was a singer named Valeska Suratt, a former opera star who was well past her prime. Curtis, our manager, gave me only two instructions when I got to the Main Street Theater in Springfield, Massachusetts. First, I’d have six minutes on stage and not a second more. And second, I was never, ever to speak to Miss Suratt. Not a hello, not a thank you, not a glance in her direction.
It turned out Springfield was a great Vaudeville town with a faithful Monday audience, the folks who wanted to be the first to see the week’s new acts. Monday’s matinee was crucial to us troupers, because if we got a big reception the word of mouth would drive up the gate all week, which would result in a good report to the main office. I was raring to go and I can tell you this: no one slept through the third act that day. I’d been practicing for this since I was singing for penny candy from John Sudarsky’s papa and sure enough, the crowd went wild for me. My six minutes were through, though, and I knew the rules so I stood in the wings and ate it up. All of a sudden Curtis was standing next to me, out of breath.
"Get out there and sing your last song again!"
"But I thought..."
"Just get out there before there's a riot!"
Curtis moved me to the fifth spot for the night show. On Tuesday I was the closing act before intermission. I opened the second half on Wednesday, and I got an official waiver for the encore rule. I couldn’t believe how well things were going as I got ready for the Thursday matinee, when I turned around to find Valeska Suratt staring at me while I put on my makeup.
“Are you the new girl everyone’s raving about?” she rasped, her eyebrows arched.
My throat clenched shut.
"Did they tell you not to talk to me?” she asked. “What else did they say?”
"Not to look you in the eye, ma’am,” I said, politely addressing her shoes. I had watched Suratt's act twice a day for three days, trying to learn all I could. She had an interesting way of moving her hands in time to her music that made the crowds hang on her every gesture. At the end of her songs, no matter what the reaction, she would take one bow and walk off like Cleopatra. Once in the wings, Suratt continued her regal strut all the way to her private dressing room. She never acknowledged anyone backstage.
“First of all, you can look at me. And second, call me Val," she said with a smile, and stuck out her hand.
"Okay, Val," I croaked. “Nice to meet you. You can call me Sophie.”
My new pal Val turned out to be as sweet as a piece of pie from Landi’s Bakery. I could hardly believe my luck when she even offered to watch my act and invited me back to her dressing room after the matinee for pointers. She greeted me in a silk robe that was finer than any piece of clothing I’d ever seen on a broad out in the street. The walls of her dressing room were decorated with exotic scarves. Sparkling beaded gowns dangled from a lacquered folding partition. Suddenly, my one ratty stage dress felt about as fine as a horse turd in the middle of Park Avenue.
"Don’t worry, my dear. You’ll have your own dressing room like this someday. You really have a singular talent,” Valeska said, noticing my awe.
"You think so?"
"Yes, darling. There’s just one thing you really need to work on, and that’s your volume. I was sitting in the back row and I could hardly hear you!”
It was the first time in my life I’d ever been accused of being too quiet.
"This is a large theater with terrible acoustics. If you don’t sing louder than usual it will swallow up your voice and the last ten rows won’t hear a note.”
That night, I really cranked up the volume. I kept my eyes on the back of the house and when I finished it seemed like even the last row were on their feet, applauding wildly. A little extra volume did the trick.
“That was better, dear,” Val said backstage, giving me a pitying pat on the shoulder. “You’ll get the hang of it someday.”
I was crestfallen.
“The difference between a professional and an amateur is respect for the audience. Tonight I watched you from the last row of the balcony and I could hardly hear you. You have to dig deep down and scream those lyrics so every single seat gets its money’s worth, Sophie. They paid to see you! Give them what they came for, or you’ll never be a headliner!” she boomed dramatically.
On Friday, no one in the United States missed my performance. My ribs hurt from the lungfuls of air I had to take in and expel, like a human accordion. And Val was right; the crowds were delirious with joy. I was trying to think of a way to repay her for the kindness she’d shown me when I got word from Curtis that she’d moved on to St. Louis. It was rare for a headliner to leave before the customary week engagement was up, but the booking agency wanted Suratt on the Mississippi circuit by Monday. She’d left me a final parting gift, though, by suggesting to Curtis that I take her headlining spot on Saturday.
I couldn't believe I’d climbed from a number three act to closing in just six short days. Only me and God had accomplished so much in a single week. I was even allowed to use the headliner's private dressing room and, even though Valeska’s decorations were gone, her perfume lingered in the air and I breathed it in, feeling just a little bit regal. While I was waiting to go on, I nervously passed the time in my dressing room playing solitaire and kvelling.
Curtis came shortly before the end of the show to escort me to the side of the stage, where the other acts had gathered to wish me luck. I was too nervous to respond but I gave everyone a quick hug, straightened my dress, and bounced out on stage. I waved to the audience and surveyed their smiling faces. The excitement was so electric throughout the whole theater Ben Franklin would’ve tried to fly a kite in the aisle. The orchestra vamped and I took a deep breath, my whole body winding up like a pitcher ready to hurl my song up to the balcony.
Nothing came out.
The conductor sensed a problem and played my intro again, but I had completely lost my voice. I looked to the side of the stage hoping to see Val. I needed my coach to get me through every performer’s worst nightmare. I didn’t have a clue what to do. Curtis waved frantically from the wings and I walked off the stage and back to my dressing room in complete silence. I was humiliated.
"Bad luck, Soph,” said Curtis, after he’d sent out the jugglers for one more performance in my spot. “That’s not the least of it, either. Your contract says you have to give twelve full performances to get your week’s pay. You only gave ten.”
I put my head down on the make-up table.
"If it was up to me Soph, I'd pay you. But they’d can me in no time. I’m sorry," he said and turned to leave. “Oh, and I almost forgot. Miss Suratt wanted me to give you this envelope after your last show.”
He left me alone and I allowed myself to hope that perhaps Val had saved me one last time, maybe giving me a small portion of her headlining share of the week’s take for stepping in at the last minute. I opened the envelope and suddenly everything was clear as crystal. The piece of stationary only had six words on it.
I had to give the old snake credit. Her plan was so subtle I’d been completely blind to it. She'd had it in for me since my first encore, kindly coaching me to sing louder and louder each night until I blew a gasket, even handing me the headlining spot to make my humiliation particularly painful.
I learned one of the most important show business lessons that day, which wasn’t about projecting or stage presence or costuming or confidence or winning a crowd or any other tip of the trouper’s trade. I finally understood the real value of an old chestnut: don’t get mad, get even.
Years and years later, my buddy Brian O’Connell kept his word and I was inducted as the first honorary female Shriner in the whole United States at that big Philadelphia convention. Just like all of the other brothers, I learned the secret handshake, drank six successive beers, ate a smorgasbord of vile things, and took the Shriner oath. My favorite bit was the part where I had to promise not to cheat on my wife—instead, I asked for the telephone number of every handsome unattached Shriner who’d sworn the same thing. I earned my red Fez and gave my special “salaam” to the assembled brotherhood.
Once my initiation was complete, I was shown to my dressing room to warm up for my performance while the boys had their dinner. The bill that night included a slate of reports from the chairmen of various committees, a performance from an opening act, and then I would close out the night with a set of my bawdiest tunes. Because Brian had been so gracious about my lady Shriner induction, I offered to take care of the opening act for him and called my pal William Morris to make the arrangements.
By then I had been a headliner for five years but the thrill of the knock that announced I was needed in the wings still gave me goosebumps. I grabbed one of my beautiful purple scarves and went to wait for my introduction. When I got to my appointed spot, the opening act was winding down. There was a smattering of applause and she headed toward me.
“Lovely job,” I cooed. “Really great stuff. You know, I’m doing some new tunes tonight. Would you mind listening to my act and telling me what you think?”
Valeska Suratt, a good deal older and not much wiser, looked at me blankly. She didn’t have a clue who I was.
“It would be a pleasure,” she said coldly.
With that, I went out and murdered the joint.
"How was that?" I asked her when I ran off the stage. The Shriners were applauding their hands off and stomping on the ground.
"They're still applauding. Go out and do another number,” she advised.
"Do you think so?" I said, feigning surprise.
"Of course," she clipped.
This went on for six returns. When the Shriners had finally exhausted themselves and my catalog, I retired to my dressing room with Valeska in tow.
"That was something, wasn't it Val?"
"I should say so. I've never seen anyone earn six encores before."
"Thank God I asked your permission this time, right?” I said, clapping her on the back and hooting with laughter. Her face turned as red as a boiled beet.
"You rotten bitch!" she spat, pulling her spindly old arm back for a jab. She missed, but I didn’t. I landed one of Mama’s uppercuts square on her jaw.
"Take her to her dressing room, boys, and leave this on her lap for when she comes to,” I said, handing a Shriner an envelope with her pay for the night, minus the twenty-five dollars she owed me for my first Vaudeville week. Inscribed on the outside of the envelope were five choice words of my own: “Don’t get mad, get even.”
I would’ve given anything to see her face when she woke up and found the note, but I had five thousand suitors waiting for me in the auditorium.
Sophie Tucker’s bawdy repertoire was in full swing by 1928. A classic Tucker number filled with double entendres is “Oh, You Have No Idea,” with music by Dan Dougherty and words by Phil Ponce.
Audiences adored Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his understated style of tap, which relied on his busy feet and expressive face and seldom incorporated his upper body. He began dancing at the age of five and had joined a travelling company by the time he was twelve. Bojangles was a star in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, but was best known for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s.
Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton was famous in the silent film era for his physical comedy and deadpan expression, which earned his nickname "The Great Stone Face.” Keaton's The General has been called the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.
In 1913, Irving Berlin accepted an invitation to perform in London. He called a press conference shortly after his arrival. He made the mistake of admitting to the press that he could neither read nor write music, so he offered to compose a song on the spot with any title the journalists suggested. He tapped out the melody with one finger—and soon the public was reading that he could not play the piano, either. In a panic, Berlin went back to his hotel to compose a new song to open his show.
He wrote all night and, when neighboring hotel guests complained about his piano playing, he filled the piano with towels to muffle the sound. He completed “That International Rag” by sunrise and the new song and Berlin’s show received rave reviews. Sophie introduced the song to Vaudeville a few months later but never recorded it. Instead, it appeared as a number in the 20th Century Fox film Alexander’s Ragtime Band , the 1948 MGM film Easter Parade, and in 1953's Call Me Madam.
This recording of Sophie singing “The International Rag” comes from a CBS special radio show tribute to Berlin on August 3, 1938. You will also hear Al Jolson accompanying Tucker.