Chapter 9

He’s a Good Man to Have Around

I knocked around New York City through the whole winter of 1907 doing twelve weeks in twelve different theaters and trying to figure out an angle to drop the blackface from my act. It wasn’t until the spring of 1908 that I got lucky and met an agent named Joe Woods. Joe asked if I was familiar with burly-q. I told him we hadn’t met, but I was good friends with his brother, barbeque. Joe rolled his eyes and explained that burlesque paid fifty bucks a week and would require some acting, so I lied through my teeth and told him I was practically a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. For fifty bucks a week, I’d figure it out later.

Burlesque back then wasn’t what it is today. The strippers didn’t come on the scene until well into the Thirties, but it was still a night of good, raw fun. You might go to a burlesque show and come out feeling a little hot under the collar, but you’d never hear a single four-letter word. The beauty of the burly-q was its cleverness. Sure, every joke might’ve been about sex, but they were so veiled you’d have to puzzle them out like a dirty riddle.

I reported to my new job on the Wheel, burlesque’s version of the Circuit, at the Bay Theater in Boston with instructions to find a man named Harry Emerson. He was the troupe leader and my first order of business was to convince him I would be better out of blackface, as myself. He insisted I continue painting on the burnt cork for at least a few months, but he did agree to put me in a little comedy skit he’d written.

“Woods told me you had a lot of acting experience," smiled Harry.

“I think you'll be pleasantly surprised," I assured him. Secretly I was praying we’d both be pleasantly surprised. At least Emerson had me slated to play his nagging wife, which seemed like an easy fit. Nagging a no-good husband was second nature for me.

I only had one line in the skit. To be more exact, I only had one word. For twenty-nine minutes and thirty seconds of a half-hour play, all of the actors in the scene feared my character’s arrival. Then, just as the curtain was about to drop, I made my entrance and screamed my husband’s name. I understood my role and why it was funny, but I was terrified I’d screw it up somehow. For all of the performing I’d done in my life up to that point, I’d never once had to act on stage. Sure, I painted my face and sang, but that wasn’t the same thing. It was just Sophie in a funny accent. There was no one depending on me to get my lines right at the right time.

This might sound crazy, but I stayed up for hours that night rehearsing my one word, which was “Frederick.” I tried it with two syllables. I tried it with three syllables. I shouted it into my pillow. I mimed it in the mirror. By rehearsal the next morning, I’d worked myself into a complete panic over my ability to land the stinking word. This was my “To be or not to be,” and my future on the Wheel was the question.

“Did you read the script?” asked Harry Emerson, taking his place on stage.

“You bet I did,” I assured him. “It’s a riot.”

“It’s supposed to be a drama,” he said, his face going cold.

R-really?” I quavered.

“Kidding!” he said, and slapped me on the back. “That’s what they call a zinger. Now let’s see if you can do the same thing.”

The actress I was replacing was nice enough to hang around for an extra rehearsal and Harry had the troop do the last five minutes of the play while I watched. Then, it was my turn. Everyone got back to their places and I stood behind the set door. When I heard my cue, I opened the door, stepped in and yelled my line. After a few seconds of silence, everyone applauded politely. Harry gave me an encouraging smile and had me do it again, but louder.

And again. And again. By take six, I was nearly in tears.

"You’ve got the volume,” Harry coached.

“Maybe I should try it with three syllables?” I guessed.

“No, hon, it's the attitude that needs work. You've got to make your entrance, say that name, and make the audience believe you are the biggest bitch that ever walked God’s green earth."

I thought I knew what he was getting at but I didn’t get it right the next time, or any of the ten times after that. Harry had to dismiss the rest of the cast to get ready for the matinee and told me to take a break while he talked to his assistant. It wasn’t hard to overhear him. The original actress had agreed to stay for the day’s performances to give me a little more time to rehearse, but if I didn’t get it right the next day I’d be out on my keister.

I got through my singing performances and went back to my hotel. Once again, I practiced all night until I collapsed in bed, hoarse from screaming. That night I dreamed I was being chased by an army of Cossacks named Frederick.

The next day I awoke early and snuck into the theater before any of the other performers arrived. I made my way to center stage and thought about the last two years I’d spent in makeup I didn’t want to wear, singing songs I didn’t want to sing, all to send money back to Mama who was convinced I was going to fail. I closed my eyes and pictured the sink at the restaurant full of dirty dishes. I saw Mama standing in a cloud of cabbage-smelling steam, yelling at me to hurry up and wash the pots so I could get home to Louis in time to cook him dinner. I pictured him grunting at me from behind his newspaper. Magically, I felt a thunderbolt of anger gather in my gut. I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and let out my line in a bloodcurdling scream.

I had, as they say in the business, found my motivation.

At the matinee, I recreated my scream and Harry was so surprised he nearly fell over in his chair. It was the biggest laugh the scene had ever gotten and I was, officially, an actress. I went home that night and instead of practicing my screams into a pillow, I decided it was time to introduce myself to a Vaudeville bigwig.

 

Dear Mr. Ziegfeld,

My name is Sophie Tucker. I am a seasoned closing singer and very experienced actress with the Harry Emerson burlesque troupe. I read in the papers that you are putting together another Follies this summer. If you need a Southern singer, I would be delighted to join your company.

I have enclosed my upcoming schedule if you would like to come and see me. I would also be happy to come visit you when I am in New York to audition my vocal ability. Just be sure to hide all your glasses before I arrive, because I don’t want to shatter what I am sure is very fine crystal.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Sophie Tucker

 

For the next six months I soaked up all there was to learn from Harry Emerson about burlesque. Many of those classic bits Abbott and Costello made famous on the radio and in the movies were actually old burlesque chestnuts, like the Susquehanna hats, the blackboard arithmetic and the Niagara Falls routines. After half a year with Harry Emerson I’d memorized both parts of every two-man comedy classic.

I also made a lot of lifelong friends, some of whom ended up in high places in the entertainment world. One night after a show in Boston we burly-q troupers went to a local actor’s hangout to blow off some steam and Harry, who had become my biggest booster, dragged me across the room to a table where a handsome woman was holding court.

“Hello, Ethel,” said Harry as we approached.

“Harry, you big blowhard!” shouted the woman. “How are things? Are you at the Bay Theater? We’re over at the Majestic in the dullest drama I’ve ever been paid to sleepwalk through. Who’s this young lady?” she asked, pointing her cigarette holder in my direction.

“Remember when you saw our show and you asked about the loud singer? This is her! Sophie Tucker, meet Ethel Barrymore,” said Harry.

Ethel Barrymore, 1908.

“Let me tell you,” chuckled Ethel to the rest of her table. “This girl has got a set of pipes that won’t quit. Now Harry, you know all these bums except for this one. He just hopped off the boat from England and you’re going to want to know his name. Say hello to Charlie Chaplin.”

Back then I was too green to know who I was talking to, but before I left town I made a point of going to see them both perform. I couldn’t take my eyes off Ethel when she was on stage. She was a force of nature. And Charlie, he was performing in a vaudeville show across town at the Lexington and I was one of the first people in the country to see his unforgettable drunk act. He would start in one of the upper boxes on the left side of the theater and then stumble, fumble and tumble through the audience, creating havoc wherever he stepped. He was a brilliant acrobat who could make the most athletic twists and turns look like they were coming from the clumsiest man alive.

No one was more delighted than me when Chaplin started to appear in films. It was a while before his true genius emerged, but the world was never the same after the Little Tramp took to the silver screen. I’m proud to say that he remained a fan of mine as well, and we kept in touch over the years to trade old dirty burlesque jokes.

Sophie, Oona Chaplin, and Charlie Chaplin with friends.

Eight months later, even after all of the friends I’d made and things I’d learned, Harry was still only allowing me to sing in blackface. I was so angry every day it was no picnic to be around me. I just wanted to go out on stage as myself. I knew I could get a bigger reaction being the real Sophie than with a bland Southern routine that audiences could see in any third-rate theater in the country.

Then, one day, everything changed. We were coming back to Boston from Pittsburgh and our train arrived three hours late. That meant we had only ninety minutes to get ready for our first matinee. We hustled off the train the moment we pulled into the station, crammed into a couple of horse-drawn cabs and took off toward the theater. Our trunks, props, and scenery would follow in a big flatbed cart.

While I waited for the luggage to arrive, I gossiped with a young man I knew from the last few times I’d played at that theater. Lazar Meir was a ticket taker and glorified gopher who’d become a buddy because I’d always tip him a whole dollar to deliver my trunk to my dressing room.

When the cart finally arrived with the trunks, the show was due to start in just thirty minutes. The backstage ballet of actors and stagehands when they’re under the gun is really something to see. It’s what mesmerized me that first day Mr. Elliot snuck me into Poli’s in Hartford. People move so quickly and so purposefully they look like an overwound cuckoo clock. We all darted into our dressing rooms and that’s when I realized everyone had their trunk but me.

"Lazar!" I screamed from my doorway.

"It's not on the cart!” Meir hollered back from down the hall.

"I’m not on for forty-five minutes! Go back to the station and find my trunk,” I yelled frantically. “My costume and makeup are in there!”

Harry overheard the commotion and began to sweat. He all but soaked his shirt through when Lazar came back forty minutes later and reported that my trunk was on its way to Portland, Maine.

“It must have had a craving for lobster,” I joked.

“You’ll have to go on in your street clothes,” Harry said, fanning himself with his hat.

“And do what?” I asked.

“Wing it,” said Harry, shoving me toward the stage.

“Wing it? What does that mean?”

“It’s burlesque for ‘Get the fuck out there, you’re on!’”

The conductor had been vamping my intro throughout the chaos, but I held up my hands when I got to center stage and he cut the music. Then, I addressed the audience in my perfect stage Southern accent.

“Ladies and gentleman, don’t look in your programs. I know y’all was expecting someone a hair darker than me.” The audience chuckled, confused. “Well, sirs and madams, here’s what happened. I’m Sophie Tucker, and they done lost my trunk. So I’m out here in my street clothes, without my make-up, and I’m in a pickle.”

The audience laughed again. I knew I was winning them over, as odd as it was to see a chubby Jew with a Negro stage accent.

“Here’s my dilemma, folks. Iffin I sing, you might not like me without my accoutrements. But iffin I don’t sing, this Mama isn’t gonna get her money. So can y’all do me a favor? I’m gonna sing, and when I do, please think dark thoughts. How ‘bout that?”

My act got four encores that night, which was my biggest response so far on the Wheel. Lazar got word that my trunk wouldn’t be back for two days and Harry gave me permission to do whatever I damn well pleased so long as the audiences went home happy.

I didn’t want to go out in my street clothes again, so the hardest part was going to be finding a costume. The other girls in the troupe were at least three dress sizes smaller than me so there was no hope that I could squeeze into one of their beautiful gowns and keep it in one piece. At least I still had my music case. I never let it out of my sight because you can always sing naked, but not if the orchestra is playing the wrong notes.

In between shows I went with Lazar to my favorite Boston delicatessen to brainstorm over blintzes. There had to be at least one pretty dress out there for a heifer like me. I sent Lazar to fetch a paper so I could see if Trixie Friganza was in town. She was the other pleasingly plump singer on Wheel, but it turned out she was clear across the country.

Trixie Friganza

As luck would have it, there was one actress I knew in town who might be able to save me. I raced with Lazar across town in a horse-drawn cab to the theater where Ethel Barrymore was performing. Me and my famous pipes talked our way backstage and she took pity on me. Ethel loaned me one of her beautiful black gowns and a pair of her high heeled shoes to match. At least we were the same height, even if she was a size or two smaller in the waist.

We raced back to the Bay and I recruited a couple of the waifs lower on the bill to cram me into my dress. The thing buttoned, but I couldn’t breathe, laugh, or bend any part of my body or the seams would explode from the stress of keeping me strapped in. The kicker was that this was the first time I’d ever worn high heels. The combined effect was like someone had stood a sausage on two four-inch toothpicks. I looked like a Hebrew National wiener in mourning but I was determined to make it work, come hell or high heels!

When it was time to take my place in the wings, I realized that the hem of my dress was so tight I couldn’t move more than a few inches with each step. Getting to the stage at my speed would take longer than traveling the entire Oregon Trail, so Lazar wheeled me on his hand truck over to the boys in the Harry Emerson Quartet, who were standing just offstage. I’d arranged a musical number with the barbershop group earlier that day and thanked my lucky stars that they were all burly men.

The lights went out and it was time for Operation: Salami Drop.

Sophie in a slightly roomier stage dress.

The bass and baritone joined hands to create a seat. The tenor and lead hoisted me by my arms and, when the lights came up, we shuffled out together, me swinging ever so slightly in my human hammock. They set me down center stage, I straightened myself out, and the boys took their posts.

The orchestra started and everything was going fine until I hit the end of the first verse. Over those twenty-four bars I’d managed to waddle all the way to the left side of the stage, but now it was time for the Herculean act of turning around. To make things worse, Ethel’s dress had an eighteen-inch train. When I spun to go in the opposite direction, the tenor didn’t realize he was standing on my dress and I landed flat on my caboose.

The audience went wild. They thought it was all part of the act.

“What’s so funny?” I said, as the orchestra vamped and the quartet struggled not to quar-wet themselves with laughter. “You try driving this dress in high heels!”

The four of them somehow got me up off the floor and pointed me toward the right side of the stage, and I shuffled slowly in that direction throughout my second verse. The baritone held my train and the alto scrurried ahead of me just in case I took a nosedive. The audience? They were having the time of their lives waiting for me to fall on my ass again.

At the end of the song I’d made it back to the center of the stage. For dramatic effect I had planned five sharp turns for my big finish, and the boys, knowing what was coming, looked at each other and braced for impact like the offensive line of a football team. The fellas bounced me back up to standing after each turn, thereby inventing the first human ping-pong act. It seemed like we pulled everything off until the final flourish, a kick, which sent all of us tumbling into a quadruple-decker Tucker sandwich. The audience wouldn’t stop applauding.

That was the end of blackface. It hadn’t gone exactly as I hoped but it all worked out for the best; if Ethel had eaten a few more sandwiches over the years and given me a dress that fit, I might not have realized that I was meant to be a comedian. Harry encouraged me to keep the dress and shoes in the act and taught me to fall so I wouldn’t end up covered in black and blues.

As for my missing trunk, the lovely Mr. Emerson gave me a $10 bonus to buy a new one because we sold out every show when word got around Boston that there was a girl with a falling act that was a riot. I gave five dollars of my windfall directly to little Lazar Meir. Right before we left for our next stop in New York City, Meir fetched my original trunk from his house, where we’d been hiding it the whole time. Stagehands are a dime a dozen, but it takes someone special to be an accomplice.

A couple of years later, Lazar changed his first name to Louie and his last from Meir to Mayer. He added a fancy middle initial when he took over MGM Studios. When I met Louie B. Mayer again in 1937 to sign my five-year movie contract in Hollywood, L.B. reminded the press about the fiver.

Louis B. Mayer, formerly Lazar Meir

"During those years," Mayer said, "it was the biggest tip I ever got. But Sophie was such a doll, I would have done anything she wanted for free."

Sure, that’s what he told the papers. But when he took me for $15,000 in a pinochle game a couple of weeks later, I demanded a five dollar refund. 

Extras

"After You've Gone" is a popular song composed in 1918 by Turner Layton, with lyrics by Henry Creamer. Besides her overwhelming comedic talent, Sophie had a knack for picking sentimental love songs that could highlight her vocal abilities.

William "Bud" Abbott and Lou Costello (born Louis Francis Cristillo) got their start in burlesque, but went on to be one of the most iconic comedy duos of the 1940s and early 1950s. The duo refined and reworked numerous burlesque sketches into comedy classics, with Abbott as the straight man and Costello as the buffoon. 

Bud and Lou made thirty-six films together between 1940 and 1956. Abbott and Costello were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Beginning late in 1952, a filmed half-hour TV series, The Abbott and Costello Show, appeared in syndication on local stations across the United States. The simple plot lines were often merely an excuse to recreate old comedy routines and other familiar set pieces from their films and burlesque days. The Abbott and Costello Show ran two seasons, but found an even larger viewership in reruns from the late 1960s to the 1990s.

Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin was a British comic actor, filmmaker, and worldwide icon of silent film. Raised in London, Chaplin's childhood was defined by poverty and hardship. He was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine; his father was absent, and his mother was committed to a mental asylum.

By 1908, Sydney, Charlie’s half-brother, had become a star of a prestigious London comedy company. He managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. On his first night at the London Coliseum, winning more laughs in his small role than the star, he was quickly signed to a contract. Soon after, Chaplin was given the lead in a new sketch and he received considerable press attention.  Within months Charlie was off to America's Vaudeville circuit.

Eventually Chaplin was scouted by the film industry and made his first appearances in 1914. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. By 1918, he was one of the most famous men in the world.

The video below is a small film scene compilation showing the comic genius of Charlie Chaplin.