The outrageous Sophie Tucker, praised and preserved

From the set of 1934’s “Gay Love,” shot in London, England. The pianist is Ted Shapiro, Tucker’s accompanist from 1922-1966. Courtesy The Sophie Tucker Project

From the set of 1934’s “Gay Love,” shot in London, England. The pianist is Ted Shapiro, Tucker’s accompanist from 1922-1966. Courtesy The Sophie Tucker Project

BY TRAV S.D. (travsd.wordpress.com) | When the popular entertainer Sophie Tucker passed away in 1966 at the age of 79, she was an international institution. A contemporary of Al Jolson’s, her career had lasted 60 years, spanning three generations.

Both the Marx Brothers and the Beatles made jokes about her in their acts; in both cases they were making topical (and local) humor (she was as popular in the UK as she was in the US). The cracks were about her voluminous girth, unusual in female performers in that or any time. (Kate Smith and Mama Cass were among the later ones with this attribute).

Tony Bennett called her “one of the most underrated jazz singers who ever lived.” Michael Feingold called her “a pioneer of vocal syncopation.” Equally identified with big weepie numbers like “After You’ve Gone” and “Some of These Days,” and sexy, sassy double entendre songs like “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” and “The Angle Worm Wiggle,” Tucker was to become one of the highest paid, most sought after entertainers of her day: queen of vaudeville, night clubs, concert halls, radio and record albums. And an idol to Jews everywhere.

Yet, not long after her passing, pop culture largely forgot her. But one important show business figure remembered. To Bette Midler, she always remained a major hero. In a 1973 concert at Ithaca College in upstate New York, Midler spoke in glowing terms about Tucker to the audience. This intrigued a young couple who attended the concert together on their first date, and soon became married: Susan and Lloyd Ecker.

It is safe to say the Eckers became obsessed with Tucker and her legacy. So much so that when they made a fortune at an online business a couple of decades later, they retired early and decided to devote their lives and their treasure to raising the public’s awareness of Sophie Tucker.

The first fruits of this project, launched last year, included a website (sophietucker.com) and a book, “I Am Sophie Tucker: A Fictional Memoir.” Since May, they have been touring the country with their new documentary film “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” — which opens at Cinema Village on July 24. And much like Richard Attenborough in “Jurassic Park,” they have “spared no expense.” The late record producer Phil Ramone was executive producer on the project. To direct the picture, they hired William Gazecki, best known for the critically acclaimed and controversial “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” (1997). The result is anything but monstrous — in fact, it’s quite terrific.

At the center are the Eckers themselves, who drew from Tucker’s 400 scrapbooks (which reside at NYU and Brandeis) to tell the story. The Eckers are talking heads in the film, alongside such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters, Carol Channing, Shecky Greene, Paul Anka, Connie Stevens, Tony Martin, Mickey Rooney, Brenda Lee, Kaye Ballard, Joe Franklin and (inexplicably) Mamie Van Doren. For some reason, Michael Feinstein is identified in the lower third as “music historian.” Well, sure, but that’s a bit like calling Houdini a “magic historian.” The man knows his applesauce, but don’t most of us regard him primarily as an entertainer?

Sophie Tucker, circa 1947, signs her autobiography (“Some of These Days”) after a nightclub appearance. Courtesy The Sophie Tucker Project.

Sophie Tucker, circa 1947, signs her autobiography (“Some of These Days”) after a nightclub appearance. Courtesy The Sophie Tucker Project.

In addition, we get insight from several other scholars and historians, and family members (grand-nephews and nieces mostly) and lots and lots of commentary from Ms. Tucker herself from countless interviews done with her in later years. She speaks to us a lot throughout the film. Those 400 scrapbooks we mentioned were of course created by Tucker herself, allowing the filmmakers thousands of photos, theatre programs and similar ephemera to supply the visual element. In addition, Gazecki has enlivened the presentation with many clever animations of still photos, and even some hand tinting of black and white imagery. The documentary features clips from her very few film appearances, as well as television guest shots on programs like “The Jimmy Durante Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

There’s stuff to touch the heart here, too. A U.S. soldier in World War II had a plan to play his record of “My Yiddishe Momme” in the streets of Berlin as the allies marched in. But he was killed in action, so his buddies carried out his dream for him. And there was Tucker’s courageous decision to appear at Miami’s Copa City nightclub alongside Josephine Baker in 1951 to help her confront the climate of racist death threats. The heartbreak of three worthless husbands and one useless son. And yet the testimony of other relatives is heart-warming. Several in the film talk of playing cards with their famous “Aunt Sophie.” This must have been the early 1960s at the latest, and these relatives must have been children. Then it begins to dawn on you: this world famous woman loved her family so much that she spent time on her vacations playing games with her sister’s grandkids. I defy you not to fall in love with her.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is unrated, with a runtime of 96 minutes. Opens July 24 for a three-week run. Daily screenings at 12, 2:15, 4:30, 6:45 & 9 p.m. at Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St. btw. University Pl. & Fifth Ave.). The filmmakers will be doing a Q&A after every screening. More info at sophietucker.com, facebook.com/OutrageousSophieTucker, twitter.com/SophieTucker and sophietucker.tumblr.com.

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