By Mary M. Donohue
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2006
All Images courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.
The Pride of Hartford
As befitting a vaudeville superstar, Sophie Tucker (1884 – 1966) was born on the road—to Jewish parents fleeing persecution. Sophie Kalish Abuza made her entrance somewhere in Eastern Europe. Her family came to America when Sophie was just an infant, moving from New York City to Boston and, in 1896, to Hartford where the family opened a kosher restaurant at 189 Front Street in the city’s immigrant riverfront neighborhood. The restaurant’s menu offered a three-course dinner for a quarter, Sophie later remembered. Of the neighborhood, she recalled in Some of These Days (New York, Doubleday, Doran, 1945), “It was an exciting street for a kid: all kinds of people coming and going at all hours…We did a good business. Mama’s cooking got to be famous among the drummers [salesmen]and the show people who made Hartford.” Possessed of the vibrant personality and booming voice that would become her professional trademarks, young Sophie earned extra tips by singing to the customers.
Escape to New York
Sophie Abuza married at 16 and bore a son, but she soon took $100 of her savings and left her husband and young son to look for work as an entertainer in New York. With only her experience at Amateur Night at Poli’s Vaudeville House on Hartford’s Main Street, she began her career at the bottom of the bill, forced to perform in black face as a “Coon Shouter.” She was described by her first stage employer as “too big and ugly” to perform without full blackface costume. It’s almost impossible now to understand the appeal of white performers donning blackface and singing in a southern dialect, but this genre was extremely popular. When her luggage, which contained her blackface makeup and wig, failed to turn up in time for a matinee, she went onstage as herself. A success, she hit the big time in New York, becoming an headliner in vaudeville and burlesque shows. She recorded her trademark song “Some of These Days” in 1911 and began touring with her own band. Tucker shared billing with many of the 20th century’s most famous stars, including Will Rogers, Jack Benny, and Judy Garland, and she was invited to perform in London before the Royal Family.
What’s a Red Hot Mama?
Independent and proud of it, Tucker captivated audiences with her humorous, bawdy songs. A large woman, not conventionally beautiful, Tucker made her presence known with songs such as “You’ve Got To See Your Mama Ev’ry Night” and “You Can’t Deep Freeze a Red Hot Mama” as well as “I Ain’t Takin’ Orders From No One,” as noted in From Hester Street to Hollywood (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1983). Playing on her body image as “a lot of woman,” Tucker chose risque songs that demonstrated that women were very much interested in love and sex. She joined other female performers of her era such as Mae West and Bessie Smith in portraying assertive women who knew what they wanted. Equally adept at performing for stage, radio, records, film and television, she became known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”
More than a Pretty Face
With a career that spanned 60 years, Sophie Tucker also became known as the “First Lady of Showbiz,” notes Armond Fields in Sophie Tucker, First Lady of Show Business (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003). But she never forgot Hartford, returning regularly to visit her family. With her success, her earlier scandal was forgotten, and the Hartford community embraced her. In 1913 she had headlined at Hartford Poli Theater. The Hartford Courant described her “royal welcome”: “Immense audiences gathered…to greet [her]on her first appearance in her native city. Her many old friends…took advantage of every opportunity to make her feel that they were glad to see and hear her in the profession in which she has made a splendid name for herself.
Tucker became a generous philanthropist, most notably locally to the Hebrew Old People’s Home in Hartford (now the Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford), which her mother helped found, and to Emanuel Synagogue. Her obituary in The Hartford Courant noted, “Miss Tucker was more than a Red-Hot Mama; she had a mama’s love for people, and her memorial to her hard-working parents was always to remember other people in need.”
Sophie Tucker died in New York in 1966. She was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999.
The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford at 333 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford, will feature an online exhibition about Sophie Tucker in Fall 2020. Call (860) 727-6171 or visit jhsgh.org for more information.
Mary M. Donohue was the survey and grants director of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. An award-winning author, she has written several articles for HRJ, most recently “‘Hebrew Tillers of the Soil’: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers” in the Spring 2006 issue.
Listen to our Grating the Nutmeg podcast with music by Sophie Tucker! Episode 101
Read about Tucker’s mother and Jewish philanthropy: “The Handkerchief Brigade,” Fall 2015
Read more about Connecticut celebrities in Spring 2015