Sunday, March 4, 2012

Schmoozing with a brash, bawdy singer

Linda Myer plays Sophie Tucker at the Actors Studio.
Sophie Tucker is on the bubble, historically, remembered as a brash and bawdy belter, a nightclub performer with a swagger and a repertoire of, well, playfully nasty songs filled with winks and double entendres. She was the self-styled Last of the Red Hot Mamas, performing in the heyday of the Vaudeville era in the early 20th century to the dawn of the rock age — in clubs, on the circuit, even on the big screen. But her historical profile these days is thinner than the physical, her girth, which, for better or worse, was another big part of her persona. A lot of people have heard her, but few know much about her. That she was a nice Jewish girl, an emigre from the Ukraine. Who was married and divorced three times. Who abandoned her family, which included her young son, to chase after a career, a dream. Who "made it" in blackface, racist but accepted in the day. Who was forced to go that route because club owners and talent handlers decided she was “so big and ugly" that they had to "black her up," says Linda Myer, who brings “Schmoozing with Sophie: Last of the Red Hot Mamas," her one-woman show about Tucker to the Actors Studio next week, black culture being the only one where such an, um, voluminous, talent would be accepted, or so the thinking went. 
Myer grew up in snowbelt goliath Chicago and claims, proudly, to be unimpressed by New England winters in general. She came to the area to work in publishing, but ended up in theater. After years working in straight theater, she developed a historical niche, performing two characters — Amelia Earheart and, later, Abigail Adams, who would lead tours along the Freedom Trail. Several years ago, she decided to launch a second tour, this one about the Jewish community in the North End. That's when she discovered the Tucker connection:  After emigrating from the Ukraine at the turn of the century, the family settled in a thriving Jewish community on Salem Street, before moving to Hartford, where the family opened a restaurant — which is where Tucker first started singing. About eight years ago, Myer decided the singer needed to tell her own story. "I wanted to do more with it," she says. "“I was very much drawn to her rags to riches story. She broke with her orthodox upbringing. She lived her own life the way she wanted. With perseverance and raw talent, she broke into the business. She didn’t fit the mold. She had a strength of purpose, a strong work ethic and a great sense of herself and life." She became a role model for the brash, brassy types like Ethel Merman and Bette Midler.

Myer acknowledges that the singer’s story may shock contemporary audiences: She skipped out in the middle of the night, leaving her young son behind, telling her family that she was, essentially, taking a mental health day, going to visit cousins in New Haven, but her intention was to not come back, to make it in show biz. And she did, paying her dues in dives and other less-than-glamorous venues to eventually land in the Ziegfeld Follies. “To modern eyes, that’s hard to accept,” Myer says, “but that’s all part of the immigrant experience," where you throw yourself into it, being lost to your family, but building a future for them. Her drive made her a success. She helped her family struggle, which was living on the edge of poverty. She helped bankroll her brother’s law school and paid for her son’s boarding school.
The show is set in 1928, right about mid-career for Tucker, and the height of her success, a time when show business was changing, the advent of the talkies being the leading edge of the decline of vaudeville. She tells tales of trouping days, risqué stories from her club act, poignant memories of the sacrifices she made to give her family the American dream. She would schmooze, sing a few of her favorite songs, including "The Man I Love,” "Some of These Days," a huge hit, theme song and title of her autobiography, and, for select audiences, specifically those who she thought could deal with the Yiddish, "My Yiddishe Momme."

JUST THE FACTS, MA: Linda Myer will stage “Schmoozing with Sophie: Last of the Red Hot Mamas" at 8 p.m. March 9, and 3 p.m. March 10 at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., Mill #1, Suite #5, at the Tannery. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors. For reservations, or more information about the show, call 978.465.1229 or log on at For more information about Myer, call Historical Entertainment at 781.234.8803.

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