Before Melissa McCarthy, before Aretha Franklin, before Ethel Merman, even before Mae West, Sophie Tucker blazed a trail for every woman, zaftig or svelte, who ever wanted to be an entertainer her own way and on her own terms.
The woman who was born Sonya Kalish in Tulchyn, Russia (now Vinnytsia, Ukraine) in 1887 and who became best known as “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” earned her sobriquet over a 50-plus-year career with other titles like “Iron Lungs,” “Our lady Nicotine,” “The Girl Who Never Disappoints” and “The Tetrazzini of Ragtime.”
From busking as a child in her immigrant parents’ kosher restaurant in Hartford, Conn., at the turn of the 20th century, to appearances on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s, Tucker’s lifetime in the spotlight is the focus of the one-woman show, Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, which opens at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 on Nov. 19.
The show, which was created by Richard Hopkins, Jack Fournier and Kathy Halenda for the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota in 2000, has proven to be remarkably popular — it has been regularly produced around the United States and Canada since its debut, usually with Halenda playing the role she originated.
The show’s enduring appeal is especially impressive considering that its subject died in 1966, and whose importance and relevance have dimmed over the years. For Hopkins, the reason that audiences continue to come to his show is simple. “She was an extraordinary woman who encompassed the American dream,” he says. “She was an immigrant who came to America very young and very poor and who made it big.” Then and now, he says, “men like her because she is bawdy and salty, and women like her because she is very independent — and bawdy and salty.”
Hopkins learned about Sophie Tucker the way that so many of her latter-day admirers have: through the Divine Miss M. Bette Midler has long been a champion of Tucker’s groundbreaking hybridization of comedy, high-decibel, emotive singing, racy double-entendres and audience chit-chat. In addition to performing Tucker’s songs — and a few of her comedy bits — as a character named “Soph” in her own shows, Midler is said to have named her daughter, Sophie, in honor of Tucker.
Tucker became famous for her swagger and ability to turn songs like “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Some of These Days” into signature anthems that were — and still are — identified with her, no matter how old she was when singing them (she finished a stint at the Latin Quarter in New York City mere weeks before her death). But before the starring roles onstage and in the movies, before her own radio shows and television appearances, Tucker had a long, hard slog.
She left her family, including a newly divorced husband and a baby boy, in 1906 at age 16 to seek her fortune in New York City. Producers appreciated her pipes, but were so concerned that audiences wouldn’t go for her less-than-ideal looks that they put her in blackface and had her affect a Southern accent onstage. In 1909, she was hired by Florence Ziegfeld to be part of his Follies, but the other female performers refused to work with her. She was soon fired, but not before catching the attention of William Morris. Before he created his eponymous talent agency, Morris was a theater owner and nascent agent. He took her on as a client, and two years later, she recorded “Some of These Days,” the song that would make her a star for the next half-century.
Hopkins says that even though Tucker’s life was, well, larger than life, “it was not great for a play as a standard play; it needed to be approached more through the eyes of Sophie herself and her myth, and that meant more of a concert format.”
To do justice not only to Tucker’s persona but also her pipes, Hopkins brought in Halenda, who began singing in Baptist churches in her native Richmond, Va., when she was 5 years old. Halenda helped write her own part, she says, because she identified so closely with Tucker’s onstage comportment.
“She was a real broad,” Halenda emphasizes. “I’ve always been a broad, so I understand her courage, her spunk, and her inappropriate behavior.” She adds that after 13 years of inhabiting the role, she has come to understand Tucker in ways she never expected. “I used to feel sorry for her — she married and got divorced three times! But then, after having a 20-year marriage, I got divorced, and now I really connect to the pain in her songs. And my mother is 86 years old, so ‘My Yiddishe Mama’ means a lot to me now. The older I get the more I identify with her.”
Listening to Halenda, a former Baptist church choir singer, talk about identifying with the self-proclaimed “King-Sized Lollabrigida,” maybe Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas could be a long-overdue first step toward a renewed appreciation for what Tucker has meant to American popular music and culture.
IF YOU GO
Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas
Nov. 19-Dec. 29
Walnut Street Theatre’s
Independence Studio on 3
825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia
www.walnutstreettheatre.org;  215-574-3550