by Melanie Gall
The 2016 Rogue Festival is almost here. KRL will be featuring several Festival performer preview articles, plus an article on Rogue 2016 itself in the next couple of weeks. We will also be reviewing many of the shows once the Festival begins in early March, and we may even do some more video interviews. Check out our Rogue Performer event page for more information as it becomes available, and you can also check out the Rogue 2016 website.
When you hear the name Sophie Tucker, what comes to mind?
The eccentric older woman who appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show; the real-life subject of the tribute show that launched Bette Midler’s career; the famous vaudevillian who influenced Ethel Merman, Joan Rivers, and Carol Channing?
Or perhaps you haven’t heard of her at all. Which is a shame, really, because not long ago Sophie was the most famous of American musical entertainers. Her career spanned over 60 years, as she segued from vaudeville and burlesque, to music halls, radio, film, and finally, television. Sophie was continually reinventing herself and her act to stay new, exciting, and relevant.
Born in Russia to an Orthodox Jewish family, and growing up in Connecticut, Tucker seemed destined for a life of duty: to her parents, to her husband, to her little son, Albert. But she left it all, to seek fame and fortune in New York City. In 1907, respectable women didn’t just set out to the big city to work on the stage, but Sophie – not for the last time – completely flouted convention. She auditioned for an Amateur Night at a New York vaudeville theatre, but before the manager let her go on stage, he insisted that she was too “fat and ugly” to appear before a paying audience, and she would have to perform in blackface.
And Tucker’s career took off. She temporarily landed a position in Zeigfeld’s Follies (which lasted until the jealous headliner, Nora Bayes, issued an “It’s her or me!” ultimatum). Then Tucker went on to put together her own act, with original music, a wisecracking pianist, and an arsenal of off-colour and risqué jokes.
Ah, the risqué jokes! Even by today’s much less conservative standards, these jokes are funny, relevant, and incredibly naughty. And Tucker’s bawdy humour didn’t stop there. She also performed double-entendre songs, such as: “Makin’ Wicky-Wacky Down in Waikiki,” “He Hadn’t Up Until Yesterday (But I Bet He Will Tonight),” and “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.” These songs, as well as her other hits, “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” “Some of These Days,” and “My Yiddishe Mama,” spread Sophie’s fame across the world. During both World Wars she performed for the troops. She visited Buckingham Palace and sang for the King. Her onstage antics continually made national news.
Sophie Tucker toured in the Fresno area in the 1920s, and her show at the Strand Theatre in Dinuba sold out. When she died in 1966, the Fresno Bee ran a half-page tribute to this beloved star. A documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, was recently released about her life, and now Red Hot Mama: A Sophie Tucker Cabaret, is coming to the Fresno Rogue festival.
Red Hot Mama was written by Erik deWaal, South African storyteller and children’s performer. But this show – which mixes Tucker’s signature songs, banter, and bawdy humor – is definitely not for kids. The show stars international vocalist Melanie Gall, who has previously appeared at the Rogue Festival in The Sparrow and The Mouse, Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert, More Power to Your Knitting, Nell!, and In the Mood for Love. Melanie has toured Red Hot Mama across North America, where it sold out at a half-dozen festivals, and garnered awards and glowing reviews throughout.
Why should you go see Red Hot Mama? Well, there’s the music. These songs, many of them written nearly a century ago, are quaint, blushingly naughty, and charming – all at the same time! Red Hot Mama offers a funny, diverting evening of theatre, and the songs (along with the character of Tucker herself) represents an important piece of American musical history, one that shouldn’t be forgotten. And besides, as Sophie once sang with such gusto: “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong!”
Red Hot Mama will be performed at Mia Cuppa:
Friday, March 4 – 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 5 – 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 6 – 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 9 – 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 12 – 6:30 p.m.
Mia Cuppa Caffe’
Coffee Shop and Theater • Tower District
620 E Olive Ave
Fresno, CA 93728