Filming Sophie Tucker
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Filming Sophie Tucker

Rockland couple researches, tells story of the last red-hot mama

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Sophie Tucker

What most of us know about Sophie Tucker now is just little wisps of information – big, brassy, loud, vulgar, Yiddish-inflected. The last of the red-hot mamas – whatever, precisely, that might mean. A huge personality, a lost time.

As it turns out, Ms. Tucker was a complicated person under all that fa̤ade Рand a very good one.

Sue and Lloyd Ecker of Pomona, N.Y., entrepreneurs who have earned themselves the luxury of pursuing a dream, have shared a fascination with Ms. Tucker for decades and have devoted the last seven years of their lives to her. They have unearthed a trove of information and have worked on a documentary about her; they plan on screening a preview of that work in Suffern, N.Y., on April 6.

The Eckers are both exuberant, huge personalities themselves. Perhaps, to some extent, that explains their Sophie Tucker obsession. They take turns telling the story, interrupting, filling in omissions, adding color to each other’s already colorful narratives.

It started in 1973, Ms. Ecker said. “Lloyd and I were at Ithaca College together – he was an upperclassman, the chairman of the student activities board. A real big shot – a big man on campus.”

“I was 6’4″, and 132 pounds,” Mr. Ecker said. “And I was 5’2″, a little nothing,” Ms. Ecker added.

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Sue and Lloyd Ecker are sharing their fascination with the extraordinary life of Sophie Tucker.

“We went out on a date, and it turned out that it was a concert that he had arranged, with an up-and-coming singer named Bette Midler. She hadn’t been on the Johnny Carson show yet; she was on the verge, and her career took off right afterward.”

“I promised them that if they elected me, I would get them a big concert,” Mr. Ecker interjected.

“I was in the drama department, and I get to go on this first date sitting in the first row,” Ms. Ecker said. “And lots of people in my department were angry because they couldn’t get seats. And then Lloyd said excuse me, and the next second he was up on stage, introducing Bette Midler.

“And then we had dinner with her.”

All this is relevant because Bette Midler “does a shtick about Sophie Tucker in all her concerts. She tells Sophie Tucker jokes – very raunchy, very bawdy,” Mr. Ecker said. It piqued their interest.

Sue and Lloyd got married in 1975 and had three children. They went into business selling maternity items for fathers-to-be; it was not a niche begging to be filled, but their hats, shirts, and mugs appealed to many buyers. Next, they made money but bored themselves with credit card machines, and then “someone showed me this newfangled thing called the internet,” Mr. Ecker said. “He said, ‘If you can show me how to put this question on the internet – Do you know a mother or father who would like to get free stuff for the baby? – we would make a lot of money.'” (“I’m a serial entrepreneur,” Mr. Ecker said.)

They boned up on the internet quickly, and figured it out. It paid off. “Eighteen months later, we got an offer for $23 million,” Mr. Ecker said. So he sold the business. “I came home that day after I signed the deal – that was December 20, 2006 – and I walked into the sofa.

“And then I said, ‘Okay, Sue, here’s the check. What do you want to do now?’ And she said, ‘I want to have dinner with Bette Midler again.'”

But not so fast. Mr. Ecker decided that there were some intermediate steps to take. Given the Eckers, not surprisingly, they were big ones.

“I said, why don’t we find out who this Sophie Tucker is, and we will do a full-blown documentary, and after that we will write a book, like a fictitious memo, and then we will take it to some Hollywood studio, and it will have a big part for Bette Midler, and she will win the Academy Award, and then – we’ll have dinner with Bette Midler.”

They began their research on the internet. They found that Ms. Tucker had written an autobiography; it was out of print, but eventually they tracked down a copy. There had been two biographies of her, and in one they learned that she had donated 400 scrapbooks to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “We went on my birthday – in August 2006 – and they gave us one to read,” Mr. Ecker said. “And as soon as we read the first one, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is a treasure trove.’

“She was the Forrest Gump of show business.” From 1906 to 1966, she was everywhere. She met everyone.

The Eckers managed to read all the journals. “Getting them was like the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but after we donated a considerable amount of money to microfilm them, they gave us access,” Mr. Ecker said. They spent four years reading not only the library’s 400 volumes but another 100 archived at Brandeis University as well.

As it turned out, Ms. Tucker chronicled absolutely everything, and she led a big life. “She kept everything,” Ms. Ecker said. On the one hand, she wrote about how a visit to England led to a meeting with the king and the Prince of Wales; on the other, “she kept receipts from hotels from everywhere, letters from everyone.

“She’d have pictures not only of famous people but also of regular ones. She’d make friends and sit around in people’s houses, or in their backyards.

“She was the kind of person who created her own audience. She would walk into a town and work at night, but during the day she’d walk around and introduce herself to people. She’d say, ‘I’m Sophie Tucker, and I’m opening at the Palace tonight,’ and she’d take names and addresses. The next time she was coming to town, she’d send a postcard.

“She would build an audience by being her own publicist.

“Before there was Facebook, there was Tuckerbook,” Ms. Ecker said.

Ms. Tucker was born in Poland, came to Boston with her parents when she was a baby, and then moved with them to Hartford, Conn., when she was about 8 years old. Her mother owned a kosher restaurant there.

“One thing she learned from her mother, other than hard work and how to wash dishes, was to give to charity,” Ms. Ecker said. “Her mother would stand at the back door, and she’d give any food left over to the poor. She was one of the founders of the senior citizens home in Hartford, the Hebrew Home for the Aged. Sophie got a sense of what it was to give tzedakah.

“Her mother always said that if you have anything extra, give it away. On her deathbed, she was giving orders about who to buy coal for.”

Ms. Tucker did not have a very fulfilling private life – she was married three times, not well, and her one child, a son, did not leave much of a record. But her public life was wildly successful. “By 1920, she was – the best way to describe her was Marilyn Monroe, or Lady Gaga, or Madonna, at the height of her career,” Ms. Ecker said. “That’s how big she was.

“She met every president, all the way from Woodrow Wilson through to Reagan, before he was elected. She was friends with the Kennedys, and LBJ, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“On the flip side, Al Capone played cards with her every night for about a year. On the other hand, she was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s few friends. We say in the movie – this is one of the few things from the movie we’ll give away – J. Edgar Hoover asked her for one of her dresses.”

Ms. Tucker was generous to many communities, including the Jewish one. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of her career at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, Mr. Ecker said; she filled the main ballroom with her friends. She picked out 10 charities, and gave each one an amount of money that corresponded to the Hebrew year. “A lot of people didn’t know what the hell that number was,” Mr. Ecker said.

Her relationship to Judaism was neither consistent not conventional, he continued. “She said she kept Hollywood kosher, which included lobster, shellfish, and pigs knuckles. On some years, she refused to work on the high holidays; and on others, she would decide not to work on Kol Nidrei, but would on Rosh Hashanah.”

She also gave large sums of money to Israel.

Her legendary bawdiness was not particularly real, he continued. “She used a lot of innuendo,” Mr. Ecker said. “She was William Morris’s first client” – William Morris was the founder of a legendary talent agency that bore his name – “and he said, ‘I want you to work blue.’

“She did this before Mae West, before Jean Harlow. She was the first woman entertainer to work blue. She would push the censors to the limit. That’s one reason she’s so important to the history of the American stage.”

“She never cursed,” Ms. Ecker said. “She would say things like, ‘My boyfriend has the biggest dinghy in the Navy.’ And then, when people laughed, she would say, ‘I don’t know what’s on your mind, but my mind is perfectly clean.’

“It was an act. A publicity stunt.”

“She really was the biggest prude in the world,” her husband added.

The Eckers have made the documentary and written the fictional memoir that they had planned. The film has serious credentials – its executive producer was Grammy-award-winning Phil Ramone. The Eckers have so much more information than they have been able to use that they want to keep going. They hope that a Broadway show might be in their future as well.

And after that, the dinner with Bette Midler.

For now, the movie will be screened in Suffern, and all the money raised will go to three groups – the Jewish Federation of Rockland, which will use it to build a playground for disadvantaged children in Haifa; the JCC of Rockland County, and the Eckers’ shul, the Montebello Jewish Center.

The screening, to which participants are invited to wear black tie and will enter on a red carpet, will be followed by a Foremost-catered dinner. The dinner will be Eastern European in theme – “like the Russian food she grew up on, except it will be gourmet,” Mr. Ecker said.

The evening will cost $100 per participant, and “every cent of it will go to Montebello, the federation, and the JCC,” he added. He and his wife are covering all the costs – the theater, the dinner, and all the incidentals. In donating this generously to causes in which they believe, they are simply following the example set by their muse, Sophie Tucker.

Information
Who: Sue and Lloyd Ecker present

What: Dinner and preview screening of their film on Sophie Tucker

Where: Movie at the Lafayette Theater and dinner at the Crowne Plaza, both in Suffern, N.Y.

How much: $100 per person; all will go to charity.

Why: To benefit the Montebello Jewish Center, the Rockland County JCC, and the Jewish Federation of Rockland County (which will use the funds for a playground in Haifa).

For information or reservations: www.jccrockland.org or (845)362-4400

For information about the movie: sophietucker.com

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