Before Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and sure as hell before there was any grown woman called Fergie, there was Sophie Tucker.
She was the first to talk about women seeking revenge on their philandering husbands by doing a little philandering of their own.
She was the first to talk about her weight and how it was an asset worth more than you could know (a popular song was “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love”).
And she was among the first women to wear pants in public.
She was, in other words, a pioneer, a burlesque star of vaudeville and Broadway, a song-and-dance maven of so-called ill-repute whom women admired and men adored. That’s why Kathy Halenda chose to join a theatrical project centered on the last of the red hot mamas.
“She was a brassy, sassy lady,” Halenda says. “She was vulnerable, too. She wasn’t beautiful. But people loved her. She was a real gone broad.”
Halenda brings her one-woman show to Piccolo for the first time this year. It features songs Tucker sang and some dancing, too (“I’m a mover, not a shaker,” Halenda says). Most of all, it boasts Tucker’s indominable spirit, that feeling you get when listening to, say, Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinking (with Lovin’ on Your Mind).”
Tucker knew all about the men she sang about and their cheating ways.
She was married at 16, divorced a year later, and raised her own children. She ultimately married three times. She was at one point nearly as popular as Mae West, but is best known for stage shows in which the best and brightest musicians (who were often black) were backing her up.
Her last performance was on the Lawrence Welk Show. By that time, she was old and gray, Halenda says. Most of what we know about Tucker is from the years right up to her death in 1966. Halenda tried to make up for some of that by delving deep into the singer’s history. In 2002, Halenda brought back a woman fully formed, warts and all, as a tribute to her role model.
“I want to be like her,” she says. “And I think I’m doing a pretty good job.
“I met her nephew once in Florida. He was 80 years old. He had seen all kinds of tributes to her, but he told me none showed as much dignity as mine did. I think that’s what she deserves.”
Last of the Red Hot Mamas isn’t graphic, so it’s probably safe for some children, tween-age and up. But Halenda says she does stray off into the land of the naughty. Just a bit. In just the right kind of way.
It’s an attitude older folks will fondly remember. Even younger folks are starting to recognize Tucker as having started it all — the smart, sassy, and plump little lady who didn’t take no guff from no man.