BootLeg Betty

Jewish Film Festival to feature Documentary On Sophie Tucker

West Virginia Jewish Film Festival to feature U.S. film premiere, Q&A with producers
Sophie Tucker found work performing vaudeville and burlesque in New York City in the early 1900’s.

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Documentary producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker wanted to tell the story of Sophie Tucker, a star who broke barriers and paved the way for women to perform as equals to men in show business.

It all started when the couple saw a Bette Midler concert in 1973 where she told jokes about Sophie Tucker. Years later the couple found they still wondered about who exactly Tucker was and decided to act on their interest.

“We found Sophie to be a most fascinating person,” Lloyd said.

But the couple ran into trouble. There were only three books about Sophie Tucker. One was her autobiography, but it was incomplete and lacked some of the juicier details about her life.

“We had a feeling that the editors censored the stuff she wanted to say,” Lloyd said.

They read another biography but found it wasn’t very interesting. A third biography they found had some interesting stories but felt incomplete.

But then the couple stumbled upon 400 of Tucker’s scrapbooks, personal memos, letters and diaries at the New York Public Library.

That treasure trove was the link the Eckers needed to Tucker’s past.

Their documentary “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” will make its United States premiere this Sunday, June 22 at the West Virginia Jewish Film Festival, held in the Clay Center’s Electric Sky Theater.

After the Eckers started reading Tucker’s scrapbooks they began to track down people she knew. They interviewed over 70 people including family, friends, stars and soldiers who wrote to Tucker.

“These weren’t typical scrapbooks — they had the typical newspapers, but indisposed in there were letters from every human being that 60 years. She made friends with a lot of people,” Lloyd said.

It wasn’t an easy task. It took the Eckers four years of research and reading to go through every newspaper article, letter and diary entry.

Lloyd said Tucker was an interesting character. In addition to breaking free from censorship restrictions of the time, she knew and spent a great deal of time with a wide variety of people including George VI, Queen Elizabeth, J. Edgar Hoover, John Kennedy, several other presidents and even played cards with Al Capone.

She was involved in a union dispute in the 40s, was married three times and had multiple affairs with men and women.

“The parts of Sophie that we found out the most about her were hidden in the letters from everyday people, and those everyday kind of letters were unbelievably enlightening. We had to read 100 letters to get to the good one, or the diamond in the rough,” Susan said.

“The love these people had for Sophie was so apparent. We met with Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett and many others. There were so many stars starting their career when she started hers (and they were able to give their) perspective of Sophie.”

In the end, the Eckers were left with much more material than needed for their documentary.

They are using the rest to publish a fictional memoir of Tucker’s life. This three-part book series, “I am Sophie Tucker,” will be published sometime this summer.

Lloyd says he hopes this isn’t the end of the line for Tucker. He hopes these books will be the basis of a Broadway play or a feature film musical.

“If she were alive today we would think she would be thrilled that this is happening,” Lloyd said. “She tried for 25 years to get her life story done. We’re hoping now she’s out of the picture that we can present her with any star.”

The film festival will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sunday with a meet-and-greet with the Eckers.

“You Natzy Spy,” a short film featuring Moe Howard and the Three Stooges will begin at 7.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” will play at 7:20 and the question and answer session will follow. The event will last until 9:30 p.m.

“It will be historical and hysterical,” said festival director Fred Pollock.

The West Virginia Jewish Film Festival, sponsored twice a year by the Federated Jewish Charities of Charleston is one of the oldest Jewish film festivals in the country.

The event is free and open to the public, but seating in the Electric Sky Theater is limited to 175 people.

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