‘Outrageous’ ode: The little-known Auburn connection of one of vaudeville’s biggest stars
September 06, 2015 6:30 am â€¢ David Wilcox
Lloyd and Susan Ecker are almost ready for their second dinner with Bette Midler.
The Pomona husband and wife are the writers and producers of “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” a documentary about the vaudeville star they’ll bring to Auburn Public Theater Friday and Saturday. After screening the film, which includes interviews with Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett and Carol Channing, the Eckers will take questions about it from the audience each night.
The film is part of a multimedia paean to Tucker that also includes a fictional memoir, “I am Sophie Tucker,” as well as plans for a Broadway show and a Hollywood musical. The project’s roots reach back to November 1973, when the Eckers were on their first date at Ithaca College. Lloyd, the school’s concert promoter, arranged for Susan and him to have dinner with that night’s performer: Midler and her then-pianist, Barry Manilow.
Midler’s fondness for telling Tucker’s jokes, however, would prove just as impactful an introduction that night. Thirty-three years and three children later, after they’d sold their babytobee.com business, Lloyd asked Susan what she wanted to do next.
“I said I want to have dinner with Bette Midler again,” Susan said in a Monday phone conversation.
Lloyd suggested they take a rather long road to that dinner: “I said let’s find out who this Sophie Tucker is, then make a documentary, then write a book, then turn it into a Broadway show, then a Hollywood musical and hire Bette to play the part, she’ll win the Academy Award, and then we’ll have dinner with Bette Midler again.”
And so “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” was conceived.
Researching the popular but little-documented singer, actress and comedian was difficult at first, as sources were scarce. The Eckers’ material grew exponentially, however, when they made a donation to the New York Public Library to convert onto microfilm 400 scrapbooks about Tucker it had under a tarp in its basement.
The Eckers’ investment yielded fast, fruitful returns. The archives fleshed out the many sides of Tucker’s life and career: Along with having a hit 1909 breakout run with the Ziegfeld Follies, songs like “My Yiddish Momme” and films like “Broadway Melody of 1938” with Judy Garland, Tucker knew eight presidents, Thomas Edison, Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover, Lloyd said.
“I couldn’t believe after I’d read 10 or 15 of those 400 scrapbooks that this lady had never been publicized,” Lloyd said. “She’s a real, live Forrest Gump of the 20th century.”
Susan sees Tucker as a trailblazer, too. A heavy-set woman, the star not only projected happiness with her body, she carried herself like every bit the sex symbol contemporary Mae West was. Tucker also took charge of her career, personally negotiating to earn a percentage of her show gates and then counting the empty seats while performing to make sure she wasn’t shortchanged.
In their research, the Eckers even found a connection between Tucker and Auburn. Her sister Annie married an Auburn man, Jules Aaronson, and they lived in the city. Annie being the heart of the family, the Tuckers would gather there frequently after the death of Annie and Sophie’s parents in 1928 until Annie’s death in 1962. Sophie would even alert the press to her visits, Lloyd said, and left some of her costumes to the Auburn Players Community Theatre after her own death in 1966.
Filing all these aspects of Tucker’s life into a 90-minute film was a challenge, the Eckers said. But they found their through line in her fans.
“After reading the scrapbooks and seeing the letters people wrote to her, we got to see America through the eyes of Americans from 1906 to 1966,” Susan said. “That’s the most fascinating part of her: The fact her fans had this love for her was important for us to relay.”
Angela Daddabbo, artistic director of Auburn Public Theater, is one of them. Upon finding out about Tucker’s connection to Auburn, she reached out to the Eckers about screening at the theater the first part of their multi-faceted tribute.
“Part of what we feel we’re doing (at Auburn Public Theater) is bringing vaudeville back to life,” she said. “So with Sophie Tucker, we’re coming full circle in a way.”