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January 25, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Sophie Tucker makes theater headlines in 1924

TERRE HAUTE — Popular comedienne Sophie Tucker returned to Terre Haute in March of 1924 after a 10-year hiatus.

After enjoying one of Tucker’s show-stopping performances at the Hippodrome Theater, Tribune newspaper reporter Anna Bowles Wiley interviewed Sophie in her dressing room while her maid Anna combed her hair.

Tucker’s golden hair was among her notable assets. It was fluffy, without a bob.

“My mother would never forgive me if I bobbed my hair,” Tucker declared.  ”It looks alright on real young girls, if they are slim, but Lord have mercy on the soul of the woman who is fat and forty. They are amusing and foolish.

“Besides, a beauty expert in New York is predicting a race of bald-headed women very soon because of the cutting of their hair and the curling iron.

“It does seem to me that women would awaken to the danger but they do not. They go blindly on.”

Tucker told Wiley that she was born in Odessa, Russia in 1887 and came to America with her parents as a babe in arms, first settling in Boston. She was one of four children.

The Tuckers, a family of Orthodox Jews, later moved to Hartford, Conn. to found a restaurant. Before she was a teen, Sophie waited tables and sang for tips.

Tucker made her first theater appearance in 1907, singing at an amateur night in a vaudeville house. By 1908, she had joined a burlesque show in Pittsburgh, using a deep southern accent and blackening her face with burnt cork.

She integrated Fat Girl humor into her act, popularizing songs such as “I Don’t Want to be Thin,” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.”

In 1909, at age 22, Tucker performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. The exposure caught the attention of William Morris, theater owner and founder of the William Morris Agency, one of the most powerful talent agencies of the era.

When she performed in Terre Haute in 1914, Tucker’s co-star was Jack Coogan, father of Jackie Coogan of film fame.

In 1921, songwriter Ted Shapiro joined her troupe as a performer and accompanist. He was featured during her performances at the Hippodrome 90 years ago and remained with Sophie was many years. Jack Carroll also was listed in the 1924 theater ads.

“I am frugal with my money,” Tucker told Wiley. She purchased two restaurants in Cleveland “just recently:” Sophie Tucker’s Terrace,  a downtown café, and The Sophie Tucker Lake Road Inn.

“I am all set for the Republican convention in Cleveland now,” she said. “I also own an interest in several New York cafes.”

Fame and riches came quickly and she was one of the most popular entertainers in America between 1915.and 1960. A frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan and Tonight shows after that, she continued to perform until a few months before her death in 1966.

Billing herself a “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” Sophie created comic and singing styles which influenced later entertainers, including Mae West, Carol Channing, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Ethel Merman, Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas and Bette Midler.

Midler named her daughter Sophie and included “Soph” as one of her many stage characters.

On April 13, 1963, the musical “Sophie,” based upon Tucker’s early show business career, opened on Broadway.

III

There were a few other theater transactions in Terre Haute during the last week of March 1924.

The management of the Indiana and American theaters changed. Though owned by different enmities, both had been managed by the Mutual Operating Co., a national firm.

Effective April 1, 1924, Shannon Katzenbach became the manager of the Indiana, owned by an investment company headed by Theodore J. Barhydt.

And Maurice A. Fox became manager of the American Theater, 817-819 Wabash Ave., owned by Sigmund Uffenheimer.

In addition, local businessman John McFall acquired the Liberty Theater situated on a lot he already owned at the southwest corner of Eighth and Wabash.

When it was announced in early February that the Liberty – considered the finest motion picture theater in Terre Haute before the opening of the Indiana Theater in 1922 – would be sold, it was expected that the bidding would be keen.

The improvements were assets of the Consolidated Realty and Theater Corp., which was in receivership.

Anticipated bidders included William “Billy” Bayfield, owner of the Hotel Deming; Col. William S. Butterfield of W.S. Butterfield Theatres, Inc., owner of a chain of motion picture theaters based primarily in Michigan; Jack Hoeffler, former manager of The Varieties Theater, a vaudeville house at the same address; and former Liberty manager Fred E. LeComte, manager of a theater in Springfield, Ill.

Referred to as “a Temple of Amusement,” the Liberty was designed by Chicago architect James Edmund Oldaker Pridmore and cost about $140,000 when built in 1918.

The Hippodrome Theater at the southwest corner of Eight and Ohio streets, designed by famed theater architect John Eberson which opened in 1915, cost about $100,000.

Because he owned the land, McFall, who was president of the Home Packing Co., was able to acquire the Liberty for $50,000.

Experts estimated that, after a modest updating, the theater would yield $30,000 in annual rent.

After the original Grand Theater at the southeast corner of Seventh and Cherry streets was razed in 1959, the Liberty was transformed into the “new Grand Theater.”

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