Co-authors say Sophie’s story needed no embellishment

Three faces of Sophie Tucker in the New Jewish Theatre’s ‘Last of the Red Hot Mamas’: (from left) Phoebe Raileanu, Christy Simmons and Johanna Elkana-Hale.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The story of the astounding “rags to riches” career of Sophie Tucker, born Sophie Kalish in Russia, and who at one time was forced to perform in blackface only to rise to the pinnacle of success in every medium, did not need any “tweaking,” according to Tony Parise and Karin Baker, co-authors of “Last of the Red Hot Mamas…the Sophie Tucker Revusical.”

The bio-play is currently chewing up the stage of the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre of the New Jewish Theatre of St. Louis, with many of the performances already sold out (see review, this page). The show is enhanced by a comprehensive collection of Sophie Tucker memorabilia, beautifully mounted in the Beit Midrash room at the JCC Arts & Education Building. Parise, who is also the director and choreographer of “Red Hot Mamas,” was joined by longtime friend and co-playwright Karin Baker last week for the opening of the play.

Parise, who grew up in St. Louis and went to Southwest High School, now lives both here and in New York. His career includes having worked at the Muny, the New York City Ballet and on Broadway in shows such as “A Chorus Line.” Baker, who has worked with Gower Champion on Broadway, met Parise in 1980 when they were both working on “42nd Street.” They have remained close friends ever since.

Their mutual love for and admiration of the career of Sophie Tucker led them to write “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” The two authors sat down with the St. Louis Jewish Light in the Beit Midrash room last Friday morning for an interview on how their “labor of love” on the legendary Sophie Tucker came into being.

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Is “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” your first joint project?

Parise: Our first joint writing project, yes.

Baker: It was actually like 1990 when we first started talking about doing this project on Sophie Tucker. Her life is so remarkable we did not have to add anything or subtract anything from what actually happened in her career.

How did you go about collecting all of this marvelous memorabilia, and what is your most prized possession among the items you have found?

Parise: Karin and I are big flea market shoppers. And when we began working on the idea for the show, we began looking for (Tucker’s) sheet music.

Baker: To see the photographs of Sophie at different stages of her career was also wonderful. It gives the audience a look at how she looked through the years, especially in a play in which three actresses play Sophie at different stages of her life. The sheet music was perfect. We did not have to superimpose any photos on them. The actual pictures were exactly what we needed.

What other materials did you seek out and find?

Parise: When eBay became available, I started going on there almost obsessively. I was ready to join ‘Sophie-holics Anonymous,’ there was so much out there.

Do you have a ‘Holy Grail’ you have either found or are still seeking among Sophie items?

Parise: Actually, my prized possession is not on display here so as to protect it from being handled too much. It is an issue of Ebony magazine from 1952, with a 10-page article by Sophie Tucker on “How the Negro Influenced My Career.” Dorothy Dandridge is on the cover. There are two pictures of Molly Elkins, the African-American friend and mentor to Sophie, who is played so well by Marty Casey in the NJT show. The copy of the magazine is by far the most prized item in our collection.

What surprised you most about Sophie Tucker’s life as you did this project?

Baker: What surprised me, and I think Tony, too, was the whole black face situation, when Sophie was forced to perform in black face. Also, the fact that Molly Elkins, an African-American, became Sophie’s confidant throughout her life. That Ebony article contains the most surprising things about this woman’s life. The fact that this young Jewish girl was thrown onto a stage in overalls. Even to be put into pants must have been a very frightening thing for a young girl. And then to have black face put on you so that people would laugh and point at you. It was just ugly.

Tell us more about Sophie’s son, Bert Tuck, by her first husband who was raised by her sister Ann while Sophie pursued her career. Did Bert know that Sophie and not Ann was his mother, and was he at all bitter about his mother’s decision?

Parise: Actually Bert knew from an early age that Sophie was his mom, and the two of them had a good relationship. Of course it was very tough and sad that she handed off her son to be raised by her sister.

Baker: We decided we had to actually show Sophie handing Bert over to Ann in a scene in the show. We are glad that we did because that was such an important part of her life story. And she and Bert kept in touch and she provided for him. She wanted her son to have the best and did all she could to see to his needs. He was able to go to the best schools and she made sure her family lived in a nice house.

Parise: And was a great irony for Sophie. In order to provide for the people she loved, she had to not be there for the people she loved.

The term “Revusical” is a marvelous description of the show that includes 36 songs. Where did you come up with that term?

Parise: Actually the term was used back in those early Vaudeville days to describe show with lots of songs. Sophie’s friend, Irving Berlin, with whom she worked when he went by the name “Izzie Berliner” also used the term and may have originated it.