From the cover of "Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker" by Lauren Rebecca Sklar
From the cover of "Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker" by Lauren Rebecca Sklar

Why audiences plotzed over these forgotten performers

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The passage of time is not particularly kind to performers of bygone eras, with few of us able to expound on the singers and musicians that thrilled our grandparents. Two new books profile entertainers who commanded exalted positions in the first half of the 20th century, but who are largely forgotten today.

Eddie Cantor was one of America’s great rags-to-riches stories. Born in 1892 to immigrants who had come to the United States two years earlier, he grew up as Isidore Iskowitz. His mother died when Isidore was 2 years old, and his father either died or abandoned the family shortly thereafter. Isidore was brought up by his grandmother in bleak tenements in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, dropping out of school as an adolescent. While dabbling in petty crime, he made an energetic effort to enter vaudeville (where he adopted his stage name), ultimately emerging with a career that would thrive for decades on stage, film, radio and television.

eddie cantor | david weinsteinDavid Weinstein’s “Eddie Cantor: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics” looks at Cantor largely through the lens of Jewishness. At a time when many Jewish performers were striving to blend in, Cantor did not shy away from his identity. For example, Weinstein notes that when the 1925 Chicago opening of his stage play “Kid Boots” was scheduled for the eve of Yom Kippur, Cantor insisted that it be moved, earning opprobrium from some in the entertainment industry.

Cantor famously founded the March of Dimes in order to eradicate polio, but much of his philanthropic work was devoted to helping Jews. In July 1933, concerned about the Nazis’ ascent to power, he announced a campaign to finance the immigration of 30,000 German Jews to pre-state Israel. Working with Hadassah, he raised huge sums through benefit performances.

Over the course of the 1930s, as American isolationism, anti-Semitism, and indifference to darkening conditions in Germany were high, Cantor stood up in riskier ways. As Father Charles Coughlin used his national radio program to spread anti-Jewish messages, Cantor publicly denounced the popular priest. When Henry Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle at a 1938 ceremony that included congratulations conveyed from Hitler, Cantor tore into the titan of industry, declaring, “I question Mr. Ford’s Americanism and his Christianity.” Eventually, in 1939 R.J. Reynolds, the company sponsoring Cantor’s CBS radio program, pulled its support, and no other sponsor would touch him. Once the highest paid star on radio, Cantor was out of a job as a consequence of taking forceful positions.

University of South Carolina professor Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff’s “Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker” follows the career of one of the biggest singing stars of the early 20th century.

Tucker was born Sonya Kalish, likely in 1886, on the ship taking her family to the United States. The family eventually settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and ran a restaurant where their daughter got her start as an entertainer, singing for tips.

LITofftheshelf-mamaWhile still in her teens, Tucker eloped with her high school sweetheart Louis Tuck (whose surname she adapted for her stage name) and soon bore a son. Her marriage in ruins, she left her son in her parents’ care while she moved to New York to pursue a singing career. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, although her personal life remained complicated in numerous ways.

Tucker was unapologetically Jewish. Although it was her boisterous jazz singing that brought her success, one of her biggest hits was the sentimental 1925 song “My Yiddishe Momme.” (I inherited my grandparents’ copy of the 78-rpm record, with one side in English and the other in Yiddish.) While Tucker was performing in England in 1925, Sklaroff recounts, she visited a shelter inhabited by more than 90 East European Jewish refugees stranded by the recent constriction of American immigration quotas; she staged a Sukkot banquet for them.

Sklaroff celebrates Tucker as a pioneer who helped make possible the success of subsequent female performers who did not conform to conventional expectations of what a star’s personality or physique should be. One of those traits was her earthy demeanor. Sklaroff quotes Eddie Cantor’s statement that Tucker “sings the words we used to write on the sidewalks of New York.” That earthiness became more pronounced as Tucker developed her rather bawdy nightclub act. Plus, there was her weight — or, as she put it, “I’m fat and I know it and I intend to stay fat.” Although she was not always able to do so herself, Tucker reflected openly on the importance of women accepting their bodies — a challenge at a time when the skinny flapper was the flavor of the day.

One difficult issue addressed by Sklaroff and Weinstein is blackface, which both performers incorporated. Sklaroff notes that Tucker was explicitly instructed to blacken her face in order to hide her appearance, as she was viewed as unattractive. The practice displeased her, and she largely abandoned it in 1908 (although she continued to be billed as a “coon shouter” even without greasepaint).

By contrast, Cantor kept blackface as part of his act for most of his career. Nearly all his films include musical numbers in blackface, and Cantor continued to perform occasionally in blackface through the mid-20th century, despite being a vocal ally of African Americans. Blackface remains a disturbing chapter in American entertainment, and, because it goes so profoundly against our grain, it is a barrier to appreciating Cantor’s gifts.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.