University of South Carolina

Yiddishe Momme and more

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

In the hit musical Chicago, wannabe vaudeville performer Roxie Hart declares that she will be bigger than Sophie Tucker.

Who?

That’s exactly the question Lauren Sklaroff, a cultural historian in the College of Arts and Sciences, has spent more than a year working to answer.

The cursory answer is that Sophie Tucker was one of the most famous performers in the early 20th century who amassed a career that spanned vaudeville, radio, stage and screen over five decades.

The more rich and complex answer comes from Sklaroff’s study of more than 300 oversized scrapbooks that Tucker began keeping in her late teens to document her life. Tucker gave her scrapbooks -- each one approximately 2-feet square in size and 5 inches thick -- to the New York Public Library in 1948.

“She started keeping the scrapbooks when she was nobody. She thought she was going to be a star, and she was right. There is so much in these books. The sheer volume of them is daunting,” says Sklaroff who has traveled to New York more than six times to research the scrapbooks.

Each book bursts with photos, news and ad clippings, notes, photographs and other memorabilia and documentation. Sklaroff will be back this summer to do more research.

Sklaroff isn’t surprised she settled on a musical entertainer for a biography project. After all, she grew up surrounded by music in her Philadelphia home, singing and playing the piano most of her childhood.

“There was always whistling and singing in our home,” she says. “My grandmother earned a music education degree in the 1920s and published poetry at age 87, and my aunt has written numerous children’s musicals. My family are Broadway people. My mother must have taken us to at least three shows a year. It’s probably why I’m a cultural historian.”

Sklaroff says it was in teaching her pop culture class, a course she has taught since arriving at USC in 2005, that she kept seeing references to Tucker in association with vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin and other figures in entertainment. Then, while working on her first book, “Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era,” she listened and explored more than 200 jazz programs produced by the U.S. Army during World War II.

“The Sophie project is an extension of that book, the seminar I teach on American music and my larger career trajectory and focus on American cultural history and the construction of racial identity,” Sklaroff says.

She says she was attracted to Tucker because of “how she moved in and out of racial categories,” performing early as a singer in black face and then Yiddish to Jewish crowds, becoming a beloved figure in each community and building mass appeal. While her repertoire included 700 songs, her signature ones were “Some of These Days,” written by black composer Shelton Brooks, and “My Yiddishe Momme.”

Sklaroff says she’s not writing a typical biography based on chronology. Instead, she wants to tell the story of how a progressive woman constructs her own personal narrative of struggle, overcoming adversity and breaking boundaries in gender, race and religion at a time of great cultural and technological change.

The Russian born Tucker, a brazen and bawdy Jewish woman, credited black blues singers for influencing her music and developed close relationships with Brooks, jazz singer Bill Robinson and other black entertainers. Her dearest friendship was with a vaudeville performer’s black maid named Molly Elkins.

“She was dedicated to black charities, and had an appreciation for and a sense of how race operated. She was racially liberal,” says Sklaroff.

Tucker wrestled with own Jewishness, Sklaroff says. Although she wasn’t an observant Jew, she would perform in Yiddish, sing and do Passover in prisons and gave generously to Jewish causes. Sklaroff says Tucker loved her family and her heritage and wanted her fame to achieve something, perhaps amending in some way the guilt of having abandoned her son as an infant to pursue her dreams.

Sklaroff says the deeper she delves into her research she realizes the extent of Tucker’s impact. Lesser known black singers wanted to be the next Sophie Tucker, she says, and the racy “last of the red hot mamas,” influenced many strong female performers including Bette Midler and Joan Rivers.

“She became an adjective. People would reference a type of performance or a way of delivery as ‘a Sophie Tucker thing,’” Sklaroff says. “I want to know how a person becomes an adjective. Few female performers have biographies, in part because it’s difficult to make sense of them. Political figures and people associated with an event are much easier to write.”

Sklaroff says while Tucker may no longer be mainstream, she is definitely “alive and well.” Cultural references to her musical style continue and there is a circuit of one-woman shows of her work.

“She’s everyone’s Yiddishe Momme,” Sklaroff says.

In addition to the scrapbooks, Sklaroff is conducting interviews and using collections in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and London. As a recipient of a USC Center for Teaching Excellence grant to incorporate leadership into her classes, Sklaroff likes to involve students in her research whenever possible. For the Sophie project that was McNair scholar and junior Trey Capps who helped by identifying the myriad people highlighted in the scrapbooks and finding source material about them.

Sklaroff plans to finish her research for the biography in the next year using a provost’s humanities grant and is in the process of negotiating a book deal to publish the biography tentatively titled “Sophie Tucker and the Art of Invention.”

About Lauren Sklaroff

  • USC history department: Associate professor and graduate director
  • Books: Author of "Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era" (UNC Press) and "Sophie Tucker and the Art of Invention" (in progress)
  • Education: Bachelor's degree from Wellesley College and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia
  • Personal: Philadelphia native, married and mother of three

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Posted: 05/03/13 @ 4:30 PM | Updated: 05/04/13 @ 7:47 PM | Permalink