Sophie Tucker was born on this day in 1884.
One Sunday, about a year or so ago, I found myself at a favorite old mansion in the foothills beneath Laurel Canyon. If you live in L.A. you might know the place; it’s that big, white neo-classical thing, just north of the Laugh Factory and a few steps from Hollywood Boulevard.
As long as I’ve known it, the house has been overtaken by ivy. In the courtyard out front, what were once trees had turned to brown skeletons. But far from making the house seem uninviting, the Miss Havishamness of it only made the place more compelling, powerful even. Most of the other properties in the area were coiffed to within an inch of their lives, so what, I wondered, was going on in here, in a house so close to the raucous throb of the Sunset Strip, to keep the owners from tending to their mansion?
I’d been driving by for years before I actually got to go inside. Thanks to a chance encounter with a local Hollywood paper, I found out the owner – a former child star of silent westerns – had died, and the family was selling off everything in the house.
By the time I got there, most of the stuff had been picked over. There were a few candelabra and some china tsotchkes, but other than that the house was empty. Empty and large. There was a living room the size of a one-bedroom apartment and a dinning room massive enough to hold most of the remaining for-sale coffee tables, presumably collected from other rooms in the house. A carpeted curling staircase presiding over the first floor was roped off with a sign that said “Off Limits.” But I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
When no one was looking, I leapt upstairs and in a matter of moments found myself in the master bedroom, but it wasn’t a bedroom – there was no bed, no dresser, and not a single window – it was actually more of a master bedroom-sized sauna. The entire space, from floor to ceiling, was covered in wood. There were benches along the walls. I was standing in a wooden box.
In the corner was another box. Opening it, I discovered a row of books, all biographies of movie stars. One of them was Sophie Tucker’s memoir, Some of These Days. It was blue and dusty, and looked like it would crumble if I so much as breathed on it, so I reached out carefully, gingerly, opened it to find, to my amazement, Sophie had signed it. To Milton Stuck, Love Sophie Tucker 7/3/60.
I bought the book for three dollars and left.
Just this morning, thinking about Sophie on her 126th birthday, I found myself skimming through the book. I’ll never forget the last show at the Palace in New York, she wrote in its final pages. It was ghastly. Everyone knew the theater was to be closed down, and a landmark in show business would be gone. That feeling got into the acts. The whole place, and even the performers, stank of decay. I seemed to smell it. It challenged me. I went out on that stage determined to keep my mind on the future – not on the past. I was determined to give the audience the idea: why brood over yesterday? We have tomorrow. As I sang I could feel the atmosphere change. The gloom began to life, the spirit which had formerly filled the Palace and which made it famous among the vaudeville houses in the world came back. That’s what an entertainer can do. That’s the power he has; and which he can use when he knows how to use it.