Sharon McNight As Sophie Tucker

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My Desert
Sharon, Sophie share bawdy bill
6:37 PM, Dec. 7, 2011

Sharon McNight’s favorite Sophie Tucker line reveals why she’s doing a benefit Sunday for foster and adoptive children.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” she says in a clipped Tucker dialect. “Rich is better.”

McNight, who earned a 1989 Tony nomination for her role in “Starmites,” also is presenting “Red Hot Mama” at Hotel Zoso in Palm Springs to reveal the lasting influence of a comic singer who really was the last of the red hot lovers by the end of her career in the mid-1960s.

“For a single woman to last 60 years in the business” said McNight. “She was just a tough broad and I think her independence and longevity in the business speaks to her ability to communicate with people on a level that was entertaining and could be moving as well.”

Most people know Tucker, who died in 1966 at age 82, from Bette Midler‘s Sophie Tucker routines. You can find her joking about her boyfriend Ernie or her girlfriend Clementine on youtube, but McNight said she only gets Tucker’s tough cadence right.

“She’s not doing Sophie Tucker material,” she said. “There was no boyfriend Ernie. And (her act) was not written by Bette Midler. It was written by my friend, Bruce Vilanch.”

Tucker started singing in her Orthodox Jewish parents’ restaurant in Hartford, Conn., in the late 1890s. She eloped at 16 and soon had a son, but the marriage failed and Tucker left her boy with her parents to scandalously pursue a show biz career.

She changed her name from Sophie Abuza in 1906, but the manager of a New York music hall thought she was so “big and ugly” he made her perform in blackface.

Her songs included “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl, But Oh How A Fat Girl Can Love,” “You’ve Got To See Your Mama Every Night” and “I Ain’t Takin‘ Orders From No One.”

“Sophie got arrested two or three times (for obscenity),” McNight said. “She had a song called ‘The Angle Worm Wiggle’ that she was arrested for in Portland, Ore. She was arrested in Chicago, too (probably for “There’s Company in the Parlor, Girls, Come On Down”). There was a Society for the Protection of Young Ladies and if your act had something they found objectionable, they would put a blue slip of paper in with your paycheck. Hence the term ‘blue law.’”

For McNight, a bawdy, “big-figured girl” with somewhat of a cult following in the desert, the character is a perfect fit.

When asked what took her so long to assemble the show, she quotes San Francisco critic Gerald Nachman.

“(He) had a good joke,” McNight said. “He said I had to be the right weight to do it.”

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