Sophie Tucker’s first tour of theaters in the far west comes at an interesting point in her career. By 1910 she’s a sensation in New York, her home town, and very big in Chicago. She’s really just become a headliner. She’s also just recorded her first cylinders for Edison and in 1911 is to record Some of These Days, her greatest hit and lifetime theme song. The Sophie Tucker of 1910 is big and loud but typical of many physically large, anti-victorian and funny female entertainers of the day like May Irwin, Stella Mayhew, and Trixie Friganza. She’s far from a polished performer. A review in 1912 says “If someone could lasso Sophie Tucker and tame her enough to smooth the haremscarem edges flying about her performance, there would be an immense comedienne revealed for Miss Tucker has splendid talents entirely undeveloped”
Sophie was fortunate to have William Morris, one of the best agents of the day, guiding her career. Morris eventually represented Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Charlie Chaplin founding the William Morris Endeavor, now the world’s largest talent agency. Morris was concerned about Sophie becoming over exposed in the two big cities so he negotiated a five month rail tour of the west at $250 a week plus rail fares. The tour would take her to theaters of the Pantages circuit in Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver plus smaller towns along the way.
Alexander Pantages & Klondike Kate
Alexander Pantages, the builder and owner of the biggest western theater circuit was another interesting character of the vaudevile era. Born in Greece in 1875 he ran way and went to sea at the age of nine! After two years at sea, he disembarked in Panama and worked on the French canal attempt. He moved to San Francisco after contracting malaria and worked as a waiter and boxer. In 1897, he drifted to Dawson in the Yukon gold territories where he ultimately gave up mining to become the partner/lover of “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, in a small but profitable vaudeville theater called the Orpheum. When their affair ended he went to Seattle and she unsuccessfully sued him for stealing the money he used to open a theater there. From this humble start he built a circuit of 30 theaters he owned and another 42 he booked for. He was ruined by two 1929 rape trials. While ultimately acquitted, he never recovered in spirit and sold his theaters for much less than construction cost to RKO.
In the second big city stop of the tour, Portland, Sophie did a number called the Angleworm Wiggle during which she shimmied (as one might guess) and was arrested. She was bailed out and repeated the performance in the next show resulting in her re-arrest. According to Tucker, the woman who complained to the police about her was a Mrs. Baldwin, head of the Portland Department of Safety for Women, who was having a political fight with the chief of police and was looking for a way to embarrass him. Baldwin complained to the chief that Tucker’s performance was “immoral and indecent.” The chief saw the show and refused to arrest Tucker; he didn’t find the song immoral. So Baldwin went to the mayor, swearing out another complaint, adding that Tucker had ridiculed her from the stage by ad-libbing, as she wiggled her fingers up and down her torso, “very immoral.” Local friends helped her find a good local attorney who got the DA to drop the charges. The net result was a mountain of publicity and booming ticket sales. (The only versions of the song online are hammer dulcimer!)