Kathy Halenda reprises her role as 'Sophie Tucker, The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas' at Florida Studio Theatre. Her connection to the character goes deep.
Sophie Tucker’s career spanned the first half of the 20th century. She was a “superstar” before Andy Warhol coined the term and made a splash (in both Yiddish and English) on the stages of music halls and vaudeville and on the motion picture screen. Tucker was both a singer and a natural comedian who peppered her singing with brash wisecracks like, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”
Who better to portray this larger-than-life talent than Kathy Halenda — a veteran singer and comedian, who’s constantly on tour, and not shy about making a few wisecracks herself? But Halenda’s connection to Tucker goes even deeper. She was part of the Florida Studio Theatre creative team that first brought “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” to life in 2000. The show’s been a smash hit ever since—at FST and around the country. For Halenda, Sophie Tucker is an old friend. And this return engagement at FST is as much a family reunion as a performance.
What’s your approach to the Sophie Tucker character?
I approach her respectfully, but not religiously. I don’t try to impersonate Sophie, but I do give the flavor of her.
What are a few of your favorite songs in this revue?
That’s a tough question—I really enjoy so many of the songs. “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” is one of my favorites. “America I Love You” is a stirring piece. “The Man I Love,” and “Hula Lou” are all wonderful. “Life Begins at 40” is a lovely speaking song. It captures what being over 40 means. Now that I am over 40, I finally get it. “My Yiddishe Momme” has always meant an awful lot to me. Now, it means even more. I recently lost my own mother, and it really strikes a chord. I’ve always wondered what Sophie Tucker felt when her mom passed. Now I know how it feels.
I’m sorry to hear that.
The pandemic has been hard for all of us. Sophie Tucker also endured hard times. Do you think her strength of character in adversity will resonate with contemporary audiences?
I do. Sophie was a survivor, and she lived through a lot. She experienced her own pandemic in 1918 and survived that. She also survived several unhappy marriages. Men cheated on her and stole from her, but they never stopped her. Sophie supported her family through hard times like the Great Depression. Sophie was a strong woman — strong willed, but very compassionate, and generous to those she loved. Whatever life threw at her, she took it in stride and kept going. Nothing kept Sophie down for long. She’s an example for all of us, and I think audiences will definitely relate!
Sophie Tucker broke so many barriers for future female comics. What’s your take on her role as a pioneering performer?
Sophie could be naughty, but she was never obscene — I love that about her. She was one of the very few female performers of her era who spoke about her losses in life and love. She talked openly and freely about men who cheated and marriages that fell apart. Her frankness paved the way for Totie Fields, Belle Barth, and other female comics of that time period. Sophie Tucker started it, and they took it further. But Sophie opened the door.
Do you see Sophie Tucker as an American immigrant success story?
Absolutely! Well, she certainly was one. Like so many immigrants, her family came to America for freedom. Her father was avoiding the draft in Russia and her family was struggling; America was the bright star they were reaching for. After her family came here, they worked very hard and thrived. Sophie Tucker left home at the age of 17. She walked away from her marriage and left her baby with her mother. She came to New York City all by herself—it must have been terrifying for a young girl to be all alone in the big city. But Sophie had a dream, and she was determined to follow it. Her family didn’t understand for a long time. But when she began paying their bills, they sure did. Sophie supported a lot of people.
What’s the difference between Sophie Tucker’s stage persona and the real human being?
Every performer has a stage persona that’s not exactly who they are. But with Sophie, I think the persona and the person were very close. It’s hard to know for sure — there’s very little archival video or audio of her. But that’s my gut feeling. I think that Sophie’s style of performing was a lot like mine. When I’m on stage, I’m definitely me. That’s not to say I’m entirely unfiltered. On stage you oftentimes hide your vulnerabilities. I’d say Sophie and I have that in common. But I think she was probably pretty much the same offstage and onstage. As I am.
The first time you channeled Sophie Tucker was back in 2000 when this show premiered at Florida Studio Theatre. Has your approach to the character changed over the years?
Yes, in many ways. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to understand Sophie Tucker much better. I can see where she’s coming from now, thanks to my own experience. My life history coincides with hers, as far as marriages gained and lost. I only had one, but I lost it!
You were part of the creative team behind this revue. How would you describe the show’s gestation?
It was a difficult birth! We were in labor for a long time. By “we,” I mean myself, Richard Hopkins, and playwright Jack Fournier. The three of us collaborated very well together. Richard really did shape the show—he gave it an arc. And Jack was just a lovely man and he did so much historical research on Sophie and her times. He pulled together so much material. Jack would come in with piles of paper—all these quotes, jokes and songs. We’d sit around and weed through everything. OK, we like this song—that’s a keeper. This one—not so much. We weeded through so many songs and still had too many to put in the show. Richard also helped shape the story as Jack was writing it. He’d say, “Jack, could you write a few lines where Sophie talks about America or the family?” So he’d write a draft, and sometimes I’d contribute. We’d come together and just make it work.
Did you have a hand in molding the Sophie Tucker character?
Oh, yes. Richard gave me a lot of freedom with writing and rewriting — especially in the final drafts. He let me shape the words to fit my mouth, and the way I’d naturally speak. But it was a true joint effort. We just all sat around and made it work. Michael Sebastian, FST’s musical director at the time, also came up with some beautiful arrangements. Then Jim Prosser when took over, he came up with some more. I was very lucky to have been surrounded by such gifted artists. Richard definitely chose the right creative people to shape this piece. And I give him full credit for the flavor, color, arc, and pattern of the show. We ended up with a real little gem of a show that we were all excited about. Our collaboration was long and difficult. But we ended up with a beautiful, beautiful baby.
Any final thoughts?
FST is where we created Sophie Tucker, and I’m excited to bring her back home. Sarasota is kind of like the character’s birthplace. So this is really like a family reunion! I hope audiences will come enjoy a fun evening with me and Sophie at FST.