Sophie Tucker may have been “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” but her legacy lives on, thanks to the incomparable Kathy Halenda. An accomplished actress and self-described “broad,” Halenda had been heating up theatres for over a decade before she found a kindred spirit in Sophie Tucker.
With the support of Florida Studio Theatre and writing partner Jack Fournier, Halenda debuted a tribute to the outspoken comedienne in 2000 with Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Since that first production, Sophie Tucker has been such a hit that FST has mounted the show multiple times, with the one and only Kathy Halenda front and center.
We sat down with Halenda to learn more about her connection to Sophie Tucker and her excitement about bringing her popular tribute show back to where it all began: FST.
You’ve been in all of FST’s productions of Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, and you even helped create the show. How are you feeling about returning to this role?
I am delighted to bring Sophie back “home” after all these years! This show was such a labor of love and we were all so proud of her “birth” in 2000 at Florida Studio Theatre. It was time for the show to make a return visit to its “birthplace.”
What was your experience like playing Tucker the first time? What did it mean to you as a performer, and as a female entertainer yourself?
I didn’t know a lot about Sophie Tucker when we started creating the show, but I learned so much about her in the process. She was such a visionary and a “super-broad.” As a “broad” myself, I really related to her drive, honesty, and openness.
Women of that period never openly discussed things like sex, heartbreak, marital frustration, or even their personal opinions. Sophie broke the mold by talking about things that all women thought about but couldn’t speak of, and she did it all with a sly wink and a smile, without ever being overtly offensive.
Do you still find that you can relate to Tucker today? How has your understanding of this character developed after almost a decade?
I absolutely still relate to Sophie Tucker. I have always been accused of being too emotionally open and opinionated, and I guess I’m too old to change now. Every time I perform this show, I find a new “color” in the character.
And age makes it easier to fully embrace the highs and lows of the show. I now can relate to all the life experiences that Sophie Tucker sang about. My voice has gotten a little lower and huskier, my body isn’t as flexible, but my heart is still young and sassy.
Is there a song in the show that you connect with more than others in the show?
After losing my own sweet mother last August, “My Yiddishe Mamma” has become personally powerful for me. I also always loved the emotional resonance of “Life Begins at Forty” and “The Man I Love.” All of these songs require experiencing love and loss to fully appreciate their meaning.
Tucker inspired generations of comediennes and female performers. What is it about Tucker that has made her such an influential person?
Sophie Tucker always had an emotional “freedom,” born of struggle and loss, that colored her shows and allowed her to say whatever she wanted in a humorous and sincere way. While some comediennes after her—Todi Fields, Bella Barth, Joan Rivers, and Bette Midler—all went further with sexual content and coarse language, Sophie still remains the fearless frontrunner who shoved open the door for women to freely express themselves in public.
Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas is NOW PLAYING in FST’s Gompertz Theatre. For tickets or more information, click here.