Wendy’s Notes on Soph

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago on Essex Avenue, every Shabbos my mother, various aunts, uncles, bubbes and zadyes would have brisket, kugel, green bean mushroom soup casserole, and challah and French pastry brought by my rich Uncle Julie, who drove an aqua 1957 Thunderbird, was a bachelor, knew Hugh Hefner, dated shikses and later stole the family fortune, etc. Oh, but I digress. Anyhoo, at these serene and deeply spiritual Friday night dinners, after discussing my weight problem, after my performance of the Nutcracker Suite Ballet in which I played all the parts dressed in a pink tutu, my family would settle down on the plastic covered white brocade fringed furniture and we would listen to the great Sophie Tucker on the Hi Fi. Soph was gutsy and loud and she sang specialty songs about men, sex, adultery and female independence. Some songs were talked, some were sung, but all of them made us either laugh or cry. Even at nine years old, I loved her because of her voice, her glamour, her individuality and her zaftig shape. I never forgot her through the years. She mean a lot to me and reminded me of those countless Friday night dinners, and the Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays where she often appeared, scarf in hand, diamonds and furs dripping.

Skip to 1984 — I had been living in Portland, Oregon for nine years as an active member of The Storefront Theatre. Having just completed the original Angry Housewives, I wanted a project that would be creatively challenging and really stretch me as a performer. My darling, talented friend Vana O’Brien, knowing I was Jewish, thought it would be most appropriate for me to do a one woman show about Sophie Tucker, the great Jewish singer/comedienne. Vana, a lovely, gentile girl, had gone to only Catholic schools growing up and Soph and I were the only two Jews she’d ever known or heard of. Well, I loved the idea, I went wild. How could that goyishe gal have known Soph was my hero! So Vana and I researched, we listened to recordings, we wrote, we rewrote, we ate bagels, went to New York, ate cheesecake from Zabar’s, ate corned beef at Katz’s, wrote some more, she walked much faster than me, I complained a lot and we wrote.

Finally, Soph was presented at The Storefront Theatre on November 25, 1984. My best friend and mentor, Ric Young, directed it and after many performances to sold out crowds, many would-be producers with shetls on their heads, many magic and not-so-magic moments, Ric made me dinner at his fabulous apartment. He said in a dramatic fashion, that only he could pull off and which was quintessential Ric, “Wendy, you must go to LA and perform Soph. You’ve grown past Portland. I will miss you, but you must try. It’s time for you to go.” Oh, brother! “You must go and be a star.” Oh, for God’s sake!

So, I left in my pink 1957 Rambler, and cried for two years from homesickness, but finally Soph was produced at the Callboard Theatre in Beverly Hills, California. This director, however, was no Ric Young. His favorite expression was (say this in your head as bitchy as possible) “Is there a problem?” Oy Vey! Anyway, Soph went very well, critically acclaimed, busloads of retired Jewish people from Laguna Beach, agents, etc. I stayed in LA for six years.

Skip to now — I’ve been home in Portland for five and a half years and turned fifty this September. And guess what? I met this darling little pitzle Kristy Edmunds. She believes that PICA people need to see this great vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, this predecessor of performance art, and this Wendy Westerwelle, a genre unto herself, as Kristy puts it. I trust her. I really like this little Kristy. I think she’s such a doll. We have breakfast together, Kristy and I. Well, I have breakfast, she has coffee and a cigarette. Not since Ric have I met someone with this kind of drive and charisma. I want to do this show again, to share Soph with a new audience who has yet to meet to his grand and glorious dame, and for an old familiar audience who has met her and wants to embrace us both again.

I’m just so thrilled at the age of fifty to be performing Soph again and I’m ready to give her and my audience all they deserve. My hoe is that everyone really enjoys themselves and is entertained. Soph has always been and continues to be my special gift for all of you. It’s a way for me to say thank you for all you have given me and to pay homage to the great legendary Sophie Tucker, who paved the way for this zaftig Chicago girl and gave me the courage to be exactly who I was meant to be. Thank you.

—Wendy Westerwelle