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‘The Outrageous Sophie Tucker': New York Jewish Film Festival Review

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

‘The Outrageous Sophie Tucker’: New York Jewish Film

Festival Review



William Gazecki’s documentary recounts the life and career of the famed performer known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas

She was one of the most celebrated and successful performers of the 20th century, but few people are aware of Sophie Tucker today. Despite the loving tributes performed by Bette Midler in her concert appearances over the years, the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” has lapsed into showbiz obscurity, something that William Gazecki’s loving documentary clearly hopes to correct. Recently showcased at the New York Jewish Film Festival, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker should have a long life in ancillary markets after its theatrical release later this year.

The film’s true auteurs are producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who became fascinated with the singer after seeing Midler delivering Sophie Tuckers jokes in her act in 1973. The film, part of the couple’s burgeoning cottage industry about the performer—they’re written a book and plan to create stage, film and television shows about her—features them prominently as talking heads alongside such figures as Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett, Bruce Vilanch, Carol Channing, Michael Feinstein and many others.

Read More Bette Midler Announces First Tour in More Than a Decade

There was no shortage of raw material from which to work, as the detail-obsessed Tucker compiled over 400 scrapbooks from 1906 to 1966 chronicling her life and career.

Tucker began her show business career singing at her Russian immigrant parents’ kosher restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut. She appeared on the vaudeville circuit, often performing in blackface, before eventually moving to New York and getting her big break with the Ziegfeld Follies. Ironically, she was soon let go when the other female performers refused to go on with her for fear of being eclipsed.

By 1929 she was arguably the biggest female star in the world, and she continued to be a major concert draw until not long before her death in 1966. She was never quite able to cross over to Hollywood stardom, although the documentary includes clips of her memorable appearance in MGM’s BroadwayMelody of 1938 opposite Judy Garland, to whom she became a mentor.

Her larger than life personality, bawdiness, uninhibited sexuality and willingness to celebrate her ample girth made her a unique performer, but it was her genius for self-promotion that truly served her well. Barbara Walters, whose father’s Latin Quarter nightclubs in Miami and New York regularly featured Tucker, amusingly describes how the performer would sign copies of her memoir after her shows, refusing to autograph anything else or even to make change (all the money was going to Israel, she would assure her customers). She also had a huge number of product endorsements, including her own line of soap.

Read More ‘The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer: New York Jewish Film Festival Review

Her friends were legion, including everyone from Al Capone, with whom she played cards, and J. Edgar Hoover who, the film purports, once asked to borrow one of her dresses. It wouldn’t fit, she assured him.

The film has its share of missteps, such as the awkward animating of old still photographs and the excessive commentary from the producers, with Lloyd Ecker even tearing up while describing Tucker’s death at age 79 nearly a half century ago. And some of the anecdotes related, including a second-hand account of U.S. soldiers blasting her recording of “My Yiddishe Mama” on the streets of Berlin after Germany surrendered as a tribute to a fallen comrade, seem more than a little apocryphal.

But for a younger generation who think that Madonna and Lady Gaga represent the heights of outrageousness, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker stands as a much needed reminder that they have a very large debt to pay.

Production: Innovative Films
Director/director of photography/editor: Wiliam Gazecki
Producers: Lloyd Ecker, Susan Ecker
Executive producers: Phil Ramone, Gene Schwam

‘The Star Wars Holiday Special': Read THR’s 1978 Review

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The Star Wars Holiday Special‘: Read THR’s 1978 Review
11:13 AM PST 11/17/2014 by THR Staff

4-27-2013 4-10-07 AM

At the time, THR deemed the two hour special as an “inventive diversion that stood on its own merits”

On Nov. 17, 1978, the cast of Star Wars hit television screens with a holiday special that has been derided ever since it aired. Days after it premiered, however, The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the two-hour CBS show, saying that it “was a welcome surprise.” Read the original review below:

If the prospect of a two-hour Star Wars Holiday Special conjured up visions of “May the force be with you” repeated ad nauseam in your head, this show on CBS was a welcome surprise.

For the most part the special was [an] inventive diversion that stood on its own merits. The film’s stars, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, and, of course C-3P0 and R2D2, were on hand. However, the special effects were the real stars of the show.

Writers Rod Warren, Bruce Vilanch, Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps and Mitzi Welch devised a story involving Chewbacca’s family waiting for him to come home for Life Day, a kind of space-aged merging of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since he’s late they fear he’s been imperiled by Empire forces, an accurate assumption, confirmed when Empire police search their home for evidence of rebel activity. All this gives Chewbacca’s wife a good excuse to contact the various Star Wars characters, and makes for a touching reunion when the big Wookiee returns home safely. The plot smacks of sentiments typical of The Waltons, but the time waiting for Chewbacca is filled with cleverly integrated musical numbers and amusing special effects.

Diahann Carroll’s sensuous number, “This Minute,” with original music and lyrics by Mitzi and Ken Welch, was by far the highlight of the show, incorporating some spectacular visuals. A fanciful dance number featuring miniaturized hologram creatures, choreographed by David Winters, was also very effective. The Jefferson Starship appeared in a rock number greatly enhanced by computer-generated lighting effects. Jeff Chang and Fred McKinnon handled the impressive lighting for the show.

Harvey Korman added humor as a handy cooking instruction and Art Carney provided warmth as a Santa-like shopkeeper. Beatrice Arthur sang her way through an overly long number in a bar full of bizarre creatures.

Everyone involved in the technical accomplishments of The Star Wars Holiday Special deserves acknowledgement, with Brian Bartholomew’s art direction, Garrett Lewis’ sets, Bob Mackie’s costumes, and Ed Green’s audio effects all adding considerably to the production. Video animation was by Jean DeJoux and Elizabeth Savel. Steve Binder directed, and Joe Layton and Mitzi and Ken Welch produced this Smith-Hemion presentation in association with 20th Century Fox TV. — Gail Williams

REVIEW: Bruce Vilanch In Du Barry Was a Lady

Monday, May 12th, 2014

The Examiner
42nd Street Moon’s good-time ‘Du Barry’
By Robert Sokol @Robertsokol
Monday, May 12, 2014


COURTESY PATRICK O’CONNOR – Bruce Vilanch Ashley Rae Little sing and dance in 42nd Street Moon’s “Du Barry Was a Lady.”

Crafted for comedy king Bert Lahr and brassy belter Ethel Merman, Broadway’s 1939 hit “Du Barry Was a Lady” gets a bright new reading in a revival by 42nd Street Moon.
It’s a silly but saucy trifle about a schlub in love with a showgirl who, of course, loves someone else. The schlub wins the lottery and gets drugged into a parallel dream world that places him and his anachronistic cronies in courtly Versailles.

Award winning-writer, stand-up comic and frequent actor Bruce Vilanch steps in for Lahr (and Red Skelton in the 1943 film) in the dual role of Louie/King Louis.

Vilanch clearly relishes an audience, which makes his performing joyful and engaging without ever mugging. He’s also one of those graceful big men whose stage agility looks easy and comfortable.

He definitely knows his way around an improv, so only careful study of the script will reveal whether or not he’s resisting the urge to polish the 75-year-old work of book writers Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva.

There’s no polishing needed for the Cole Porter score, which includes “Well, Did You Evah!” and “Friendship” (interpolated into “Anything Goes” in 1962 and evah after).

As May/Du Barry, Ashley Rae Little commands the stage in the latter. There and in production numbers like “Give Him the Oo-la-la” and “Katie Went to Haiti,” her full-throated, sassy performance nods to the power of what Merman must have been, while radiating a wonderfully fresh feel. Little is a musical comedy natural and she’s clearly got a firm bead on the wised-up dame who still longs for true love.

Nicole Renée Chapman and Nathaniel Rothrock fight nice as the “juvenile” leads and kick up a cloud of stardust in the substantial dance sequences. Other standouts include Jack Mosbacher’s suave and silver-voiced boy toy for Little, and Ryan Drummond, who can steal a scene just by shrugging his shoulders in rhythm.

Roy Eikleberry, Rudy Guerrero, Kathryn Han, Adrienne Herro, Katherine Leyva, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Abby Sammons and Jordan Sidfield all have fun little cameos and keep the song-and dance sequences nicely energized.

Pulling duty as director and choreographer, Zack Thomas Wilde shows a deft hand for this kind of material and specifically raises the bar for dance deployment in Moon productions, from his elaborate full-company numbers to cleverly tapped scene changes.

Music director Ben Prince provides lively piano support and nicely blends the group vocal efforts. Costumes by Felicia Lilienthal are playful in the court sequences and Jennifer Veres strips out the proscenium to create a grand central playing area. Racy for it’s time but tame today, this “Du Barry” may want to be a lady, but deep down she’s really just a good time gal!


Du Barry Was a Lady

Presented by 42nd Street Moon

Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes May 18

Tickets: $21 to $75

Contact: (415) 255-8207,

Review: Scrooge & Marley

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

Chicago Now
Scrooge & Marley: A Review
By Countess Gregula, Monday at 5:47 pm

There have been many takes on the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Besides the many traditional remakes there have been cartoon versions, Americanized modern day tales, a comedy and even a version where the Scrooge character was female. So just when you were thinking that there is no way that this story could be made fresh and exciting, along comes the film Scrooge & Marley to put a new spin on things.

Scrooge & Marley is a holiday movie with something for everyone, comedy, drama…showtunes??? The story is faithful to the Dickens classic, but with a gay-friendly twist. Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (David Pevsner) is a mean, miserly nightclub owner who just happens to hate Christmas. He treats everyone like crap, has no friends and barely any family with the exception of a niece Freda (Rusty Schwimmer) who cannot stand him but reluctantly extends him an invitation to her Christmas gala at the request of her partner who wants to reunite them as a family. Naturally Mr. Scrooge turns it down in favor of the traditional anti-holiday repast of Chinese takeout and a night alone.

Well, Chinese food not only makes you hungry an hour later but in Scrooge’s case it also brings on a few spirited visitors, including a visit from his old partner Jacob Marley (former SNL regular Tim Kazurinsky) who has come to warn him of the unpleasant fate that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways. A visit from the ghost of Christmas Past (Ronnie Kroell) brings back sad memories, including Scrooge being kicked out of his home by a homophobic father and the loss of a great friend and mentor Fezziwig (Bruce Vilanch) , and his one true love due to increasing greed. Visits from the ghosts of Present (Megan Kavanagh) and Future (JoJo Baby) are fairly predictable but done with sparkle and sass. Lessons are learned and the usual happy ending commences, and as Tiny Tim says “God Bless us one and all”.

Narrated by Judith Light (yes, Angela from Who’s The Boss) and set in our very own town of Chicago, Scrooge & Marley is a must-see for the holiday season and Count and I give it TWO FANGS UP

For more information and to purchase the film on DVD and Blu-Ray visit

Review: Bruce Vilanch at Feinstein’s

Friday, February 25th, 2011

ABC, that production relocated to Orem, Utah, to be closer to the pair’s funky Mormon Mecca and thus began Lynde and Vilanch’s weekly commute from Hollywood to LDS-land aboard the now-defunct Western Airlines.

Vilanch remembers one of the funniest men he’s ever known, but with just “two drinks” something a bit more distinctly evil emerged. Lynde’s sex toys on the luggage carousel story from Vilanch’s 2000 off-Broadway one-man-show Almost Famous is now legend, but here Vilanch updates his Lynde lore with a crowded Western Airlines flight, a few cocktails over Lynde’s two drink minimum and an encounter with a rowdy baby in which Lynde told the parents, “Either you shut that baby up or I’ll fuck it.”

How you feel about the above punchline will probably determine how you feel about Vilanch’s act. It’s insidery and twisted, but for
Bruce’s turn as Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical Hairspray
some also uproariously funny so that even the well-worn jokes—like his infamous, but unuttered “Fievel backed out” line as a goof on Richard Gere’s co-presenter penned for Billy Crystal’s hosting duties at the Academy Awards the year that Speilberg’s American Tale was up for best original song—bear repeating.

And Vilanch also throws in something new, almost as a reward for listening to him rehash some of his patented zingers. In this case, it’s an anecdote from the year that Steve Martin hosted as Vilanch, Martin and the network censor went roundelay on the back-from-commercial, good news/bad news joke that Martin’s fly was open, but the camera adds ten pounds. “It’s a cock joke,” Martin maintained. “It’s a camera joke,” Vilanch countered.

That’s not to say Vilanch is all about Hollywood. He was born in New York and definitely knows where he is, even conceding a Broadway joke or two, albeit ones that have been around at least as long as last season.

There’s his oft-told Pia Zadora as Anne Frank joke wherein the audience tips off the Germans by screaming, “She’s in the attic!” But there’s also a gag about Valerie Harper’s Tallulah Bankhead from last season’s Looped which Vilanch informs the audience was “up last season for at least three weeks.”

So this isn’t Vilanch’s first time at the rodeo. He also appeared in one of the many second casts of the Broadway musical Hairspray, even shaving his trade-marked beard to take on the role of 60s mama Edna Turnblad, but he clearly didn’t make it to the American Idiot opening.

As a run-up to Oscar, his show was an invaluable primer. And naturally, Vilanch weighs in on this Sunday’s mega-watt hosts for the “Los Angeles national holiday,” James Franco and Ann Hathaway. “They’re movie stars,” Vilanch says, “they don’t have to come out and kill.” Not so Vilanch. And he does, for the most part, but when he doesn’t kill, it does cause one to question venue. Seeing Bruce Vilanch at Feinstein’s is a bit like watching a hockey game at the Metropolitan Opera.

First off, there’s his attire. I get that the “funny tees” are a trademark, but no lint brush? The comedian’s wardrobe is covered in stray hairs from his fly-away blond pageboy and along with the Sally Jesse Raphael red glasses, it adds up to a look that probably wouldn’t get him past the maitre’d were he not headlining. Or being mistaken for Barbara Cook.

Overall, his last foray into one-man territory in New York was much more accessible because he was able to own the room. Almost Famous played a smallish, downtown theatre, but didn’t come with all the trappings of the even smaller room at Feinstein’s, where one has patience for the patter, but first and foremost expects the headliner to eventually sing.

I know it’s wrong to evaluate comedy on a sliding scale, but the $85-$95 ticket price for Chelsea Handler’s last blow through town stuck in the craw just as much. Shouldn’t comedy be cheaper? But it’s not hard to figure out how it happened. Vilanch writes patter for the man whose name is above the door. The why of it is, like the $25 food minimum, a little harder to fathom.

And for the upscale ticket price., many of his best tales would be greatly aided by multimedia. An Oscar ceremony where Val Kilmer vamped with Roy Roger’s horse Trigger (and “Trigger wasn’t having it”) almost needs to be seen to be believed, but this room really doesn’t allow for that type of capability.

Vilanch was also a bit stiffer onstage than he was ten years ago, when he devoted the entirety of the second act to audience Q & A. Here, there’s very little riffing with the crowd, as if the stiffness of the venue has set in like arthritis. Toward the beginning of his act, Vilanch joked, “I’m following in the footsteps of Lorna Luft.”

Liza’s half-sister got her start in television at age 11 on her mom’s Judy Garland Show. Vilanch’s own career launched a bit earlier than that modeling for the “charming chub” division of Lane Bryant. As he observed the year that Bjork wore her infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress and he overheard her screeching into her cellphone in Icelandic, “She really is a swan.” He might as well have been describing himself. And maybe after generations of a celebrity-driven rape of the swan, it’s about time momma got paid.

About Cher’s Face…

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Sonny & Cher in Good Times, 1967
Image via Wikipedia

New York Daily News
About Cher’s face…
January 13, 2011

Bruce Vilanch snuck into NYC ahead of the snowstorm Tuesday night and had the crowd at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency plotzing over his riffs on Cher. (He’s entitled: One of the Emmy winner’s first jobs was as a writer on “The “Sonny & Cher Show.”)

Vilanch says he told the diva recently, “I like that face. Keep that one.” He also compared her ever-youthful countenance to Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier.

“She calves, and parts of her are streaming down the Gulf of Alaska,” he said – like the crowd’s tears of laughter.

Read more: