Saturday, August 29, 2009

Totie Fields: A Blography

Being one myself, I've always been enamored of Jewish comediennes. But while Sarah Silverman, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard, Gilda Radner, Bette Midler, Joan Rivers, Belle Barth, and Pearl Williams all make me laugh none have made me laugh longer than the too soon, too gone Totie Fields. Historically, Totie was more than a comedienne. She was arguably the first women to attract a national following as a comic.

I went into a department store and tried on a girdle that was
decorated with tiny rosebuds. When I got it on,
the roses opened up in full bloom.

In the 60s when her career really began its trajectory, women were still considered eye candy and not expected, or even allowed, to offer up opinions and ideas. Totie broke that glass ceiling by assuming a comic persona built on her weight and, pride in her shape - polar opposites. She might have been a zaftig yenta but rather than espousing self-pity she was confident in her appeal and sweetly brimming with self love. She explained that bringing up the subject of weight herself deprives the wise alecks from mouthing loud asides all night but, she was also teaching women of the era how to act.

Totie on The Ed Sullivan Show in the early 60s

Totie Fields was born Sophie Feldman, daughter of a shopping center owner, on 7 May 1927 in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. She started singing as a child, making appearances on local radio stations by the time she was 4. She toured the Borscht Belt at 14 and before she reached 20 years, worked as a tummler in Boston area strip clubs. Even then Sophie was breaking the glass ceiling: tummlers entertained guests as a master of ceremonies between acts and, at the time, were generally male. It was during this period that Sophie took her stage name - Totie being the way she pronounced her given name as a child.

I've been on a diet for two weeks,
and all I lost was two weeks.

Totie married George William Johnston, Jr. in 1950. Georgie (as he came to be known) was a fellow comic in Boston who, over time, worked solely with Totie as her musical director. The couple soon moved to Brooklyn, NY and became the parents of two daughters—Jody was born in 1952 and Debbie was born in 1955. The Admiral's Inn in Ogunquit, Maine, now a bed and breakfast, was the family's private summer vacation residence during this period into the early 1960's.

It was after her pregnancies that Totie began to gain weight. She tried dieting but nothing worked. The only way to lose weight, really, she concluded, is to have someone put you in a bed where you can't get to the refrigerator. Ever the optimist though, Totie decided to incorporate her size into her act. Her broad accent, self-deflating jokes and extroverted kvetching helped to endear her to audiences whom she treated like friends AND lovers. It was after making this decision that her celebrity and work increased twofold.

Shirley Temple had charisma as a child.
But it cleared up as an adult.

In the early 60s, Ed Sullivan gave Totie her first national break when he booked her on his show after seeing her perform at the Copacabana in New York. She made multiple additional appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, topping out at almost 20!

WORLD INTERNET PREMIERE: Totie released Totie Fields Live on Mainstream Records and
wrote I Think I'll Start on Monday: The Official 8 1/2 oz.
Mashed Potato Diet
published by Hawthorn Books.

See Experience Totie Fields Live to listen.

Totie also made a name for herself on the talk show circuit during the 60s and 70s. There were multiple appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Mike Douglas Show (on which she famously helped Mike introduce KISS to the American public when she co-hosted the 1974 episode that was their first television appearance.)

The Tarzan reunion show with Mike Douglas, Johnny Weissmuller,
Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney, Buster Crabbe,
Denny Miller, and Jim Pierce.

Other notable appearances included Here's Lucy and a well-received dramatic turn on Medical Center. Totie played multiple roles in the 1972 television special Fol-de-Rol, a filmed version of Sid and Marty Krofft's live puppet show.

Totie visits with Jerry Lewis on his annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon

Totie was diabetic and plagued with other health problems the last years of her life, having almost as many major medical procedures as television appearances. It has been rumoured that some of these problems stem from plastic surgery. This rumor is unsubstantiated although, interestingly, here is a link to 1972 episodes of The Merv Griffin Show on which guest Totie applauds plastic surgery as she questions Dr Kurt Wagner, the plastic surgeon to the stars. (Scroll to clip 4.)

In April 1976, Totie's left leg was amputated above the knee when surgery to remove a blood clot failed. Even with that traumatic experience, Totie fitted herself with an artificial leg and returned to work saying, "I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me." (Link to 1977 article from People Magazine)

Raquel Welch - a moron with less on.

In June 1977, Totie starred in the Home Box Office special series Standing Room Only, beginning her show seated. As the audience (filled to brimming with celebrity friends) welcomed her, she stood up, causing the cheering audience to stand with her. Said Fields: "I've waited all my life to say this... I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!" Totie was back and the audience was immediately at ease; if Totie could still laugh at herself, then it was all right to laugh with her.

While still recovering from the amputation, Totie suffered two heart attacks. In October 1977, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her right breast was removed. Nevertheless, Totie continued to perform and in 1978, the last year of her life, she was voted Entertainer of the Year and Female Comedy Star of the Year by the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Totie was scheduled to appear at the Sahara Hotel when she suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism in her Las Vegas home on August 2, 1978; she was 51. She was buried in Las Vegas and later moved to the Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles to be buried next to Georgie, who died in 1995.

Totie Fields: Inspirational, Outrageous, and Still Funny.

Totie performing in the early 1960s

Additional information:

  • Some sources speculate that Georgie had refused to release films, tapes, and other recordings of Fields after her death thus, explaining the dearth of material available. Can we then hypothesize that Georgie was crushed by her early death and felt it crass to capitalize on her body of work? They were so much in love - just look at the TattleTales clip - that it's a reasonable assumption.
  • Burial: Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA - Plot: Gardens of Heritage, Main Level, Crypt 60C
  • Totie appeared on The Glen Campbell Show playing a night-club bunny, a cheerleader, a minskirted stewardess and a ballerina.
  • Adorable Me, A Musical Based on the Life of Totie Fields
    Adorable Me! The Totie Fields Story (1990)
    A New Musical Based on the Life of Totie Fields
    Conceived by Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan
    Book by Bobby Pearce & Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan
    Are You Happy?
    Flat Tire, One Headlight Out
    Someone To Notice
    Weaver High School
    He Likes...Me!
    Holding On
    The Taste
    Look, But Don't Touch
    Me, Myself And Cane
    Don't Remind Me
    I'm Not Ready
    With Friends Like Mine
    On Top Of The World/Years
    Papa Is A Nice Man
    One Day At A Time
    Heat Up The Pot
    Workshopped at Long Beach Civic Light Opera (1991)
    Produced by American Jewish Theatre, Inc., Stanley Brechner, Artistic Director (1993)
    Four-month run at The Ballroom, New York (1994)
    Four-month run at Tropworld, Atlantic City (1996)
    Also played in regional theaters and performing arts centers across the country, 
    including Seven Angels Theatre, Northridge Performing Arts Center, Bailey Concert Hall

  • Sophie, Totie and Belle : Sophie, Totie & Belle is a play based on a fictional meeting of the late entertainers Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields and Belle Barth. It was written by Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen, with original music by Mark Elliott and songs associated with these entertainers. It opened in New York City at the off-Broadway Theater Four on March 15, 2000 after sold-out runs in Queens, NY Theatre in the Park, Boca Raton, Florida, Miami, Philadelphia, New Hope, Albany, and the Forum Theater in New Jersey, the Drama Center in Deerfield Beach, the Wilton Theater in Ft. Lauderdale, Theatre Works in Sarasota. Another review.
  • A list from “I Think I’ll Start on Monday”
    Five Practical Reasons For Not Going On A Diet
    1. It’s very impolite to leave food on your plate.
    2. America is supposed to be the best fed nation in the world. Why make us look bad?
    3. Fish, meat and vegetables maybe chemically polluted. The U.S. Government has NEVER found mercury in a chocolate layer cake.
    4. Food is synonymous with love. If you diet, you are depriving yourself of much needed affection.
    5. Sara Lee, Laura Scudder, Betty Crocker and Mr. Hershey are sincere, hard working Americans. Check your conscience. 
    Do you really want to take a living away from these people?

  • From Fol-der-ol
  • You can now listen to the Totie Fields Live LP on YouTube. See the Experience Totie Fields Live blog entry for links.
  • You can still download the Totie Fields Live MP3 files but you need to email me for the link.
  • 6/15/11 UPDATE: I received the following information in an email from a reader:
    Just read your blog......interesting stuff! I only knew her because my dad, Harry Morton, was her booking agent. The stories I heard growing up as a kid, in Oceanside, NY, were all about what a pain in the butt she was to work with. She spent many evenings in the den, with other comics that my Dad either handled or knew. Harry was one of the top agents for the Catskills, as well as Miami, and Lakewood, NJ. His clients, just to name a few, consisted of: Henny Youngman, Phil Foster, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Mac Robbins, Pat Henry, Norm Cosby, Harvey Stone, Jan Murray, and more. I have googled his name [Harry], only to find a sentence or two and nothing more. He was funnier than most of the guys he handled, He cut an album, "Look Out For Harry Morton" back in the 60's. I started to write a book with him, but we only wrote about 100 pages. He's gone now 8 years. He was married to Billie Lorraine, a nite club singer.
  • In this interview of Phyllis Diller from The View, Rosie O'Donnell brings up Totie and Phyllis mentions that Totie did not like Joan Rivers. Interesting.


  1. Thanks for the FUN blog!! Happened to stumble across it from Google, and loving it! love all the multimedia and LOVE TOTIE! you gave me all sorts of new info - FUN!!!

  2. Thanks for your amazing blog and all the info on Totie! Just starting to get to know her - and your blog entry was the BEST resource I've found online! Thanks, as well, for the MP3 of her album - which I'm trying to win on eBay (but you've already saved me the step of trying to figure out how to get the tracks off the LP and into iTunes!). Thanks again SO much!

  3. Wonderful sight for a very very funny Lady. I remember watching her live on Carson and Douglas. She was the Best!

  4. Outstanding Blography. You did such a great job in putting this blography together. Thank you so much for the MP3 files from Totie Field Live.


  5. I am a breast cancer survivor and I am putting together an act to make fun of breat cancer and all the crazy things you have to go through. It's very upbeat, dirty, crued and pee your pants funny. I love Totie and people have told me I'm like her. I even have the same figure. I want to see where I could go with this..

  6. I have always loved Totie and felt that I connected with her. This is a wonderful web site and my thanks to all who put it together. To her girls, you should be very very proud of your Mum, I always was.

  7. SO happy to have found your wonderful blog - especially this amazing tribute to Totie Fields!!! I grew up watching her on tv and listening to her albums. THANK YOU for the MP3 of her lp!!! And for all the great photos and video clips... PURE JOY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Enjoyed your Totie Fields bio so very much.

    The link appears to be dead. Sorry but I couldn't find your email so I hope this gets to you.

  9. Hi Michael,
    Haven't been able to reach you via the email address - is there any other way?

  10. Got the link you e-mailed me, thanks so much! Long live Totie :)

  11. Sorry, Bethany. That is the only way. Are you sure you are typing it correctly:

  12. Mike, thank you soo much for the album, as expected I was in stitches.

  13. I love Totie; I love this post! Thanks, too, very much for the download link to the album. I'd been scouring the internet for it. Can't wait to listen! x

  14. You did comment twice, Julia. I liked the one where you said 'I love Totie' so that one stays. ; > As Sean said above, you will be in stitches.

  15. My mother who is almost 75, and I were talking about a trip she took to Chicago...perhaps in the early 70's...My father was with her, and the salesperson brought a dress by Gayle Kirkpatrick out to show them, and my Mom tried it on. My dad didn't like it, he thought it was too colorful. A woman was sitting there alone, and my Dad started a conversation with her while my Mom was trying on more dresses. At some point, the sales person told my Dad "Do you know who that is?" She told him it was Totie Fields. Ms. Fields told my Dad "If you don't buy that dress for your wife, I am going to buy it for her. It is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen" They had quite a repoir, and shared some laughs. And yes, he did buy the dress, and my mother wore it again at the 50th birthday party of her sister in 1993, and looked absolutely gorgeous! I am to be a Matron Of Honour this summer, and If I could fit into that silk dress I would wear it in a heartbeat!

  16. What a sweet story, Jocey. Thanks for sharing.


  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. Totie was incomparable. Cute as a button, funny as hell, and courageous. Amputations (two of them) couldn't stop her. Heart attacks, (it took two of them to finish her). She was a study in bravery and spunk. Like most of the greats of her day, she didn't need smut to be funny. Thank God for You Tube. Now youngsters coming up can see what all the fuss is about. Go Totie!

  19. When she lived in Brooklyn on Ocean Parkway, her younger daughter was my best friend.

  20. How sweet! Thanks for the remembrance. We now know where the family lived full time in the late 50s-early 60s. I'll have to incorporate that information.

  21. Hi ... thanks for this great site on Totie. I agree with one of the other commentators ... this is by far the best resource online for her. Thanks again. I know it's a lot of work to maintain the site!

  22. Hi ... Thanks for this site on Totie. I have to agree with one of the other commentators and say this is the best online resource for Totie I've found online. Totie really was the best.

  23. Unlike all the wonderful things have said about Totie Fields, I have a very different perspective. Totie and her family lived in Natick, MA in the '50s where she played mah jong weekly with other nice Jewish ladies including my mother. At the age of 5 I went to my first birthday party -- for her daughter (Her name was Jody I think). My parents and other neighborhood couples went to see their 'friend' do her comedy act. My parents always watched Totie when she made her many appearances on TV shows in the '60s and '70s. At the same time Totie's brother and his companion owned and operated a beauty salon about a half mile from where we lived.And this is where my mother got her hair done for 20 years or more and became good friends with the brother (I think he was named Jack). At some time in the '70s, Totie was scheduled to appear at the Monticello night club in Framingham, and Jack invited my parents as his guests. My parents were very happy and excited. After the show, Jack brought his friends -- my parents -- backstage to see her (it was his idea -- they were very laid back people who would have never considered trying to see Totie.). Totie completely snubbed my parents, refused to talk to them, or just say 'hello,' or acknowledge them in any way. Jack was very embarrassed and apologized profusely to my parents. Talk about a woman with absolutely NO CLASS. Totie Fields was a bitch.

  24. A true pioneer during the mostly male era of stand-up comics. Today there are many female comedians. Some should produce a documentary about her for the Comedy Channel. I knew about her as a kid because her daughter Debbie and I went to the same public school in the Kensington section of Brooklyn, PS 179. I don't remember if Debbie was there for all six grades like me. I don't think she did.

    1. i also went to ps 179 with debbie i wonder where she is now and how she is doing.

  25. My father was in the class two years ahead of her at Weaver High. When I went away to college, whenever I met someone Jewish from West Hartford, Bloomfield, Simsbury, or another Hartford suburb, we'd always compare notes as to which class at Weaver High their parents were in, and it was always in reference to being in or a class or two ahead or behind Totie Fields!

  26. Great to see Totie remembered. I remember seeing her on the TV games shows & talk shows when I was a teen-ager in the 1970's. I was 15 when she died. Great lady. There was a recent documentary on the evolution of women comics, Joan Rivers (R.I.P) was mentioned, Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller but not Totie, too sad.

  27. Thanks to all for the comments (both good and bad). I'm curious as to the name of the documentary mentioned above.

  28. I am trying to find a clip I saw awhile ago of Totie talking about taking a cruise with her family.......she talked about looking like a "Jewish Bagel" when she was by the pool.....I couldn't stop laughing! Now I can't seem to find it anywhere? LOVE Totie!!

  29. Thank you for all of this on Totie. I loved watching her on tv when I was growing up. She was great!!