Monte Proser's Copacabana:
The Inside Story of New York's Iconic Gangster-Run, Star-Studded Nightclub
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
A peek at Stephanie Hoover's forthcoming book of the same name, containing EXCLUSIVE comments from legendary singer Johnny Mathis.
The golden age of New York City nightclubs bowed on Halloween eve 1940 when Monte Proser unveiled his inimitable Copacabana. It died, sadly and slowly, in 1973 when the doors of the original club closed for good.
Legendary American pop singer Johnny Mathis described the Copa in our exclusive 2016 interview as "...the biggest, most prestigious place you could play." But he also says, from a professional standpoint, "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me." Indeed, this best-of-times-worst-of-times theme runs throughout the club's history.
Plenty of nightspots operated in Manhattan before the Copacabana's doors opened. In fact, several of them were run by Proser. But the Copa was special.
Maybe it was the leggy Copa Girls, hired for looks over talent, who brought the magic.
Then again, the hottest bookings didn't hurt, either. Eddie Fisher, Xavier Cugat, Benny Goodman, Josephine Baker, Martin & Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra all performed there.
Perhaps crowds were drawn to the campy tropical interior, with support columns disguised as white palm trees. Says Mathis, "It looked like what everybody's idea of what I Love Lucy was."
Or was it the Zombie that brought the patrons - that powerful rum cocktail made all the more seductive by Proser's one-per-customer restriction?
In retrospect, maybe there was no singular reason. Maybe the Copa was just a bright, perfectly timed lightning strike. The nation had joined the fight against Hitler the year before it opened. Prohibition had been lifted not long before that. Americans sought distraction from the horror of World War II, and a place to celebrate once it ended. What better diversion than puttin' on the ritz at the star-studded Copacabana?
Proser leased, in 1940, the basement space of Fourteen East Sixtieth Street. Often erroneously called Hotel Fourteen, the luxury residential hotel was originally built in 1902. Its initial footprint measured 62 feet wide and 100 feet deep. Two wings were added in 1905, resulting in a street-front addition of 50 feet. The basement was expanded and remodeled as well. There were two entrances to the building. One retained the number 14. The other - the entrance to the Copa - became 10 E. 60th Street.
In its early days, the hotel catered to the moneyed, Cunard-cruising class. Rudy Vallee operated a speakeasy on the subterranean level in the 1920s while the Volstead Act was still the law of the land. In the '40s, while Copa revelers partied nights away in the building's underbelly, David Ben-Gurion used rooms on the upper floors to contemplate the British withdrawal from Palestine. In 1949 he was elected first Prime Minister of Israel.
Although most New York nightclubs were rumored to have mob backers, according to Proser's youngest son Jim, Monte's association with gangster Frank Costello was born of necessity. In his younger days, Costello formed an alliance with Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Costello was chosen to head the Luciano crime family in 1937 while the decidedly unlucky Charles served a 30- to 50-year prison sentence. Several years later, Costello "... put up the much-needed cash to finish the Copa when my father had spent all he had," says Jim Proser. For 35 years, Costello was Monte's ally and benefactor, but the two men never became true friends.
To protect his investment, Costello installed Jules Podell in the Copa. But there was a problem. Post-Prohibition, every nightclub employee was to be fingerprinted to prevent criminals from working in the industry. Says Jim Proser, Podell - due to prior arrest - could not operate a nightclub. He therefore "hid inside the Copa kitchen" while the club was open to avoid violation of the city ordinance.
Mathis remembers a more prominent presence and likens Podell to Dickens' Scrooge. The singer recalls Podell sitting menacingly by the cash register, questioning every server's ticket, and guarding the till.
To keep his business partners happy, Podell regularly insisted that Copa performers meet-and-greet his fellow mobsters. "Go say hello to that table," Podell would instruct, "and they'll buy you a drink." Performers who refused soon learned that saying "no" was unacceptable. They had even less control over their acts, according to Mathis.
During the week, singers and musicians did four shows a night. On Saturdays, they played five shows. As a result of this grueling schedule, Mathis developed debilitating laryngitis. But not going on stage wasn't an option. Podell told Mathis (and other Copa stars), "You will sing if you go to my guy." Podell's guy, it turned out, was the notorious Dr. Max Jacobson, also known as "Dr. Feelgood." His miracle cure was nothing more than intravenously injected speed. In addition to treating celebrities, Jacobson administered this amphetamine concoction to President Kennedy. "It was one of the low points of my life," Mathis admits. "It got me through, but at a very heavy price."
While the entertainers, mobsters and name-droppers' dream crowds made the Copa iconic in New York, newspaper gossip columnists spread its fame nationally. Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Earl Wilson and others wrote cryptic and often sarcastic weekly recaps of the club's happenings. But Proser himself created the ultimate publicity juggernaut. He contracted radio station WINS "platter jockey" Jack Eigen to broadcast live from the club on Saturday nights - an arrangement that reportedly doubled the weekly revenue.
Though Monte Proser was the public face of the Copa, Proser and Podell vied for recognition as the club's true operator. Costello, not surprisingly, denied any connection at all. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that the club might be sold. Philadelphia restaurateur Frank Palumbo (also a purported mob associate) was one such supposed potential buyer who denied the claim. Complicating matters even further, performers were rebelling. The American Guild of Variety Artists threatened to withhold acts if unpaid talent fees weren't addressed. But these internal struggles were hardly Proser's only worries.
In 1944, New York City began an aggressive investigation into who really owned the town's nightclubs. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia spearheaded the inquiry and specifically targeted mob guys like Frank Costello. With only a year's separation between his administration and the notoriously corrupt Jimmy Walker's, LaGuardia made it a personal mission to - as he famously said - "drive the bums out of town." And, he seemed to focus on the Copa. In October 1944, Proser paid a $150,000 tax assessment to prevent the club's operating license from being cancelled altogether.
Always looking for his next project, that same year Proser traveled to Hollywood to produce movies. Three years later he had a "legit" (meaning "Broadway") hit with the musical High Button Shoes. It ran for 727 performances before closing. All the while, his New York nitery remained the gold-standard, prompting others like Philadelphia's Harry A. Linn to capitalize on its reputation by simply taking the name for his own joint.
By 1948, any control - real or illusory - that Monte Proser enjoyed at the Copacabana finally and irrevocably vanished. Says Jim Proser, "[Monte] was bought out for $135,000. It was a devastating blow to my father emotionally, and to a large segment of the entertainment industry." Within months, however, Monte Proser was back in business with a new club called La Vie en Rose - which, when loosely translated, references the phrase "life through rose-colored glasses." It had been the title of French singer Edith Piaf's signature song, released a few years earlier.
While Mayor LaGuardia's campaign to rid New York City of mobsters was one of the first, it was hardly the last investigation into ties between organized crime and the nightclub scene. In May 1950, Senator Estes Kefauver was selected to chair the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime. The fourteen cities targeted by the committee included New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas - all areas where Frank Costello or his associates conducted business. "The wiretaps in particular gave a vivid picture of Frank Costello as a political boss and underworld emperor," the committee's report said. It then recounted, in amazing detail, the particulars of Costello's daily routine. He conducted business by home telephone each morning between eight and ten. Afterward, he went to the barber shop in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a de facto office where he held meetings. Once the Copacabana opened, it became his primary headquarters. Anyone trying to reach Costello could call the club and certain "in the know" employees (which likely meant Jules Podell) could advise accordingly.
Although Proser had separated from the Copa prior to the committee's formation, attorney Samuel Becker submitted a letter to the senators reinforcing this fact:
The records will show that Mr. Proser ... had absolutely nothing to do with the restaurant, and that he was forced to sell his interest in the Copacabana last January because as a minority stockholder he had no voice in the management for several years.Publicity agent David Charnay, called to testify before the committee, further elucidated Proser's situation. When asked if he himself was ever connected with the Copacabana, Charnay said that he had been hired by Monte Proser in the mid-1940s to act as "public relations counsel." Proser complained that his name was being linked to "hoodlums and gangsters," Charnay explained, and that it was being alleged that Frank Costello owned the club. Proser, at risk of losing his license, hired Charnay at $225 a week to get "the onus of these names off him."
Charnay also discussed Mayor LaGuardia's efforts to close the Copa due to its association with Costello. He relayed to the senators the agreed-upon compromise: the club could keep its license, LaGuardia had said, but Costello had to go. When Podell took Costello's place, LaGuardia insisted he be ousted as well. To appease LaGuardia, Charnay stepped in as a director of the corporation. He resigned almost immediately, though, when he realized that Podell had never actually forfeited his role as Copa operator.
When asked if Monte Proser was involved in illegal gambling, Charnay's answer was unflattering, but nonetheless benefical to Proser from a legal standpoint. "Monte Prosser [sic] is a very innocuous little man who has concerned his whole life with producing and promoting shows." Charnay added, "I don't think Monte Prosser [sic] is smart enough to be in the gambling business."
Committee Chief Counsel Rudolph Halley did not buy Charnay's "babe in the woods" assessment of Proser. Evidence indicated, insisted Halley, that Proser, Podell, Costello, Joe Adonis and Meyer Lansky were part of a group that operated a gambling club in Saratoga, New York called Piping Rock. "I did not know anything about it," Charnay replied.
When his turn came to testify before the committee, Frank Costello promised to answer questions rather than hide behind the fifth amendment, as some others had done. Instead, on March 15, 1951, Costello stomped out mid-questioning, announcing he was "going directly home to bed." It was a show of contempt that cost him four months in jail. This was followed by an 11-month stint for tax evasion. He again returned to prison in 1956, but that sentence was overturned the following year. Shortly after his release, a failed assassination attempt convinced Costello to retire as head of the former Luciano, now Genovese, family.
In 1955, Jules Podell paid a quarter of a million dollars to remove the large support pillars that blocked the view of the Copa's dance floor. Monte Proser's famous palm trees became things of memory. Yet the newly expansive space was no cure for the ailing weekly take.
Mathis was also making changes. He no longer wanted to perform at the club. It was a decision that the Copa's owners and his own manager strongly resisted. "They did everything except threaten me," he says. Of his time working for Podell, Mathis admits, "I must have been very, very young and very, very influenced by all of the hoopla." Looking back now, Mathis says, "I found out that it didn't make a damn bit of difference in my life or in my career."
During the 1960s, New York nightclub crowds continued to shrink. Those who did turn out were less interested in formal attire and tuxedoed crooners, and more interested in youthful, modern music. There were no long lines outside the Copa's doors; no need for the Ray Liotta-style tip-stack of twenties dispensed in the now famous steadicam scene from Goodfellas. And, making matters worse, Governor Nelson Rockefeller was demanding another round of investigations into the city's cabarets.
In 1969, Podell disbanded the epochal Copa Girls. During the celebration of the club's 32nd anniversary in 1972, 72-year-old Podell joked he'd retire when the club turned 64.
Frank Costello died of a heart attack on February 18, 1973. Jules Podell's heart stopped less than eight months later.
On October 6, 1973, police were called to Monte Proser's Bucks County, Pennsylvania home. There they found Proser's body in the bathroom. Initial newspaper reports offered conflicting theories about cause of death. One hypothesis suggested that Proser had taken too many barbiturates and fallen asleep in the bathtub. Another implied Proser's death was actually a suicide. Conspiracy theorists have posited that Proser was murdered to prevent his appearance before a senate committee - probably the least likely of the three scenarios.
Only one fact remains crystal clear. No one but Monte Proser could have transformed a basement on the Upper East Side into the legendary Copacabana. ☁