The Incomparable Joe Zelli
Joe Zelli, sometimes called the Kings of Cabaret Keepers, was undoubtedly one of the best-known and most popular characters in Montmartre during the 1920s and his nightclub the Royal Box was a firm favourite not just with visiting Americans but all nationalities out for a good time.
Zelli was Italian by nationality, French by persuasion and American by adoption. He was happy, congenial and good-natured but some described him as a sleazy and dubious racketeer. Perhaps in his early days, and definitely in his latter years, he had links with the mob and gangster groups such as Owney Madden in particular. He began his career working as a waiter in New York and entered the nightclub business in 1908-09 running a restaurant at the corner of 43rd Street and Madison Avenue. He then moved to London and ran the Oasis club and then, with the advent of the First World War, joined the Italian artillery but after the armistice he found himself in Paris and worked at the original American bar serving US officers.
Paris was buzzing with excitement and the entertainment industry began booming again with an influx of visitors from all over Europe. Of course, the American invasion of Paris was most obvious with not only ex-servicemen but boat loads of tourists of all classes escaping the restrictions of prohibition and taking advantage of a much lower cost of living. Like several others, Zelli decided to take advantage of this captive and lucrative market. Numerous ‘dancings’ or cabaret venues opened all the time although they changed ownership quickly and often what was fashionable and popular one month became deserted the next. But they were restricted by licensing laws preventing opening after midnight. However, Zelli discovered that he could obtain a special license to open after midnight if he paid a special tax and sometime in 1918 or 1919 he opened a members own club at 17 Rue Caumartin. It was a huge success and word of mouth ensured it was popular with his native Americans.
One of his first acquisitions was engaging Eugene Bullard who became part of Zelli’s Zig-Zag club band as the drummer and manager of the clubs musicians. He also booked entertainers for the cabaret. Not long afterward, sometime in 1920, Zelli decided to move North and established Zelli’s Royal Box at 16 Rue Fontaine which had previously been La Feria cafe. This was a large rectangular underground dance hall on two floors in an almost Moorish style. The main floor area had a bandstand, stage, dance floor, ornate pillars and was littered with tables. At one end was an arched alcove with mirrored walls. The entrance made way onto a balcony overlooking the main floor with a modern American-style bar. Here, were what Zelli called ‘royal boxes’, set out along the balcony. Patrons could look down upon the festivities taking place on the floor below as well as talk to other parties on telephones in each box. One day a little Italian caricaturist arrived called Zito and over four years he drew all the famous guests and visitors to Zelli’s and these sketches filled the walls downstairs.
Zelli’s warm personality and skill in running his club were the chief reasons for its success. He greeted everyone who entered with a warm handshake and smile. When Zelli worked in New York one of his regular and distinguished clients always visited the same spot and so Joe called his particular table the Royal Box. Joe was always fond of the Royal Box thereafter and hence the name of his club. He did not greet his partrons disparagingly like the famous New York club hostess Texas Guinan with her famous phrase ‘Hello Suckers’ but instead stood at the entrance and called to his head waiter ‘The Royal Box for the prince’ with each new guest. Needless to say because of the comparison he was also called the male Texas Guinan of Paris.
Zelli had the right personality for a Parisian nightspot and because he was American he knew how Americans like to have their name remembered. One reporter summed him up: ‘Zelli is a tradition for visiting Americans – but the thought is why do we come here – after all Broadway is full of dumps like this. But the answer is that Broadway is not full of dumps like this. There is only one Royal Box and only one Joe Zelli.’ Significantly, Zelli’s was immortalised in the literary journal The Smart Set in a short story called ‘Next Door to Zelli’s’ in the August 1923 issue.
It was not just Zelli’s great personality that aided his success but more importantly his enormous stable of hostesses and gigalos. The Royal Box was decorated with over 30 beautiful girls whose aim was to sell as much champagne as possible. It was not sold by the glass, only by the bottle and the girls earned their pay by taking a percentage of the price of each bottle purchased. These dancing and drinking partners were mirrored by male counterparts who were equally attractive and good at their job. As a result, for some, the Royal Box resembled ‘a dine and dance’ from the old days on San Francisco’s famous Barbary coast.
Opening at midnight it was always crowded and attracted a cosmopolitan crowd of Americans, Italians, Spanish, Mexicans, Chileans and British. It was one of the last stops on a tour of the Montmartre cabarets and ‘hot-spots’ which became a fashionable pastime in the 1920s and in a way reflected the earlier, time honoured tradition of the ‘Tourne de Grands Ducs’. The club closed after serving breakfast in the early daylight hours.
Although the Royal Box was regularly raided by the police it was never shut down and it was so popular that that it is said Zelli earned half a million dollars in his first five years with the help of his French wife who looked after the cash and the books! Allegedly Zelli ran other clubs in Paris and used his wealth to buy a chateau in the country and a high-priced limo took him there each morning when his place closed after dawn.
But fate and fashion is fickle and nothing lasts forever. By the late 1920s, Zelli’s popularity was on the wane and in early 1928 the place was boarded up for a few months. One journalist thought that ‘nowadays Paris is becoming a daytime town and even tourists are following the Parisian custom of early to bed.’ The Wall Street crash in October 1929 had even more serious repercussions and two months later Zelli said ‘I am afraid that unless the market comes back sharply we are going to have the worst season next year than of any years since the war.’
Despite the ominous news Zelli and his wife took the Isle de France back to the USA in late 1929 and spent the winter in Hollywood and Miami as the guest of Ivan Kahn, who was involved in the film business as an agent and talent scout. It was good timing since the show Fifty Million Frenchmen, set in up-to-the-minute Paris, had been a great success in New York and featured Zelli’s Club giving it a much needed boost. But Zelli’s predictions were right and there was a huge slump in travel across the Atlantic and business in Paris suffered. By November 1931 Zelli had moved back to the USA and was telling reporters that the depression in Paris was awful. His own and several other cabarets had been forced to close. He announced that he was going to open a new club in New York at 17 West 56th Street with a $5 cover charge. This was deemed a rather dubious thing to do ‘Joe is either an optimist or he hasn’t any news about New York spenders for some years.’
The opening went ahead in early December under the watchful eye of Mrs Zelli as cashier who presided over the cash till like she had done on the other side of the Atlantic. The rumour was that Zelli was being bank-rolled by the racketeer Owney Madden. It did not last long and after few weeks it was raided by the police, closed down and then subsequently stripped of its contents. Joe Zelli (or his backer) lost over $100,000. But this was not all. Zelli had also brought with him a play called Mr Papavert of Teutonic extraction which he had previously presented in Paris and with Charles K. Gordon staged it at the Vanderbilt Theatre. It did not go well and it closed. Zelli had it rewrtitten and changed the cast and re-opened but it still not ‘click’. It was a flop and a costly failure and only lasted 13 performances. In February 1932 he returned to Paris.
A year later in February 1933, came the end of prohibition Perhaps this might have persuaded Zelli to return to the USA for in May 134 he was back announcing that he planned to launch a musical show called The Nudist Revue with Josephine Baker and Grock the clown in the autumn. In the meantime he took over the old Park Avenue club at West 58th Street, installed a cooling system, hired the lovely singer and dancer Gloria Grafton and signed a puppet show for the first time in night club history. Within two weeks it had become the most popular late spot in town. His new venture succeeded for a few seasons but by mid 1935 was gone.
Then in early 1936 he opened a new rendezvous in Palm Beach with a patio, garden and grand hall all tastefully decorated as an oriental fantasy supplemented by superb cuisine and music and unique entertainment from Kur-Zhene and his royal Persian orchestra and entertainers.
Back in New York later in the year (November 1936) he opened a new Royal Box at East 58th Street which once again endured for a few seasons but then closed. He tried again in the Spring of 1939 with the New Arabian Nights club on Broadway at 52nd and 53rd streets but it is doubtful that this did any better. Thereafter, it is not known with certainty what Joe Zelli did next but it is doubtful that he retired from the restaurant and club business and must have continued his activities. It is also not known when he died.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, Miami News, Variety, Time, Palm Beach Post
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