The Incomparable Joe Zelli
Joe Zelli, sometimes called the King 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.
Details of Joe Zelli’s early life are sketchy at best but he was born Salvatore Joseph Zelli (in some press reports his name was also listed as Guiseppe) in 25thDecember 1888 in Rome and later said that his parents were Italian and French. Seemingly like many Italians he emigrated to the USA at an early age. Some reports suggest that he started his career in Chicago before migrating to New York and entering the nightclub business in 1908-09 running a restaurant called Jack’s Barat the corner of 43rd Street and Madison Avenue. He then moved to London and ran a venue called theOasis club, although why he moved across the Atlantic to London is not known but the move does sounds as if something drastic may have happened.
Zelli was definitely in London in 1910 because his first son Vittorio (Victor) was born in London in July 1910 (one certificate says 26thJuly, another listing 10thJuly). Interestingly, Victor’s mother was apparently Bertha Bense (born in Berlin in 1884) but she and Joe Zelli only married 15thSeptember 1915 and a second son Rinaldo (Ronald or Ronnie) was born 5thFebruary 1916. The fact that Victor’s birth certificate was to some extent fraudulent indicates some misgivings about revealing the family’s true identity. Joe Zelli was listed as Salvatore Angel Lind (a clerk at the stock exchange) and Bertha listed as Bertha Augusta Lind claiming her maiden name was Muller and yet Victor was listed as Victor Salvatore Bense (the true surname of his mother Bertha).
A significant event in July 1917 puts an interesting spin on the activities of the Zelli’s in London because both Joe and Bertha were sentenced to a month’s hard labour and a recommendation for expulsion from the UK. They had been keeping a five-storey house in Bryanston Square, Marylebone on disorderly lines and when police raided the premises they found New Zealand soldiers with women and empty beer and wine bottles. Clearly, the Zelli’s had in effect been running a brothel. This may explain why Zelli emerged in France.He claimed that he had joined the Italian artillery but there is no evidence that he did so. However, after the armistice he opened a cafe in Tours, which was an American army base that continued for a few months and enlisted Bob Burns (the inventor of the Bazooka) and his Jazz Band The Melody Six made up of marines.Zelli also claimed that he served on the staff of the French Generals Joseph Joffre and Ferdinand Foch.Later, hefound himself in Paris and worked at anAmerican 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 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 not only his native Americans but also the South American and Spanish colony in Paris.
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. However, in November 1920 it was closed by the police for violating the law by allowing non-members entry. Allegedly, a number of clubs had been granted police protection in the past but Paris City officials were clamping down on corruption. Undeterred, Zelli’s was reopened by January 1921 and was described as a meeting place for Americans for supper and dancing commencing at 10.30pm.
Not long afterward, sometime in 1920, Zelli decided to move North and established Zelli’s Royal Box at 16 bis Rue Fontaine which had previously been La Feria cafe and run by Oscar Mouvet, the brother of the famous dancer Maurice. His new venue opened on 26thMarch 1921 and featured a cabaret with cabaret with Holt’s Famous Jazz Band and the Ad Libs. The Royal Box 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.
Sometime in 1926, Zito met and became great friends with the legendary Josephine Baker. How this came about is not known but perhaps simply Josephine made visits to Zelli’s and met him there. For some time he became her companion and escort about town. They would meet in Zelli’s and when Zito had finished his stint sketching the famous guests they would depart for a tour of Montmartre. One night Zito was ill so he introduced her to his cousin – Guiseppe Albatino – who began to style himself as Count Pepito de Albatino. Pepito had begun to work as a gigolo at Zelli’s or more politely a ‘dance instructor’. Despite the fact he was in his 30s “Pepito’ was handsome, suave and had the gift of flattery and soon became a firm fixture in Josephine’s life and acted as her business manager until his death in 1936
Joe Zelli was described as rotund, ruddy and beaming and was a small, energetic man with a sauve aplomb and graciousness. 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.
Of significance, in March 1926, the famous pianist and singer Leslie Hutchinson (simply called Hutch) became director of the Royal Box Band (formerly the Palm Beach Orchestra) and to highlight its attractiveness to Americans in June 1927 the stage actress Fanny Brice and film actress Norma Talmadge were visitors.
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 also opened restaurants in London, Rome and Capetown. He used his wealth to buy a chateau in the country at Varennes Gercy-Seineand a high-priced limo took him there each morning when his place closed after dawn. At his country estate he raised chickens and dogs and became one of the best horsemen in Paris.
Zelli also had other business dealings and one of these was the manufacture of speciality sauces and salad dressings that he sold all over Europe. He later recalled that at an early age he met the great French chef Auguste Escoffier and that Escoffier was his partner in his restaurant and nightclub business in London and with him they invented and blended some magnificent sauces including sauce Robert, Sauce Melba and Escoffier sauce. Whether this was true or not (I am inclined to the latter) it was an interesting point and using the Escoffier name was a shrewd ploy.
Later, Zelli also claimed to have produced various stage shows in London and Paris including The Chocolate Soldiers, No No Nannette and Rose Marie, although this might be hyperbole. I suspect Zelli may have been prone to exaggeration and had the gift of the gab or as the French say ‘avoir du bagou.’
However, 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.’ Zelli closed the Royal Box for three months at the beginning of 1928 and took a well-earned vacation to St Moritz but in April 1928 re-opened and once again ‘the air is once more full of champagne bubbles and jazz music.’
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.’ Once more he closed the Royal Box and with his wife took the Isle de France back to the USA arriving January 1930 with the artist Zito. They visited Havana, Cuba, Miami, New Orleans and Hollywood, before returning to Paris. In Hollywood and Miami they were the guests 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. Some reports suggest that Zelli appeared in the Broadway show for a short time and was involved with the 1931 film (released by Warner Brothers in February 1931) on his visit to Hollywood. Zelli’s business predictions were right and there was a huge slump in travel across the Atlantic and business in Paris suffered.
Back in Paris Zelli re-opened the Royal Box on 11th April 1930 and it was noted he had brought back all sorts of novelties and ideas that included a new Palm Beach revue along with moving pictures taken while the Zelli’s were in Florida and a telephone on every table. At some point Zelli met the youthful Broadway producer Charles K. Gordon. who had been connected with Warner Brothers movie interests in Germany. Gordon had bought the rights to the book Papavert by Georges Froeschel editor of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung. Based on the book, Zelli and Gordon produced the play that was described as a satirical, comedy, drama that was staged at the Apollo Theatre on 11th September 1931 to great acclaim.
After closing the Royal Box once again for the winter, Zelli was back again in America in mid-October 1931 with the objective of the opening of a Zelli night-club in New York and to complete arrangements for the Broadway premier of Papavert.
Zelli told 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 1931 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. The resort catered to the most exclusive clientele in the city and occupied an entire 5 storey building decorated in the most lavish modernistic style. Inside was a huge circular bar built of precious inlaid wood. The walls were frescoed in bizarre oriental motifs or hung with luxuriously velvet drapes. Grand pianos and heavily cushioned furniture were spread throughout the various dining and reception rooms.
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 re-wrtitten 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 Zelli returned to Paris and re-opened the Royal Box in April 1932, which had been completed re-decorated with a setting conducive to Rumba dancing, that Zelli felt was the current rage and even introduced a Cuban orchestra.
On 20thDecember 1932, Zelli seemingly inaugurated a rather racy two hour cabaret show entitled ‘Chez les Nudistes’ with décor created by the painter Jean-Dominique van Caulaert.
At first the show was called ‘Chez les Nudistes’ but soon the venue itself took that name replacing the Royal Box and a series of spectacular shows were staged through the period 1933-1939 – usually two shows per year. Charles Tutelier was the artistic director of Chez Les Nudiste but the venue was run by Henry Darcet, director of the Scala Theatre. One cannot help but wonder whether Joe Zelli was still involved in the running of his venue or if he had given a lease to his Royal Box to Darcet or indeed sold out to Darcet. Certainly, at first, Chez Les Nudistes was described as being at Zelli’s but later by 1934 there was no mention of Zelli.
Since Joe Zelli had been criss-crossing the Atlantic from 1929, he had more or less decided to remain in New York by the early 1930s. At some point he was also divorced from his wife who remained in Paris. In early 1936 press rumours suggested that the Zelli family was still connected with the original nightclub and that Mme Zelli had ‘a big finger in this club pot.’ The suggestion was that Joe Zelli, now residing in New York, had left the club to his wife and that presumably she had leased the club to Henry Darcet or a deal had been done between the two of them. (see the post on Chez Les Nudistes)
By November 1933 Zelli opened another bar at 16 Rue Caumartin called the Rabbit (Club des Lapins). Downstairs was like any other bar but upstairs the mural décor consisted of huge playing cards. Of significance was that Zelli’s partner was the American Jack May, who after many years running various night-clubs in London, including the famous Murray’s Club in Beak street, had been deported in 1930 following years of investigation. May had successfully camouflaged an extensive drug business. On the surface May was seen as a successful business-man and night-club owner but he had murky depths and for some was undoubtedly a crook. One wonders the extent of Zelli’s friendship with him and if it extended to his stay in London during and before World War 1. (see the post on Murray’s Club)
In February 1933, came the end of prohibition. Perhaps this might have persuaded Zelli to return to the USA but he didn’t return until May 1934 announcing that he planned to launch a musical show called The Nudist Revue with Josephine Baker and Grock the clown in the autumn, which did not come to fruition.
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 in early 1935 it was seemingly closed again by the police, shuttered and gone.
In the meantime, Zelli had become involved with Charles Brazelle, a Francophile, and very dubious character indeed. Perhaps inspired by Zelli, Brazelle had created a Parisian inspired nightclub in the basement of the Medical Arts Building at 57 West 57th street, New York, with a café Basque upstairs. The building had been bought by his lover Edna Champion following the demise of her millionniare husband in 1927.
Opening on 15thDecember 1934 Le Boeuf sur le Toit was thought to be ‘authentically French in every respect.’ Brazelle had a Mr Chalomes create the interior décor as a replica of the Boeuf Sur Le Toit in Paris and Alina De Silva, director of entertainment at the Paris Boeuf, was the star of the first floor-show.
Zelli was allegedly involved in the business and because of his contacts and history must have been a unique asset to Brazelle. Zelli was described as joint manager and had a unique role as official greeter. But things were not good. Louis Moyses the owner of the original Parisian Boeuf Sur Le Toit was not amused and not surprisingly instigated legal proceedings. By February 1935, Zelli had left the sinking ship and despite a new floor-show featuring the legendary Norwegian Rocky Twins and the famous Billy Arnold Orchestra from Cannes and Deauville, Brazelle’s Boeuf folded, and Brazelle faced an untimely end in December 1935.
Undeterred, by May 1935. Zelli emerged as Master-of-Ceremonies for the smartly decorated Normandie Club in the Navarro Hotel on Central Park South. The Normandie was dignified, spacious, high roofed and airy and drew a youngish, well-behaved crowd in a perfect location. The floor-show featured various acts including the Rocky Twins. (see the post on the Rocky Twins)
Zelli’s own club experience and his MOC activities attracted attention and one press report thought that ‘the depression has crimped the style of the Zelli’s of the world…They are a likeable band of Cafe men who depend upon personal flattery and the blare of jazz to make dining exciting. In their stead, the demand is well cooked food, vintage wine, checks within reason and no noise.’
Undeterred by the criticism, Zelli once again embarked on another New York ‘opening.’ His new venue was called Aux Vignes de France and opened at the beginning of September 1935, perhaps in the same place as his previous club incarnations. It was described as being very elegant but appears to have faltered once again as by late September it was announced that Zelli was going back to Paris. One newspaper account said had ‘been unable somehow to duplicate his Paris success catering high jinks to New York stay-ups.’ It was stressed that he had made several attempts with generous backing ‘but a rousing opening was followed by a quick closing.’ It was thought that his magic had faded but it was thought he had ‘tenacity and night clubbing is a tenacious trade. He may yet turn the trick.’ In addition it was made clear that he had a slogan that made him famous ‘audacity, more audacity, always audacity.’ Zelli observed poignantly that in terms of his business, New York was ‘the ideal place now that Europe is perched atop a powder keg.’
In early 1936 Zelli spent the winter again in Florida andhe opened a new rendezvous for the winter seasonin 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.
Zelli clearly went back to Paris in the first half of 1936 and arrived back in New York on 31stAugust 1936. Later in the year Zelli opened a new Royal Box at 130 East 58thStreet on 18thNovember 1936 that had a host of stage and society notables at the opening. He allegedly spent $10,000 on decorations by Gretl Urban and Zito creating an exact replica of the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, which was the club’s motif. The floor-show featured Rachel Carley, a radio chanteuse, 8 shapely beauties headed by Evelyn March, two orchestras, a dance team from the Bar Tabarin and Mickey Braatz a pin-wheel dancer. Once again this proved to be shortlived.
Thereafter, there was silence until November 1937 when Zelli became a naturalised American citizen, citing his residence as the Hotel Brevort at 8thStreet and 5thAvenue and a reference to the fact he was now divorced, his ex-wife Bertha presumably living in either London or Paris. Oddly, there were further naturalisation papers in 1944. Zelli clearly thought living in America was a better bet than Europe given the impending war.
All was quiet through 1938, but Zelli apparently made a tour of the Near East arriving back in New York in early 1939. He brought back some new ideas and created a new club called ‘Arabian Nights’ at Broadway and 52ndand 53rdstreet with an interior built like the throne room of an Arabian Palace that opened on 9thFebruary 1939 with a floor-show featuring the dancing of Roberts Jonay and Doris Grant. It would appear that the club only had a short shelf-life.
Once again Zelli opened another club in August 1940 but this time just north of New York City in Westchester County in Hartsdale. It was on the main thoroughfare at 131 Central Avenue but once again this was shortlived. By September 1942 he had become the Maitre d’Hotel at the historic Brevort Hotel at 8thstreet and 5thAvenue, where he had previously stayed and a year later was described as Managing Director of the splendid and ancient restaurant. This engagement, like his nightclubs, did not last and he did become jobless before gaining another maitre’d position at the lavish new venture in Yonkers called Crystal Coronet in December 1947.
At this time he became re-acquainted with an old friend called Colonel Sidney K. Wolf at the New York Yale Club. Wolfe, from Baton Rouge had visited Zelli’s Royal Box in Paris when a young Yale student in the 1920s and awarm friendship developed that lasted through the years. Sidney had been a Colonel in the Army Air Corps and was an executive of the International telephone and telegraph company and a professor at New York University. He told Zelli that he had just bought a little place in Hillsdale in upstate New York and suggested Zelli moved there with him. Sidney perhaps knew that Zelli was at loose end and also knew that he wanted to develop his culinary sauces again as a business. So in the late 1940s Zelli moved to Hillsdale Hills, a densely wooded stretch of the Taghkanie Mountain range accessible on the Craryville-Harlemville road and developed a gourmet’s paradise. A rundown barn was converted into a mini-factory and his branded sauces were sold all over the East coast to speciality stores, hotels and restaurants. One report says he shipped out 20,000 cases a month another 48,000. Zelli was able to work two days a week and went to the city each week to see shows and friends.
Zelli’s culinary aspirations did not end there because in the 1960’s he gave demonstrations and luncheons at local venues and in July 1960 for example, gave a luncheon in Copake Falls serving veal parmesan and a meringue glace chocolate au rum.
Sidney and Joe called their place El Ritoro – the Retired.
Joe Zelli died 12thDecember 1971 aged 82 in Hillsdale and is buried there.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times 13/12/71
New York Times 1/1/32
New York Times 25/5/34
New York Times 29/12/34
New York Times 24/10/36
New York Times 21/11/36
New York Times 9/1/37
New York Times 5/2/39
The Day 8/10/35
Miami News 4/12/31
Chicago Tribune 18/11/20
Chicago Tribune 21/1/21
Chicago Tribune 26/3/21
Chicago Tribune 30/3/26
Chicago Tribune 17/6/27
Chicago Tribune 13/1/28
Chicago Tribune 16/1/28
Chicago Tribune 14/4/28
Chicago Tribune 1/1/30
Chicago Tribune 16/4/30
Chicago Tribune 11/4/30
Chicago Tribune 12/6/33
Chicago Tribune 4/5/31
Chicago Tribune 27/8/31
Chicago Tribune 11/10/31
Chicago Tribune 28/10/31
Chicago Tribune 1/1/32
Chicago Tribune 2/1/32
Chicago Tribune 14/11/33
Chicago Tribune 14/3/34
Chicago Tribune 31/3/30
Chicago Tribune 28/4/32
Chicago Tribune 4/7/32
Chicago Tribune 15/1/33
Chicago Tribune 12/6/33
Chicago Tribune 14/11/33
Chicago Tribune 14/3/34
Chico Enterprise 3/2/30
Miami News 20/6/34
New York Evening Post 19/1/35
The News Herald 9/2/35
Palm Beach Post 20/2/30
Rochester Evening Journal 10/3/28
Berkeley Daily Gazette 4/12/29
The Knickerbocker News 17/3/62
The Evening News 11/9/42
Lancaster Eagle-Gazette 28/3/38
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 27/1/39
Big Spring Daily Herald 23/11/36
Reading Times 3/2/36
Monroe News-Star 17/9/35
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 6/9/35
Times Union Brooklyn 2/8/35
Clinton Daily Journal and Public 27/2/35
Daily Star 9/1/32
Birmingham Daily Post 16/7/17
The Press Democrat 21/8/40
The Press Democrat 18/7/43
The Evening Independent 29/12/47
Chatham Courier 2/11/50
Chatham Courier 24/7/58
Chatham Courier 28/7/60
Hamilton Daily News 2/7/27
Valuable assistance from Rosemary Zelli
Making Jazz French: music and modern life in interwar ParisBy Jeffrey H. Jackson
Eugene Bullard, Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Parisby Craig Lloyd
Harlem in Montmartre by William A. Shack
The Paris That’s Not in the Guide Books by Basil Woon
Days and Nights in Montmarte and the Latin Quarter by Ralph Nevill (1927)
Naked at the Feast: the Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney
Bricktop by Bricktop