“Mr. Copacabana” author Jim Proser is 16 years old. He’s working at Mel’s Restaurant on West Mechanic Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, having finished a gig as assistant stage manager for Lee Yopp at the Bucks County Playhouse across the street.
Proser is living a block away at the Logan Inn with his father Monte, who created the legendary Copacabana nightclub in New York City, and is now not only separated from his wife, but also incapacitated after being mugged by three teenagers in Trenton. The younger Proser fears for his father’s life – Monte has no overt enemies, but he has more than a few mob members in his social circle.
If it all sounds like the “Godfather” hospital scene where Michael Corleone saves his father’s life, that’s because a big part of the Copacabana story and allure was the ever-present sense of danger, mixed with glamour, romance, music and fortune.
Flash back another 30 years, and a much younger Monte Proser is in the process of making the Zombie cocktail the unexpected hit of the 1939 World’s Fair, and helping usher in the tiki bar trend that would last nearly four decades. In a brilliant marketing stroke, he limits cocktail purchases at his booth to “only one per customer,” and by the time the World’s Fair ends, Monte Proser is sitting on a pile of cash. He decides to open a nightclub.
The Copacabana opened on Nov. 10, 1940, at 10 E. 60th St. in New York City. It combined the Polynesian themes and exotic rum drinks of tiki/beachcomber culture with Brazilian decor and Latin orchestras. The “Copacabana Girls” of the chorus were adorned in glittering, extravagant costumes, often sporting fruited turbans in the style of Carmen Miranda.
The list of entertainers who launched their careers and shattered attendance records at the club is staggering, including Sammy Davis Jr., Martin and Lewis, Johnnie Ray, Louis Prima, and Frank Sinatra, who referred to Monte Proser as “the genius.”
But while Monte’s name was on the Copacabana lease, organized crime boss Frank Costello had helped finance the nightclub, and was a silent partner.
“He knew full well what he was in for, but he needed the capital,” explained Monte’s son Jim. “He was in debt, committed to the club, and had no illusions about what partnership Frank Costello would mean. Coming out of the Great Depression, organized crime was one of few places where one could turn for money.”
Costello hired former Kit Kat Club manager Jules Podell to run the kitchen and restaurant staff at the Copacabana, and keep an eye on his stake in the business. Podell quickly earned a reputation as a violent, volatile and cruel dictator, skimming from suppliers, punching wait staff, and perpetually feuding with Monte over control of the club.
Podell even assaulted Johnnie Ray once at the Copacabana, hospitalizing the famed singer.
“He hated the song ‘Cry’ and Ray’s voice, and the way the women would scream for him,” according to Jim Proser. “Podell grabbed Ray, and locked him in a walk-in freezer for six hours. Johnnie Ray came down with pneumonia, and had to cancel his tour.”
It’s easy to see how the refined, intelligent British-born Monte would clash with the truculent Podell, but the two had more in common than met the eye.
“They were exactly matched as protagonist and antagonist,” observed Jim Proser. “Both were Jewish bar brawlers, with the same build and look, and both had volcanic tempers. Monte would take a swing at anyone who said something egregious, particularly about his religion or wife.”
Monte met his wife, the talented and stunning Jane Ball, while she was auditioning to be a Copacabana Girl, and announced his intention to marry her on the spot. She made him wait three years.
Raised as an Irish Catholic in Kingston, New York, Ball valued Monte’s authenticity and strong character. A talented dancer and actress with movie offers already in hand, Ball couldn’t have imagined the toll her husband’s rivalry with Podell would take on their marriage, along with Monte’s burgeoning alcohol consumption and frequent visits to a nearby horse track.
Monte and Jane were wed in 1945 at Justice of the Peace Don DeLacey’s barbershop in New Hope. The couple walked to their wedding reception down the street at the Logan Inn.
From there, the two honeymooned at a home Monte had purchased on Jericho Mountain near Bowman’s Tower in New Hope, and went on to raise their five sons in Bucks County.
“Unfortunately, the movie studios were pumping out amphetamines, and my mother got hooked, later self-medicating with barbiturates,” recalls Jim Proser.
“Some of my earliest memories are of my mom being drugged and unresponsive,” he continued. “She would get the pills from a pharmacist in Yardley.”
Meanwhile, Monte was muscled out of the Copacabana, but given jobs promoting and managing shows in Las Vegas during the 1950s. “Frank Costello was a standup guy,” remarked Jim Proser. “He knew he had hurt Monte, and made sure Monte had a job.”
“Income was erratic, and there was shame and isolation on Jericho Mountain for my mom,” Jim recounts. “But mom and dad never fought openly. He felt guilty that she was depressed, and she knew there was nothing he could do about it, so there was a kind of despair they shared without blaming each other. “
Although they separated for a while, the couple eventually reunited at their mountain home. Monte was asked to run his “last saloon” at La Bonne Auberge restaurant in New Hope in the late 1960s, and worked there until he died from a heart attack at his home in 1973.
Meanwhile, his son Jim had grown up around Newtown, Pennsylvania, and on the streets of New Hope. He started writing for the Lambertville Beacon, and in New Hope had been a busboy and dishwasher at Mel’s, the Hacienda, and Johnny Francis’ Canal House.
Jane moved to West Bridge Street in New Hope, and worked as a registered nurse until she died in 2005.
“Although I’m a screenwriter and playwright, I consider myself essentially a journalist,” said Jim. “A book about Dean Martin published in 1998 referred to Monte as a “front man” for the mafia, and so I wanted to set the record straight. I wanted to tell my father’s story, wherever it led.”
And the moral of the story?
“Be careful who you pick for friends and hang around. I don’t think that Monte had a choice.”
A musical stage version of “Mr. Copacabana” is being developed at the Key West Theater, and Proser hopes to premier the play at Bucks County Playhouse. A TV adaptation of “Mr. Copacabana” is also in the works.
“Mr. Copacabana” is a spellbinding tale of the nightclub era in American society, and of fame and fortune in New York City and New Hope. It’s also a morality play of sorts involving a deal with the devil, Frank Costello.
Perhaps, at its core, “Mr. Copacabana” is a romantic story about Monte’s obsession with a fading dream, and the love between he and his wife that somehow prevailed through it all.
“Mr. Copacabana: An American History by Night”
By Jim Proser
Paperback: 536 pages