"The Mob was an integral part of everything." - Comedian Jackie Curtiss
"Don't feel sorry for me." - Comedian Allan Drake
Las Vegas inevitably comes to mind when people think of America and the Mob. The era of patent-leather crooners, blinding neon, schmaltzy comedians and feather-laden showgirls is constantly romanticized - but Las Vegas was merely the apex of a trend. From the nineteen thirties until the end of the sixties every city in America had at least one glamorous supperclub, if not four or five, featuring the top headliners in every showbiz genre. Furthermore, it didn't matter if these clubs were in Cleveland, Portland, Corpus Christi or Baton Rouge - if it was a nightclub - the owners were the Mob. For a good forty years the Mob controlled American show business.
Back in 1933, when President Roosevelt gave Americans the okay to get drunk, speakeasy proprietors scrambled to stave off irrelevance. The bootleg profits amassed during the dry years gave rise to the Mob. When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the Mob was left with hundreds of useless venues furnished with every conceivable liquor serving accoutrement. They salvaged their investments by retrofitting the speakeasy for legitimate nightclub use. Without the draw of clandestine liquor a new gimmick was needed to lure customers. The bait was entertainment; elaborate, lavish entertainment at a hitherto unseen scale. The explosion of Mob-run nightclubs created a huge circuit of well-paying jobs for singers, dancers, acrobats and comedians. Goons that had stood at speakeasy doors demanding secret passwords were now supperclub frontmen acting as the buffer between Mob overlords and the public. The American supperclub was born.
What became the Las Vegas business model was fine-tuned in these venues; Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia - all across North America, every city had a taste of it. The true petri dish was Miami Beach where the big hotels, big shows and big gambling flourished long before Vegas was conceived. The performers that worked for these men held no illusions. "The clubs were owned by bootleggers and even a few killers," explained actor George Raft, who worked as a dancer in New York supperclubs. "In my time I knew or met them all. Al Capone, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Lucky Luciano, Vinnie Coll - most of them were around. That didn't bother the patrons. We all worked the same places. The clubs were fun and a proving ground for talent. They're part of the history of this country." But somewhere along the way things changed. Remarkably, the Mob would lose its grip on show business. The Mob was once an untouchable entity and friendly with politicians. A revolving door of money and handshakes ensured cooperation. With the advent of the nineteen seventies, a paradigm shift occurred. Soon it was corporate America that proudly held the mantle of being above and beyond the law. A new kind of criminal exchanged money and handshakes with the political establishment. The Mob was replaced.
After a successful decade as Joey Bishop's protégé, comedian Lou Alexander observed the power shift. "When I was working Vegas the Mob ran Vegas," he explains. "Then it became corporate. Today it's corporate! Today it's like Disneyland! But in those days all the people that ran Vegas loved show people. They were great to us and they would give us everything - whatever you wanted." Despite the fact comedians were often surrounded by Mob violence, today's survivors are steadfast in their preference of Mob dominance over corporate rule. In many ways this is astonishing. Comedians ran afoul of the Mob more than other performers, inevitable, as a comic's vocation was ridicule. Every comedian of the era has a hairy story. Comedian Jack Carter managed to escape Mob hitmen in four separate cities. Shecky Greene was relentlessly beaten by contract killers. Sammy Shore and Rusty Warren managed to power through their respective acts while a Mob hit took place in the club during their shows. And yet, despite such bloodletting, Shore conforms to the opinion of his peers when he says, "Working for those guys, you knew they were the Mob... and they were just the greatest guys in the world."
The Lotus Club in Washington, DC is a good example of an average nineteen fifties nightclub. It's a place for MCA to try to develop a new client, work out the kinks and get them polished for the big time. If they fall flat on their face - so what? A bomb at the Lotus Club will never get mention in the columns of Earl Wilson or Jack Eigen. The local reporters are busy covering the political beat, not the district of tuxedo. Maybe Art Buchwald will wander in to grab a drink once in a while, but that's it. Nobody goes to the Lotus Club expecting much. Not the audience, not the press, not the performers. The comedian definitely doesn't expect his wife to be murdered while he's onstage.
Maybe he should.
Tonight the Lotus Club is presenting Jackie Lee - billed as "Mister Hot Piano." It seems most acts that come through the Lotus, whether they be comedian, singer or juggler, are named Jackie something. Walking past the coat check you can look over the counter and see verification on the glossies tacked to the wall. There's Jackie Davis and Jackie Paris and Jackie Wakefield and a photo of three children in matching top hats, unnamed, but it's a good bet they're called The Three Jackies. The club seats around one-fifty, but there are less than forty patrons at the moment. The sound of an amplified comedian, host of the show, already in mid-joke, echoes off the walls. He plays two parts:
"So the guy flips through the phone book and he finds a listing for a law firm called Schwartz, Schwartz, Schwartz and Schwartz. He calls.
'Hello, yes, I'd like to talk to Mr. Schwartz.'
'He's not in today. He's out playing golf.'
'Well, alright. Let me talk with Mr. Schwartz.'
'He's not with the firm anymore. He's retired.'
'Well, okay then, I'd like to speak to Mr. Schwartz if I could.'
"He went to Detroit. He won't be back for a month.'
'All right, well, may I talk with Mr. Schwartz?'
One table laughs. The rest, immersed in their dinner, aren't even listening. The comic gives up, looks at an index card and brings on the next act. From the wings comes a guy that tap-dances and plays accordion at the same time. He jumps on stage and has the crowd's attention immediately. He's billed as Happy Tappy Jackie. The frustrated comedian cusses to himself.
The frustrated comedian is Allan Drake. Six months ago Drake was the featured comic at The Copacabana, number one nightclub in New York, opening for singer Tony Martin. Until recently his gigs had never been better. Suddenly, without explanation, his management dropped him, engagements were canceled and friends stopped returning his calls. Desperate for a job, he booked the Lotus Club gig on his own. His reviews from the Copa stint had been solid. It didn't make sense.
While Drake is relegated to a tiny room in the nation's capitol, his wife Janice is sitting comfortably in Manhattan. She is, oddly enough, at The Copa. Janice Drake was once famous as "Miss Legs of New Jersey." If you doubt the veracity of the title there's a thug named Anthony Carfano, best known as Little Augie, who will confirm. Miss Legs and Little Augie are having a great time. They're laughing away in a darkened red-leather booth while the husband is out of town getting no laughs at all. Little Augie. Miss Legs. Mister Hot Piano... and Allan Drake. Mister Pathetic.
Manhattan, like most places in the nineteen thirties, was crippled by the stock market crash. Among the very few insulated from the Depression were the big time bootleggers, suddenly thrust into wealthier positions than Wall Street financiers. Beyond brute strength it was seldom for The Boys to display much talent. In turn, they admired those that had plenty. Many of the singers and comedians came from the same poverty-stricken backgrounds and grew up in the same neighborhoods as the Mob guys. There was an immediate kinship. "If you were an entertainer on Broadway during those days you would have to be blind and lame not to associate with gangsters," said George Raft. "Look, they owned the clubs! That's where the work was! Those people were looked up to by everyone. Christ, Owney [Madden] ran New York in those days. They had a kind of glamor about them. Maybe I got into some things at times a little over my head. But in those days, the things I did weren't that unusual." Lou Alexander says you had to look the other way if you wanted to be a comedian. "If you worked nightclubs and these guys didn't like you - then you didn't work. That's what it came down to." Bobby Ramsen, a favorite comedian at Frank Costello's Copacabana, says the club's stewardship was organic. "It was the natural flow of ownership and leadership. These guys, during prohibition, were the ones running speakeasies. Somewhere along the line somebody said, 'Hey, let's put in a show.' So they started using dancing girls and comedians. When prohibition was replaced they were there."
In the early nineteen forties Allan Drake had no comedic ambition. He was happy simply being a funny cab driver. It took the incessant coaxing of two comics, both compulsive gamblers with amphetamine addictions, to convince Drake he should be in comedy. Jackie Miles and Lenny Kent would stumble out of their respective gigs and flag a taxi. Inevitably it would be Drake's cab. "Listen, schmuck! This is fate!" Miles and Kent ascended to temporary stardom during World War Two when most name comics joined the service. The military had no need for a man as sickly, anemic and vice-ridden as Jackie Miles. The same went for STD-riddled Lenny Kent. The two barely worked before the War, but now they were everywhere. Two scrawny Jewish comics owed a fruitful new comedy career - to the Nazis.
Drake's teenage years were filled with fights. He responded violently to the anti-Semitic slurs thrown his way. He gained a rep as an adept scrapper. Soon he was boxing. Columnist Jim Bishop wrote that Drake "whose [actual] name was Margulies, ached to make the students grin, but they respected his left hook. In time, the bottom of his nose was bent toward his teeth and he became an amateur with seven wins, three losses and one draw. He despised himself for hurting others and one day he told his father he was leaving home. He went to Miami Beach and drove a taxi. It was a cockeyed life." As the Mob spilled out of places like New York and Chicago - Miami Beach became a cockeyed place.
ONE HUNDRED TELEPHONES
Down in Florida, restrictions on parimutuel gambling had been eased during the Depression. Desperate people helped buoy the economy by wasting their meager dollars at an extensive new series of dogtracks, horsetracks and casinos. The Hangar Room, The Miami Beach Kennel Club, The Palm Island Club and The Villa Venice were among them. All were Al Capone investments. It was no secret that South Florida's booming resort community was mostly bankrolled by the Mob. Still, the men at the top understood the necessity of keeping a low profile. Steven Gaines says that Capone "wasn't around very much. For most of the 1930s Capone was in and out of prison for tax evasion and he only moved back to Miami Beach to die of syphilis-induced dementia."
The region had a syndicate known as the S&G. What the initials stood for was never determined. What they represented was well known. "There were so many gangsters in Miami Beach in the 1940s that they met around 11:00 am on 32nd and Collins as if they were the show people of vaudeville days meeting by the Palace." Longtime resident Stuart Jacobs says, "When the S&G were around, every fruit stand on Miami Beach had a bookie in the back. You could place a $20 bet on a horse and buy a bunch of bananas all at the same time." Irving Cypher was a regional prosecutor with the unenviable job of harassing the Mob. "They were politically powerful, the S&G. They had plenty of money and they controlled who got elected and what went on in city government. Let's say they influenced things. And they used their influence for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the community. It was because of the S&G that there was a shortage of telephones in Miami Beach. Many locals just couldn't get one. Southern Bell was low on equipment because bookie rooms were using fifty to one hundred telephones each."
The Miami Beach construction boom continued for years. Forty new hotels opened in 1940 alone - and each had a club that employed comedians. "Early Miami was marvelous and there were big gambling places way out past Miami toward Hollywood, Florida," remembers Jack Carter. "There were places like Green Acres and The Colonial Inn and they would play four people on one bill. Sophie Tucker, Harry Richman, Joe E. Lewis, Milton Berle - they'd all be on one show. It was big, big time showbiz." And occasionally - big time violence.
After headlining the late show at the Deauville Hotel, Jack Carter brought a date to a popular restaurant called The Place for Steak. "I had barely walked through the door when out of nowhere a hood confronted us. 'Hey you piece of shit! You think you're a tough guy?' Immediately he took a swing at me. All of a sudden I was in a fistfight. We were wrestling each other and exchanging wild punches. Out of the kitchen comes this short, stocky guy - like a James Cagney type. He lines up a succession of three or four and - like a pro fighter - knocked the guy out cold. BANG! WHAM! Finished him off. He bowed at me and said, 'I'm sorry you had to put up with that Mr. Carter. It will not happen again.' I had no idea who either of them were or where they came from." Carter was astounded, but he had enough experience in Miami Beach to know that random, irrational violence was often the product of The Boys. "I had a close friend who lived in Miami that ran a successful haberdashery," he says. "He knew everybody who was anybody in South Florida. I called him and told him what happened. He said, 'Jack, I think you're in big trouble. That guy who attacked you is a big time mobster named Gil Beckley. You better go back to your hotel room and don't leave. Stay in your room until I call you.' Finally he calls me at four in the morning. He says, 'Okay, Jack. You're clear. They called Fischetti. He says the guy was out of line. They say he's a bum and he'll be taken care of." The Fischetti in question was Charlie Fischetti, a former bodyguard of Capone's, who rose to prominence by efficiently fixing elections. He retained a home in Miami and had countless surrogates around the country. "Three days later I was reading the newspaper," says Carter. "There was a story in there. They found Gil Beckley chopped up. They chopped him up, put him in a garbage can, and threw him in the ocean."
TOMORROW YOU'RE A FIGHTER
Allan Drake was employed by Segal Safety Cabs of Miami Beach. He made good money in the winter when the clubs were really swinging. But when the tourist season ended, so did Drake's income. To subsidize he went back to prize fighting. He'd enter the ring, knock down his opponent, win a cool fifty and get right back in his cab. One evening a dapper man climbed into the taxi. "You're pretty handy with your mitts, kid. Maybe I could use you." It was an ambiguous statement, but Drake got the drift. If there was even the slightest doubt it evaporated when the man said, "Everyone calls me Little Augie."
Supperclubs continued to grow. From Miami to Baltimore, Tucson to Boston, they were everywhere. Sometimes the nightclub scene converged with other Mob entities. The Mob's control of the fight racket is well documented. Even by the early forties the 'fighter-on-the-take' routine was a Hollywood cliché. As the Mob's pugilists aged they were often granted their own nightclub, as casually as a retiring office worker receives a gold watch. "I worked at a strip joint called Eddie Leonard's Spa," says comedian Dick Curtis. "Eddie Leonard was an ex-boxer. He was a champ fighter and when he retired, of course, the Mob owned him. They gave him a nightclub and some slot machines around town as his retirement. I opened at Eddie Leonard's Spa in Baltimore on Christmas Eve. This was in 1952. Can you imagine who would go to a strip joint on Christmas Eve in 1952?"
Jackie Curtiss of forgotten comedy team Antone and Curtiss remembers a small time outfit called The Safari Club. "One night the Mob were presenting a young singer that they were 'taking care of.' His father was going to the penitentiary and, in those days, the Mob would take care of the family, get them a job. Well, this kid was going to be a singer so they [paid for] Buddy Bregman arrangements, Sy Devore clothing - and this kid came out. He was the worst singer. Sol Tropp, who was the manager of the nightclub, was sitting there in a sweat. We were sitting at the table with him and the two top guys from the Mob. The whole room is papered. Everybody there were friends of the Mob. The cheers this terrible singer got were unbelievable. I mean, they cheered this guy who really couldn't sing. So poor Sol Tropp is sitting there. The show is over and [the gangster] says, 'Whaddaya think?' Sol is sweating. He says, 'Well, uh, y'see, um... let me put it this way... uh, um... well, he... well, you know.' Mob guy says, 'Gee, that bad, huh? Well, tank you for ya candor.' I'll never forget that. 'Tank you for ya candor.' The singer walked up to the table and asked, 'How'd I do?' The Mob guy said, 'Tomorrow you're fighter.' And that was it. They made him a fighter!"
THINGS THAT STOPPED THE SHOW FOR A BIT...
"The Copacabana in New York, The Riviera in Northern Jersey, Chez Paree in Chicago, The 500 Club in Atlantic City - mob joints all," wrote Shawn Levy. The comedians "came to know the owners and their front men." Comedienne Rusty Warren was infamous for her explicit use of the word "knockers" and, subsequently, a comedy record best-seller. The cover of her LP Banned in Boston is forever etched in her memory. "The picture on the cover? That was the nightclub," she says. "I was on stage and all of a sudden I heard two shots. Someone had shot Poppa - the owner. Now they've got four of his sons working the place. Two are bartenders and two are... don't ask. They carry guns - whatever that means. Honey, they were up there [in a flash] and they pummeled the guy that shot Poppa. Momma comes out from the back, 'They've shot Poppa!' She's at the cash register and says, 'I can't leave the box! Tell Poppa I'll take care of him,' because she is not going to leave that cash register. That's one of the things that happened to stop the show for a bit."
Long before he became a top flight Las Vegas comedian, future Rat Pack jester Joey Bishop was playing the oddly named El Dumpo in Miami Beach. "Out in the audience was a guy named Game Boy Miller," said Joey. "Unbeknownst to me [he] was one of the top-ten most wanted men in America. Here he is with five other guys and some broads and just as I was preparing to go onstage the owner of the club came up and whispered to me, 'Game Boy Miller is here celebrating his birthday. Wish him a happy birthday." Joey didn't realize that the owner was encouraging him to do so in person, not identify a wanted man over an amplification system. "I walk up on stage and say, 'Ladies and gentleman, we have the celebration of a birthday tonight.' I start singing Happy Birthday. No sooner did I get out the words 'Game Boy' than a bottle flew past me. The guys he was with grabbed me and were taking me into the washroom to kill me when Joe the bartender stepped in and said, 'Listen, the kid didn't know." Bishop had another close call in Palatine, Illinois. Mobsters showed up at the Casablanca Roadhouse to settle a score. Storming through the front door, they broke a woman's jaw while Joey was telling jokes. They demanded owner Michael Bunny clean out the vault - murdering him in the process. While the audience ran screaming from the building, Bishop says, "They ordered me to keep talking. I did the same Edward G. Robinson impression thirty-five times."
Southbound in Danville, Illinois, Sammy Shore had a similar experience. "I'm working and all of a sudden in the middle of my show - these guys get in an argument at the ringside table. Mob guys. Guy takes out a gun and shoots the other guy in the head! I picked up my trumpet. People were screaming and running out. Shot him a couple of times. I'm on that stage and I picked up my horn and started singing [in a Louis Armstrong voice], 'Oh, when the saints! Come marching in! Oh, when the saints come marching in!' I stayed there for another four weeks, but there were things like that that happened wherever I worked." A murder here, a murder there. As Rusty Warren said in dismissive terms, they were but a minor inconvenience that would "stop the show for a bit."
In the minds of the comics, the Mob pleasantries outweighed the bad. "When I worked Vegas in the sixties, those guys were great to us," says Lou Alexander. "[They'd say], 'Give him anything he wants. Send up room service. Whatever the kid wants - give it to him. He's doing a good job.' That's how they used to treat us and it was great!" Eighty-eight-year-old comedian Woody Woodbury agrees. "The word was connected. A lot of those guys were connected. They were mobsters and they were great people to work for. As long as you did your job, they were magnificent." Jackie Curtiss remembers his Mob employer in Lake Tahoe. "They had gold plated name plates on your dressing room door. Every night there was a new uncapped bottle in your dressing room. If you took one drink out of it, that was taken away and a new bottle was brought in. They paid for every dime, all of our expenses. They were real first class. Those were great days."
BIG MAN LITTLE AUGIE
By the time Little Augie hailed Allan Drake's cab he was, along with Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, Floridian racketeer royalty. Soon after their chance encounter Augie hired Drake as his personal chauffeur. While driving one day Drake casually mentioned that a comic named Jackie Miles had suggested he try comedy. "Oh, yeah? I know Jackie. Owes me a lot of money, but he's a good drunk. I think he's right. You're funny. You know, Drake... I can help get you booked places."
Allan Drake thought what the hell. In that era, being funny wasn't even a prerequisite for being a professional comedian. Being a comedian in the nineteen forties wasn't far removed from knowing a trade, like being a draftsman or an engineer. Generic collections of jokes were sold to be performed by whomever. Most comedians, just like their material, were interchangeable.
Drake would be different. Sure, he might be reciting a hundred old jokes told a hundred times by a hundred men before - but with Drake there was an undercurrent. When Drake spoke you could sense that here was a victim. Referring to the composite of an artist, Thornton Wilder would say, "Many of the things we eat are cooked over a gas stove - but there is no taste of gas in the food." Jerry Lewis put it simpler, "If you add up everything that makes the totality of a comic, there's a lot of shit there, pal." And with Drake you could sense it. Trade publication Variety, assessing one of his early performances said, "Allan Drake has been trying to bring a smile to the world all his life. He is dark and solid and nervous. For a comedian, he's had a poor existence."
Anthony "Little Augie" Carfano was described in police files as the "pudgy prohibition-era henchman of Al Capone and long-time buddy of Frank Costello." When Frank Costello chose to expand his empire beyond Chicago and New York, he enlisted Carfano as his trusty surrogate. Along with Meyer Lansky, Little Augie was Costello's chief organizer in South Florida, helping to arrange a number of gambling operations and hotels. Little Augie knew Jackie Miles and the rest of the Miami Beach comedians through a strip joint he owned called The Paddock Club - and it's where Allan Drake did his first few shows. A local kid named Marty Farrell had been hanging around, trying to sell jokes to the comics. Drake hired him. Together they devised a "Hard Luck Harry" routine; anything that could go wrong would go wrong - if your name was Allan Drake.
Jackie Miles helped arrange a road tour for Drake, one familiar to all the B-level comics. Drake traveled to the Three Rivers Inn in Syracuse, The Holiday House in Pittsburgh and The Primrose Country Club in the Mob stronghold of Newport, Kentucky. Along the way he picked up a peripheral gig in New Jersey, emceeing a beauty pageant. One of the contestants was an eighteen-year-old number named Janice Hansen. Drake would bestow her with a trophy at the end of that night, awarding her the title of Miss Legs of 1944. Soon she would be Mrs. Allan Drake.
Drake told Little Augie he was getting married. "Good for you, kid. Can't wait to meet her." When he finally did see the bride - Augie couldn't believe it. "Jesus. How'd a bum like Drake ever get a chick like that?" Augie's Machiavellian gears started to move. "You know, Drake, I think you're ready for the big time. We should get you some bigger bookings. A newly married guy like you? You're gonna be supporting a family soon! You shouldn't be working strip joints. Let me set you up with a big singer. We'll get you into the real class places."
The next few years were a whirlwind. Drake was touring the country with Tony Martin. Martin was one of the hottest properties in showbiz, enjoying the success of hit singles; his own CBS radio program and roles in Hollywood films. Hitched to Martin, Drake watched his stock rise. The choice bookings kept Drake on the road - far from his wife - for a year. And another year. And another year. "Don't worry about the little lady," Augie told him. "I'll check in on her for you." Augie would give a mock punch to Drake's chin, followed by an aggressive kiss on the cheek. "She'll be fine, pal. All this hard work is gonna pay off. You're gonna be big."
While Tony Martin was working on the motion picture Casbah, Drake sauntered on to Colosimo's in Chicago, the Chantilly in Philly, and the Stagecoach Inn where he opened for Mel Torme. Little Augie made a call to his friend Danny Stradella, proprietor of the popular Manhattan restaurant Danny's Hideaway. "Danny, you're close with Ed Sullivan, right? I need you to put in a favor for me. I want Ed to help out a good comic." Allan Drake was on The Ed Sullivan Show two weeks later. Momentum was building. Quips from Drake's act were being quoted (and misquoted) in newspapers with great frequency. "Comic Allan Drake lists the advantages of owning your own trailer," said an Earl Wilson column. "You have a place to live while you're looking for a place to park! That's Earl, brother."
Janice Drake was living well. Little Augie took care of her, all right. He took Janice and her close friend Madeline Unger to the brightest nightspots in New York. Little Augie presented the two of them with pearl bracelets. "For my favorite gals!" Occasionally they were joined by the wife of MCA agent Larry Weber, but Weber objected, screaming at his wife, "You want to end up dead? Th' hell are you going out to dinner with Mob guys for! They pick up your check and they own you! We'll be fucked!" Janice had no such problem. "Little Augie came north," said Jim Bishop. "Janice didn't care what the newspapers said about the gangster. This was her husband's sponsor and mentor." She adored Augie. He was responsible for all of her husband's breaks, from supperclubs to Sullivan. Augie could do no wrong in the eyes of Janice Drake. In the arms of Janice Drake. In the quim of Janice Drake.
FRANK COSTELLO, VITO GENOVESE, JULES PODELL AND THE COPACABANA
"If you played The Copacabana and you did well there - it was all over, baby! From then on you could go anywhere," says 90-year-old Marty Allen. "If you played The Copa and you made it, boy... that's how it all happened." Angry comic Pat Cooper says, "I saw comics that were scared to walk down the steps at the Copacabana. That's what the Copacabana did to some comics. They were terrified of this nightclub because it was the greatest nightclub ever in the history of nightclubs!" Bobby Ramsen fills in the details. "You could go to The Copacabana in those days and the food was excellent. It had one of the best Chinese menus in New York. It was sensational Chinese food. The steaks were superb. You could go to The Copacabana for seven dollars and fifty cents. It was a minimum. You could eat it or drink it. People would come there and see Jimmy Durante! Frank Sinatra! Rosemary Clooney! Louis Prima! The biggest stars in America - and the food was sensational."
Mob giant Frank Costello owned The Copacabana. His name never appeared above the marquee, but impresarios Jack Entratter, Monte Proser and former bouncer Jules Podell took turns as operation frontmen over the course of its illustrious history. Ramsen opened for The Supremes during their Copa triumphs. "Jules Podell talked with a very low, gruff voice," he says. "He was short and squat. He was not involved with the boys - he worked for the boys. Jules Podell's Copacabana. He was the front man." Pat Cooper concurs, "He was what I call a nightclub tough guy. He didn't really own it. Everyone knew that."
The comedians remember:
Lou Alexander: Jules Podell was feared.
Don Sherman: When I played the Copa, I never said a word to Jules Podell.
Freddie Roman: He was an absolute tyrant. It was a little frightening. He was an imposing figure.
Bobby Ramsen: Jules Podell, like I say, talked with a deep, gruff voice. He had a way about him and he ran a very, very tight club. That's what made it so important.
Rich Little: A very gruff guy. Yeah, he was very set in his ways. Very stern. Not too friendly, but ran the whole show.
Jack Carter: Ah, he was special. Behind that tough veneer was a very good Jew. He was very good with his temple. I didn't even know he was Jewish! I had always thought that he was Italian. Oh, he was a beauty... and everybody lived in fear of him.
Pat Cooper: In the Copacabana he was King Kong. When he walked out of The Copacabana - he was scared of his own shadow.
Steve Rossi: You always got the feeling he was pissed off. Then again - he was.
Rip Taylor: Ahhhhhhhhhhh! That's all I want to say about Mr. Podell.
Shecky Greene: The Copacabana? That man was a cocksucker!
Mickey Podell was five years old when her father took control of the club. She wasn't privy to the Copa pecking order. "As far as I knew, my father was in charge of the Copacabana and I never questioned how or why; it was just a fact. Occasionally, there would be stories in the press ... that led to classmates at school saying my father was a gangster. If I asked my mother she would answer, 'Don't be silly, your father is not a gangster.' I once asked her about Frank Costello because his name surfaced in the papers regarding the Copa and my father. Mother just said that Frank Costello was a very nice gentleman. Costello was obviously involved with the Copa and my father, but that had no effect on me." Bobby Ramsen says, "The Copacabana, according to what I heard, was owned by [Vito] Genovese. When Mr. Genovese 'went away' it was turned over to Frank Costello."
In the early thirties both Frank Costello and Vito Genovese worked under the tutelage of Mob boss Lucky Luciano, Genovese as underboss and Costello as consigliere. When Luciano was sent to prison in 1936, Genovese was appointed acting boss of the family. A year later Genovese was a prime suspect in a murder investigation. He fled to Italy. In his absence, Frank Costello controlled the Luciano crime family. Vito would find work as a contract killer for Mussolini, eventually receiving "Italy's highest civilian medal." At war's end, however, local authorities exposed a list of Genovese's many crimes and discovered his status as a fugitive. He was sent back to the United States to stand trial. Key prosecution witnesses were murdered in the lead-up and total fear ensured an acquittal. Genovese was a free man and ready to assume his old position - but Frank Costello had no desire to relinquish the mantle. The subsequent power struggle culminated in Genovese, over the course of several years, coercing the majority to abandon Costello's leadership. When approached to join the Genovese side, Little Augie wavered. Big mistake.
By the late fifties Vito Genovese was back in control. An attempt on Costello's life in 1957 convinced any remaining loyalists to change sides. Club owners wised up and, fearing for their lives, would deal only with the Genovese faction. As far as supperclubs around the country were concerned, the name Little Augie meant Frank Costello. Bad news for Allan Drake. He was anathema.
For Drake, the timing was awful. He had just finished his triumphant two-weeks with Tony Martin at The Copacabana. Variety was surprisingly blunt in its assessment of the booking and suspicious of how a two-bit act like Drake scored the gig. "Drake has lately been hitting the better spots at the behest of Martin, who normally has the right to choose his supporting acts. In the past Jack Carter and other comics have been selected by Martin to share the bill. It is known that some performers have been financed with money that has come from figures associated with the underworld."
SHE WASN'T BORN TO DIE!
"He had a few brushes with the big time - and their failure to materialize seemed to cauterize him against the world all the more." - Shawn Levy
Drake screamed as he sent the heavy, rotary phone crashing against the wall of his hotel room. His management had just informed him that he was being dropped from the roster. His calendar of upcoming shows had been wiped clean in the process. Drake called Little Augie in a panic. Barely able to hear the voice through the cracked receiver, Augie soothed him. "Drake, listen. Times are tough. Have you tried the Lotus Club? It's in Washington. No, really, kid, I hear it's a good club. It's a nice restaurant. Yes, I'm serious. C'mon, kid. Pull yourself together." Little Augie wasn't doing much better. The events of the last several months had been taxing. Augie needed to relax. He called Janice Drake and suggested they go out on the weekend. "Let's go the Copa, babe. Whaddaya say? Sure, sure. No, it'll be no problem. Vito and I are tight again. Believe me, he needs me more than I need him."
Allan Drake left for Washington. Janice was prepping her hair as he scrambled out the door. Little Augie would be there shortly. Janice looked flashy in a strapless black evening dress and a stone marten stole. The pearl bracelet she wore had been a gift from Augie, while the diamond wedding ring on her finger was, of course, from Allan. Little Augie showed up dressed in a stunning dark blue suit made of silk. He adorned a platinum ring with a blue sapphire in the middle. The two of them looked great, ready for a wonderful night. Their last night alive.
Over the past year Little Augie tried to ingratiate himself to Genovese. He was confident that he had succeeded. Vito told Augie he was glad to have him in his fold, but G-men soon nailed Genovese for heroin trafficking. Vito was back behind bars. He wasn't about to allow Costello to fill the vacuum, nor did he trust any of Costello's old friends. He sent a directive from prison. "Get Augie."
"I'm forty-eight and my wife is a kid. She says her biggest thrill is sitting at home watching my feet fall asleep. She's so young she's the only broad on the block who goes to a pediatrician." Allan Drake is rushing through the eight o'clock show at The Lotus Club. It is not going well. He still has another two shows tonight, having been booked for three; an eight o'clock, a ten, and a midnight performance. He has never hated show business so much in his life. "My wife is a terrible cook. She's getting better. Her roast beef was awful, but now she puts two roasts in the oven at the same time - one small, one large. When the little one is burned to a crisp, she figures the big one is ready! She's the first housewife required to register her pressure cooker with the police. She shot a pot roast into outer space." The crowd responds with silent hostility. They're here to see Jackie Lee, Mister Hot Piano, as advertised. They don't want to hear about Drake's wife. With every thud of every punchline, Drake recalls the laughter the same material received at The Flamingo Hotel just a few months before. Tonight, the taste of gas is in the food.
Augie and Janice finished their dinner at the Copa and walked to Marino's Bar for a drink. They were seated for less than five minutes when a waiter approached. "Excuse me, sir. There's a phone call for you on the house phone." Augie excused himself, only to return in a hurry. "I'm so sorry, Janice. We have to split. It's urgent business." They hustled back to Augie's black sedan. Waiting in the backseat, cleverly concealed, were a pair of Vito's henchmen. "Hi, Augie. Start driving."
Augie sped out of Manhattan with a gun pressed to his head. The men directed him south on 94th through Jackson Heights. They reached the waterfront near LaGuardia Airport and parked. Augie started to weep. Begging. Crying. "Take the girl, but spare me! I'm important! Come on, you guys! She's nothing! Why kill me?" They'd heard enough. A bullet smashed through the back of Augie's skull and a second tore open his left cheek. Janice Drake, cold, quiet and distant through the whole ordeal, accepted a bullet in the back of her neck and another through her right temple. The black Cadillac drenched, revolvers abandoned, the hitmen vanished into the night.
Allan Drake was still at the Lotus Club when he got the news. He scrambled to his car and rushed to New York. He ran into the Queens morgue where he was asked to identify the body. Drake took one look and vomited on the floor. He choked, "Why didn't this happen to me? She can't be dead! She wasn't born to die!"
In the days following, strange details emerged about Janice Drake and her cuckquean affairs. She had been questioned seven years earlier "in connection with the slaying of playboy dress manufacturer Nat Nelson. She was released after she told police she had dated Nelson the night before his death." Another incident involved Janice and a man named Albert Anastatsia. The two went on a date and he too was killed the following morning. Was Janice Drake bad luck - or was she a professional decoy? The FBI told reporters, "Mrs. Drake was far from being an innocent bystander." The Associated Press relayed, "She is held to be, in some quarters, an important cog in some phases of [Mob] operations."
Allan Drake went right back on the road. He performed in denial. "Allan Drake had a taste of ashes," said columnist Jim Bishop. "He created laughs when tears stood on his lids." Drake remained shut out from the good rooms. Haunted and desperate, life could not have been worse. He cursed the thought of Jackie Miles and Lenny Kent. The careers of those two had long since collapsed - and now here was Drake lowest of all. Why had he ever accepted the advice of those two pathetic losers! He had been happy driving a taxi! Like Harry Greener, the faded vaudevillian in Day of the Locust, "There proved little demand for his talents. He stank from hunger."
Allan Drake fled the country. He found work in Canada. He was booked for a month-long engagement in the Laurentian Mountains at The Gatineau Club. The manager was delighted to book a comedian who had recently been an opening act for Tony Martin. Enormous billboards were erected along the highway leading to the Gatineau. The signs were brandished with an enormous photo of Drake. The words were large and bold. "Coming Soon - Allan Drake. The Copacabana's Favorite Comedian." The combination of comedians and Mob ownership created similar narratives around the country. Allan Drake was just one of many. With the advent of Las Vegas - the madness was to accelerate.
ARCHIVE OF ARTICLES BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
Lou Alexander, Interview with author (August 2011)
Pete Barbutti, Interview with author (July 2011)
Jack Carter, Interview with author (August 2011 through Februrary 2012)
Pat Cooper, Interview with author (October 2011)
Dick Curtis, Interview with author (August 2011 through February 2012)
Jackie Curtiss, Interview with author (September 2011)
Shecky Greene, Interview with author (May 2011)
Rich Little, Interview with author (June 2011)
Freddie Roman, Interview with author (July 2011)
Don Sherman, Interview with author (January 2011)
Sammy Shore, Interview with author (June 2011)
Rip Taylor, Interview with author (May 2011)
Rusty Warren, Interview with author (May 2010)
Woody Woodbury, Interview with author (July 2010)
Lamar Falkner, Associated Press, September 26, 1959
Walter Winchell syndicated column, October 5, 1959
Variety, October 7, 1959
Behind the Clown's Mask; Jim Bishop syndicated column, July 1, 1967
Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (Penguin, 1939)
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Viking Press, 1959)
George Raft by Lewis Yablonsky (McGraw Hill, 1974)
The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa (SPI Books, 1992)
Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy (Doubleday, 1998)
Cult Vegas by Mike Weatherford (Huntington Press, 2001)
Mouse in the Rat Pack by Michael Seth Starr (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002)
Miami Beach in 1920: The Making of a Winter Resort by Abraham Lavender (Arcadia Publishing, 2002)
Miami Beach Memories by Diann Biondi (Globe Pequot, 2006)
The Copa: Jules Podell and the Hottest Club North of Havana by Mickey Podell-Raber (Harper Collins, 2007)
Fool's Paradise by Steven Gaines (Crown Publishers, 2009)
Me, The Mob and The Music by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick (Scribner, 2010)
The American Mob is, naturally, a complicated web of varying factions. The Mob, and what that catchall phrase implies, has been studied in great detail elsewhere. This is by no means a study, but an anecdotal examination of that universe seen through the eyes of the comedians.
Notes on Little Augie
1933 - Little Augie had been tried and acquitted in connection with the slaying of Sgt. James Knight during an attempted theft in Union City, New Jersey.
1955 - Little Augie was indicted on bribery charges. Louis B. Saperstein, a Newark broker was sentenced for contempt of court for refusing to testify about the racket, but later "changed his mind and appeared before the grand jury that indicted Little Augie ... Several months later the bribery indictment was dismissed because of a legal technicality. Saperstein later was wounded by mysterious gunshots."
The morning following the 1959 slaying of Little Augie, the NYPD said, "No, robbery is not a motive. Carfano had $1500 in hundred dollar bills and another $433 in smaller bills. This was not anticipated, nor was it unexpected. Carfano has been familiar to the files of our underworld investigations for the past thirty-five years." A few days later police said they had "more suspects than we know what to do with." However, nobody was ever arrested for the deaths of Little Augie and Janice Drake.
Notes on Allan Drake
Allan Drake's stand-up career continued in the trenches of obscurity for many years. He got a break in the 1970s, landing a recurring role on Sanford and Son. Sol Weinstein wrote material for various nightclub acts. He adds, "I wrote for Allan Drake for quite a few years. I lost track of him. I did understand at one point he was selling cocaine toward the end of his career. A lot of the things that he did were scary, immoral things."