The Roundtable, at 151 E. 50th St., is the town’s newest and most pretentious “restaurant with jazz,” a comparative new development in cafes, where today you get a good meal in addition to hearing top jazz artists. The ROUNDTABLE is located in what was for 22 years the Versailles, one of the finest restaurant-cabarets in the world. The Versailles, operated by Nick Prounis and Arnold Rossfield, ran into federal tax troubles and rather than go through the prolonged agony of battling a $750,000 tax rap, abruptly closed between afternoon and evening and the building was later put up for sale.
In May, 1958, the Versailles was taken over by an enterprising 29-year-old native New Yorker named Morris Levy, who had made a small fortune with Roulette Records (hence the “roundtable”) and thereby hangs another romantic tale of the restaurant world. Less than a decade ago, Morris was working in the hat-check room and dark room (where photographs are developed) at the Versailles, paid $50 a week by a nite club concessionaire.
Born of a poor Bronx family, Morris ran away from home at the age of 13, took a train to Florida and worked there for several years in the Miami Beach nite clubs before returning to New York and getting into the music business. He now owns two music publishing companies, located in the Brill Building, which have turned out such profit-making numbers as “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Swinging Shepherd Blues,” and “Lullaby of Birdland.” His Roulette Records, only a year old, but which now occupies all of a five-story building, has grossed nearly $10,000,000 with such recording stars as Count Basle, Pearl Bailey, Jerri Southern and Milton Berle.
The ROUNDTABLE has featured Joey Bushkin, Tyree Glenn, Teddy Wilson and Eddie Heywood, with such occasional “guest stars” as TV’s Steve Allen at the piano and Jackie Cooper, of the screen, stage and TV, playing drums.
Former Versailles patrons would have difficulty recognizing the place in the new decor featuring “King Arthur motifs,” but for anyone nostalgic about the appurtenances of Nick and Arnold’s former elegant establishmentglassware, dinner service, tableclothsthey can be found at a new tiny place called the VERSAILLES at Sixth Ave. and 9th St., owned by Trudy Heller. Mrs. Heller is a former partner of Morris Levy in a defunct musicians’ hangout, “The Blue Note.” When Morris took over the Versailles, he kept the location for himself and gave the furnishings to Trudy, who now operates her own jazz spot, on a much smaller scale, at the above-mentioned address.
The Hickory House, at 144 W. 52nd St., claims that if all the jazz musicians launched there were laid end to end the line would reach well toward Basin St., New Orleans, where John Popkin first heard the wail of Louis Prima’s trumpet in 1933 and persuaded Louis to migrate to New York.
In the 25 years since HICKORY HOUSE opened, jazz buffs who sit around the huge circular music barfirst of its kind, incidentallyhave been entertained by Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke, Wingy Manone, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, the Tea-gardens (Jack and Charlie), Joe Marsala, Joey Bushkin, Red Norvo, Joe Venuti, Eddie South, John Kirby, Charlie Trombauer, Bobby Hackett and Duke Ellington. And, on the distaff side, Frances Faye, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Toshiko and Hazel Scott, who played her first local engagement at the HICKORY HOUSE and stayed there for two years at $35 a week.
HICKORY HOUSE also claims to have originated “jam session” and “sitting in”part of the vocabulary of the cool set. Before union restrictions put an end to such shindigs, it was not unusual on a Sunday afternoon to find Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Good-man or the Dorsey Brothers “sitting in” just for kicks.
In such company, Frankie Laine was happy to sing just to be heard and even Frank Sinatra wasn’t above raising his voice in song for the fun of it. In 1933 HICKORY HoUsE inaugurated another “first” by introducing jazz on the major networks.
John Popkin, impresario at the HICKORY HoUsE, has quite a background. Born in Wilno, Lithuania, and originally named Zelig Pupko, he migrated to New York at the age of 12 with other members of his family to join their father, who had preceded them by five years. John became a Postal Telegraph messenger boy and learned English mostly by reading signs. After driving a truck for his father’s fish business, he opened an auction shop on Lispenard St. (site of the present Telephone Co. building) and prospered, so that by the time he was 23 he had made his first million. After that he sold out and took up boxing. (His alibi for quitting was he didn’t want to spoil his looks.)
At the outbreak of World War I, Popkin was raising ducks in Yardley, Pa. He sold out, joined a committee for Belgian relief in New York. And after the war, just for variety perhaps, went into the perfume business. After 12 years, he was able to buy 23 race horses, one of which (Air Chief) won 27 races.
During Prohibition, Popkin opened a basement speakeasy in association with Jack Goldman, at 47th St. and Broadway called the “Little Club”a misnomer since it seated 300. Joe E. Lewis, a Chicago comedian, made his New York debut there. The Little Club (no connection with the present club of that name) served as spawning ground for the talent that was later to appear at HICKORY HOUSE, which Popkin opened, in association with Goldman’s brother Jack, in 1933.
HICKORY HOUSE seats 380 customers, 60 at the bar, and specializes in sizzling steaks and “cool” music.
The Embers, at 161 E. 54th St., is the 16th restaurant to open on what had become known as a “jinx spot.” That was seven years ago and THE EMBERS is still thriving. Ralph Watkins, owner and creator of THE EMBERS, attributes its success to the fact that he pays as much attention to the kitchen as he does to the entertainment, and still personally supervises both operations. Piano trios and quartets playing “subtle jazz” is the specialty in the front of the house; roast beef, barbecued ribs, steaks, etc., are what come out of the kitchen. Joe Howard is the front man, keeping an ear tuned to comments by customers.
Watkins’ reputation as a jazz entrepreneur started at a room on 52nd St. called Kelly’s Stable. Preceding that was the original Onyx Club, Royal Roost, Bop City, Basin Street and Lower Basin Street, all now defunct. Ralph started his professional life as a saxophone player in the old Ben Bernie and Abe Lyman orchestras and once led his own dance band at Ben Marden’s Riviera, on the New Jersey end of George Washington Bridge (wiped out by the Interstate Palisades Parkway).
THE EMBERS’ bartender, Jack Spencer, frequently worked as President Roosevelt’s bartender at private Hyde Park parties, and more recently mixed drinks for the Eisenhower-McMillan Bermuda conference.
In its seven years’ history, THE EMBERS has presented such eminent piano virtuosos as George Shearing, Dorothy Donegan, Don Shirley, Carmen Cavallero, Teddy Wilson, Eddie Heywood, Joey Bushkin, Erroll Garner and Barbara Carroll.
You can see more Broadway celebrities at THE EMBERS than at many more widely publicized spots. Watkins eschews bulb-popping photographers, which he feels interfere with the entertainment. The building occupied by THE EMBERS, incidentally, is owned by John Perona, whose EL MOROCCO is located directly across the street. In turn, the building housing EL MOROCCO is owned by Daniel Lavezzo who is also proprietor of the premises housing a different type of operation, P. J. CLARKE’S, which is just around the corner.
Eddie Condon’s, at 330 E. 56th St., is by now one of the immortals in his particular field of jazz. After a dozen years in Greenwich Village, where his place was regarded as something of a landmark, Eddie moved his Dixieland all-star band and Bud Freeman’s trio to its present address, away over on the East Side. His loyal following includes many show people and just about every ballplayer in the country who happens to be in New York.
R.S.V.P., at 145 E. 55th St., is one of the newer type of small pubs featuring “quiet jazz” and catering to a smaller, more select audience. Not in the jazz class, but a favorite there one solid year, is Mabel Mercer, a great singer of songs, whose distinguished following goes back to London and Europe in the pre-World War II days.
Birdland, in a cellar at Broadway and 52nd St., claims to be the most renowned jazz joint in the world. It opened in December, 1949, and surprised everyone, including the jazz buffs, by making a go of it.
The club draws as many customers from Harlem as from midtown and has a unique policy: at tables the minimum charge is $2.50, but every night except Mon-day those who wish to sit in the “bleachers” may do so by paying an admission charge of $i.80, and they aren’t required to buy drinks or anything else. On Mondays the admission is lowered to $1.25, and there is no minimum.
The director of BIRDLAND’S activities is Oscar Good-stein. He claims his club attracts more college professors than any other nite club in the country as well as jazz buffs from Broadway and Hollywood. Almost every big name in the jazz field has attended its jam sessions, including Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and George Shearing, the blind pianist who immortalized BIRDLAND by writing and recording what is now a standard, “Lullaby of Birdland.” BIRDLAND gets a big play from international visiting celebrities and is one of Marlon Brando’s favorite hangouts when he’s around. He likes to display his virtuosity on the drums there.
The Metropole, 7th Ave. at 48th St., is a permanent home for Dixieland jazz, which starts blasting at noon and continues to closing, usually with some name musicians as extra added attractions.
The Five Spot, 5 Cooper Square (3rd Ave. at 4th St.), caters to the beat generation and the Thelonnious Monk devotees.
Half Note, at 289 Hudson St., is the farthest off-beat of the jazz circuit, geographically speaking.