The Age Of Glamour

Posted By Brie Austin In Category: Blog

Chapter 4 –

I waited for Jimmy Durante in front of the Copacabana nightclub, nervous and excited at the same time. He said he’d get me a job in the chorus line, but still, I was a little skeptical. After all, the club was to open two days from now – November 10 – and here was I, a young girl who had never danced in a chorus line before, let alone one in New York. But I began to imagine it. After all, Jimmy Durante was Jimmy Durante: a big star in 1940. Moments later, springing from a cab, he interrupted my daydream shouting, “There’s my Henrietta!”

From the time we first met, that’s the name he used for me. He had a nickname for everything. I guess it was his way of making things his own. With me on his arm, we climbed the half-dozen steps and opened the heavy door to the brand new supper club. Two days from now, once the club was open for business, a doorman dressed in a tuxedo and top hat would be on hand to open the door and greet the customers. Inside, the waiters, too, would wear tuxes, as of course did any of the other male employees who came in contact with the public. The image was to be pure elegance.

Once inside, we were in a small foyer. On the left were the offices of the big bosses: Monte Proser, the first owner, and after 1943, Jules Podell – the “mobs” man in charge. On the right was the Lounge, which would have been called a bar in any other place but here it was something special.

I didn’t know any of this when I first entered the Copa. I was looking around trying to take it all in, trying not to appear as nervous as I was, and trying not to shout out to anybody who could hear: “Hey, look at me! I’m with Jimmy Durante, who’s getting me a job in a ritzy New York supper club! How about that!.” But I just kept my mouth shut and let Jimmy do the talking.

We climbed an elegant flight of stairs, and once in the upstairs foyer of the club, Jimmy asked to see Jack Entratter, who was in charge. Soon we were confronted with a big man who walked with a slight limp (I learned later he had polio as a kid). After exchanging pleasantries, Jimmy got down to business.

“Jack, here’s the girl I told Monte about. Henrietta, meet Jack Entratter, the big man around here. He’ll fix you up.” I said, “It’s Harriet, Mr. Entratter.”

Jack looks soulfully at Jimmy and shrugs, “Jimmy, we open in two days. All the costumes are done, all the routines rehearsed. Everything’s all set.”

“C’mon, Jack,” Jimmy said, “Do us all a favor, especially Henrietta, who needs a job. She’s perfect for this place. Look at the All-American girl-next-door face!” I smiled my All-American girl-next-door smile. “But, Jimmy …” But Durante cut him off.

“Jack, I’d really like to see her in the line. C’mon, you can get her ready in time. She’s a natural. She was a star at the Aquacade Extravaganza at the World’s Fair.” There was what seemed like a VERY long pause, and then Jimmy said, “Jack, I’d really like . . .” Jack broke in, “OK, Jimmy. We’ll do it. You’re right. She’s just what we need. What’s your name?” “Harriet. Harriet Weber, I live in Brooklyn.” Turning to Jimmy, he winked, “We can overlook that.”

So, just like that, I joined the line at the Copa. Jack and Jimmy said their goodbyes, and I was led backstage where Jack introduced me to Don Loper, the club’s costume designer, choreographer, and dancer, who needed to outfit me quickly and teach me the routines. My first Copa outfit was a brown-and-orange Harlequin style costume shirred and body-hugging as if you were poured into it – very sexy, yet elegant. For shoes, I tried on six-inch wedgies, dyed to match the dress, which fit and added height. Then the famous Copa hat was decorated with pineapples and other fruit, feathers, and colored ribbons. But, the final touch that gave me that Carmen Miranda style with large round earrings.

From those first moments together, Don Loper and I got along famously. He was a prince, especially to me in those early days. Since our opening was two days away, on a Saturday night, and the other girls had already rehearsed, Don rehearsed me then and there, (normally there would have been a chance to rehearse with the show’s director, Marjorie).

He could see I was willing but nervous, so he tried to put me at ease. “There are no intricate steps to learn”, he said calmly, “just a few little kicks, a box step, and a samba step – like this.” And he showed me. Then I tried it. He could see I moved well and caught onto the style and rhythm easily.

When he saw I had a basic grasp of the routine, he stopped me and told me to go home and practice. Show up early on Saturday, he said, and we’ll go over the routine again.

I raced home. I hadn’t told anybody about my tryout, because I was afraid something would go wrong, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed. But now I told everyone and anyone I thought I could impress. I was batting a thousand. I had Jimmy Durante and Don Loper on my side. I was determined not to let them down. I practiced a lot in those two days. I even found another pair of six-inch wedgies, so I could get adjusted to my new height. I’m glad I worked as hard as I did, because our before-the-show practice went well, and Don was pleased. So was I, mainly because Don was happy. It was the beginning of a long friendship. We would stay in touch long after I was gone from the Copa, and all the while he was in Hollywood in later years, doing costumes design for movies. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. After the brief run-through with Don, I had to face another crisis. I was nervous about the other girls. Would they accept me? Did I take the place of one of their friends? Would they try to make me look bad? All these thoughts were whirling around in my head as I finished my practice with Don, and went downstairs to the Copa dressing room. The room was smaller than I had imagined. Tiny, almost, considering it was home for six people – maybe more.      

I’d had no idea how many people were actually part of the show, and where their dressing areas were. I was the first one there, but there was no doubt about which spot was mine. The dressing area consisted of two long back-to-back tables with a large mirror running the length of the tables. The lights were already turned on. There were six chairs facing six spots before the mirrors, three spots on each side, and each one was “claimed” by combs and other personal items laying on the tabletop. I got another chair and made a tiny space at the table end nearest the door. I didn’t know what to do, so I looked to see if any makeup stuff was there. I pulled open a little drawer looking for something – anything, but there was nothing except for the things already “staked out” on the tables.

Before long, as I was hanging up my clothes, two gorgeous blonde girls came in. They were talking and when they saw me, they stopped and gave me a quick look. Then they breezed right by me to their chairs at the opposite table at the other end. Once their coats were hung up, they opened their purses, sat down, and began talking with not a word to me. I didn’t know whether to say “hello”, or to wait until they were ready to say something. It was awkward. Just then, another girl entered, another blonde just as beautiful as the first two. She started to jabber at the others as if I was invisible. It was obvious that they were snubbing me. Why I didn’t know. Maybe all the new kids got this treatment. But deep down, I knew this wasn’t so. For some reason, these girls didn’t like me, so I decided to play it cool, mind my business, follow instructions, and do my job.

I wasn’t sure just how we were supposed to make up. I didn’t know how a “Copa girl” should do her face. I’d never been in a nightclub like this, even as a guest let alone backstage. So I sneaked peeks at the other girls and tried to do my face so I’d look like one of them. When they powdered their noses, so did I. When they applied lipstick and gloss, so did I. When they straightened their stocking seams, so did I. The other girls checked one another to be sure everything was perfect, but no one offered to help me. I had to make do with the mirror. No one said anything later about my makeup, so I assumed I did it properly. I needn’t have worried anyway, because after the Aquacade and getting very wet four times a day and having to make up so many times a day, I was better than most of the other girls when it came to using cosmetics. Still, it was unsettling to be cold-shouldered; camaraderie is what makes chorus lines.

 Things remained pretty tense until Don Loper came backstage to see if we were ready. Then it dawned on me – I was so disturbed about being frozen out by the other girls, I had forgotten this was opening night! Everybody was nervous! We all were doing this for the first time. That thought gave me courage. All seven of us were in the room now, waiting for our call to go upstairs, spraying on last-minute perfume. In a lull in the conversation, I spoke up. “Look, I know I’m the new kid in the show, but I’m here to stay. My name is Harriet Weber, and I hope we can be friends. Maybe it’s just the jitters, but I sense that there’s some hostility against me. If I’m wrong, tell me. If there’s something else wrong or something bothering you about me, tell me.” Silence. I tried again. “Would you at least tell me your names, since we are going to be dancing together?” I asked. The silence grew heavier and heavier. Then finally one of the girls with her back to me offered her name, Bonnie. That broke the ice, and the others spoke up, too.

Just then, Don Loper came in again and told us to get ready. He said, “We’re on in two minutes.” He pointed at me, and said, “You enter stage right, and stay on the top step.” This meant I was to follow the other two girls who came on the left, as the audience sees it, and stop at the top of the stage.

How prominent I would be in the line didn’t matter much to me then. I was just glad to be there and very eager to go on. I focused on following instructions and remembering what Don had told me during our rehearsals – to watch what the girls on the floor did. Because they were the most experienced, they were upfront, and sometimes they liked to do steps not in the routine, to make the new dancers look bad. I was determined to look terrific. It was just like the moments before my entrance in the Aquacade: my adrenaline was up and I couldn’t wait to dance.

It was almost time! We could hear the Master of Ceremonies, Fernando Alvarez, who also served, sometimes, as the bandleader and singer, started his music, so we moved into our positions. There was a flurry of last-minute adjustments, hats, costumes, and jewelry. Professional courtesy replaced the hard feelings of moments ago. We all checked one another to see that everything was on right. To the Latin music of Frank Marti’s and Mike Durso’s Samba band, we began our little routine to heavy applause. From our very first appearance, the Copa girls were a success, and I never failed to get that rush every time we opened a new show.

Despite my nervousness and Don’s warning, the other girls never did try to make me look bad. I guess my little speech helped some – that and the fact that it was opening night and everybody wanted everything to be perfect. It was. I said to myself, “I’m a Copa girl! When’s the next show?”

Sometimes, I would discover, it wasn’t safe to dance on such a teeny floor. The customers were so close; they could reach out and touch you. Some of them did, and then they learned how rapidly the Copa could give the heave-ho to an overexcited ringsider. In between shows, customers could dance to the music of the Society Dance bands, with either Nat Brandywynne or Ted Stracter, wielding the baton. Or, if it was the first show, they could order a meal from the distinctive Copa menu, its cover bearing the soon-to-be-world-famous, Copa Logo with the Copa face and a fruited turban, designed by Wesley Morje of Brazil.

We got through the first show, which was headlined by Connie Russel. Our schedule called for us to appear twice in each show, once to open and then again after the headliner’s performance, to close. When it was all over, we poured into our dressing room, happy as kids when school’s out. We girls began to talk a little then, and the reason for my chilly reception came out.

It turned out that the other girls thought I was brought in by the mob, which meant some dancer lost her job because of me. I denied that, of course. When asked, I said I had no boyfriend in the Mafia, I didn’t know anybody in the Mafia, and I wouldn’t even know a Mafia-type he turned up in my bed! (Boy, was that little speech an omen or something!). I mentioned Jimmy Durante, and while someone muttered something about favoritism and “having pull,” our conversation took the edge off the tension that lay in the air earlier.

To top it off, who should walk in after the last show, but Jimmy. As blasé as those girls were, someone like that had to impress them. And it did. My stock rose even higher when they heard Jimmy congratulate me and tell me that he was taking me to Reuben’s for a bite to eat. I never had any trouble about getting along with the other Copa girls after the first evening. Over time many of us became friends and in some cases very good friends, who still keep track of one another. And in many other circumstances, big and small, having Jimmy Durante as a friend boosted my popularity and credibility throughout my stay at the Copa because when Jimmy came into the club, he always made time to see me.

 While I remember that first night, November 10, 1940, as the terrific premiere of Harriet Weber, show biz regulars remember the date as the debut of the Copa, which over the years was to provide so much top-drawer talent for New York audiences. But the promise of success was there from the start, beginning with the huge amount of space that that event took up in the entertainment sections of the city’s newspapers. The Copa didn’t start slowly and build – it was an overnight sensation. Anybody who played there was a celebrity in the columns. Every columnist, from Winchell to Wilson, covered every opening. And a lot of the gossip – “who’s doing what to whom,” items – were reported as being heard in the Copa, a good sign that it was the place to be spotted.

 Monte Proser, Julie Podell, Jack Entratter, Don Loper, and other Copa people became familiar names in the gossip columns, though not all their doings were reported. Jack Entratter was close to Mafia kingpin Frank Costello – but that was something the Broadway columns never mentioned. They wrote about nearly everything else that happened there, though. Columnists and celebrities collaborated in an unspoken ritual of career enhancement and the Copa was the beneficiary. And thanks to Jimmy Durante, I also made the columns in those early days, reportedly being seen with eligible or well-known celebrities.

 The Copa had a lot to offer besides the floorshow. Remember the Lounge I mentioned earlier? Not everybody who came to the Copa wanted dinner or a show. Some just wanted a congenial watering hole, where they could meet friends and see and be seen. The Lounge was that kind of place. It was a large room with a large bar, which could accommodate 30 patrons, seated on ‘velvet-covered bar stools. This same velvet covered the banquettes along the other wall, while the center area was taken up with tiny tables. It was glamorous, but informal, and was filled to overflowing every night.

It was also famous for Jack Eigen, a radio personality, who did a live show there every night on station WMGM. (he was succeeded by one of the eventual giants of talk radio, Barry Gray). All sorts of celebrities from the world of politics, sports, and of course, show business, sometimes even the stars actually working at the Copa, would show up to be interviewed. Jack’s program began at 10 p.m. and ran until 4 a.m. in the morning. Many people would stay there all evening listening to Jack’s guests and staring (discretely) at the celebrities and big shots who were in the Lounge. On a good night, you could see a “Who’s Who” of New York show biz in that room.

Celebrities liked the Lounge, not only for the chance to be interviewed but also for its discreet ambiance. Celebrities were not to be pestered by stargazers. They were allowed to be themselves without people pestering them for autographs and the like. The club staff was very efficient in its efforts to make favored customers and famous visitors feel comfortable.

If a private party was required, the Lounge had a small, but cozy, secret room where privileged guests could slip in inconspicuously and meet (a custom that many famous clubs, like Studio 54, later copied). I always thought that a lot of really big deals were consummated in that room, a part of Copa’s legend.

 To get from the Lounge to the Copa club proper, you went down a staircase from the lobby, and you were in what was called “the big room”. The dance floor itself was sunken, surrounded by tables and artificial palm trees (lots of palm trees!) arranged in tiers. Tables were placed in the semicircle facing the floor. There were also a few tables on the floor itself, ringside — the best seats in the house. A small stage area was flanked by two sets of staircases, about three steps each, the ones I descended on my maiden appearance.

The small bandstand was off to one side. The decor was tropical, the white palm trees next to mirrors painted with green palm fronds, interspersed between beautiful red and white draperies, heavily enhanced by white fringes. To complete the Brazilian effect, and maybe to match our incredible hats, the drapes had Carmen Miranda plastic fruit hanging from them. The lighting was influenced Art Deco, projecting soft blue and pink hues. The VIP seating – the banquettes against the wall, a preferred place for columnists and others who liked to see, rather than be seen – sported red velvet.

The size of the crowd in the main room was of some concern to all the dancers because on a busy night, they’d add tables wherever they could, leaving less space for the dancers, turning our routine into more of an obstacle course. . The seating was always referred to as “flexible” and could balloon from 670 to 1500 on any given Saturday night. And it wasn’t just the dancers that were affected, the additional tables squeezed the customers the orchestra as well. 

 Sometimes, when it was a really crazy, busy night, we’d be prancing around and dodging some guy’s feet sticking out, or on infrequent occasions, usually at the last show, you’d have to be alert, or you’d get pinched or grabbed by some guy who had too much to drink. As I said, the club didn’t permit that kind of stuff. But, because liquor was part of the entertainment, and our customers were sometimes a long way from home, things did happen. Nothing serious occurred during my tenure at the Copa, but some of the girls had some hair-raising stories!

Compared to other nightspots in the city, the Copa was the elite and represented 1940’s popular culture in miniature. It attracted more of the famous and the well-heeled than any other nightspot; show biz people, sports figures, especially jockeys and prizefighters, business magnates from Seventh Avenue or Wall Street, Texas oilmen, bookmakers, producers, high-ranking mobsters (like Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello), war profiteers, war heroes (a temporary celebrity status), anyone from Hollywood, and anyone who had a reputation as a big tipper. Everybody needed a reservation – unless you were among the superstars, or a close friend of the Maitre d’s, Joe Lopez, Gus, or Arthur Brown. They were the official greeters at the club, and the enforcers as well. Their word was law. They knew who was famous and who was a pretender; they knew all the families in Society’s blue book, and all the Mafia, the politicians, and of course, the columnists. They knew who was on the Copa’s black list and who was most welcome, who the girls in the line were dating, and which headliners needed what food or drink in their dressing rooms. Columnists crossed their palms with money and some “mentions,” if they were treated right. And unless a columnist stepped out of line and printed something that somebody important didn’t like, they were granted every courtesy.

With three opulent shows a night, and a famous headliner, in those days, a seat – any seat – at the Copa, was a treasure, and many a high roller who wanted a ringside table became instant friends with Joe Lopez, the most famous of those at the rope, with the transfer of a rolled-up $100 bill. Joe never forgot a face or the size of a tip. Some reports had each of the three rope-guardians averaging $1000 a night.

The Copa was not a tourist stop unless you were a well-heeled and well-known tourist, such as royalty from Europe or a movie star vacationing in the city. It had virtually no convention-goers (conventions didn’t become common until after the war, and even then, the Copa was not on their bus routes), or weekend and summer tourists, who came in later years. Those types went to the clubs such as the Latin Quarter, with its long winding staircase going on stage, and its tall and sexy showgirls, or Martinique, with its Latin American motif, or Billy Rose’ Diamond Horseshoe on Broadway, or any of the other places that counted on the tourist trade.

In keeping with the ambiance of glamorous exclusivity, women came to the Copa dressed in evening gowns, hats, furs, lovely jewelry, white ermine, and sable wraps – all except for Miss Dietrich, who fashioned the Tuxedo look for women. And the Men were formal in evening tuxedos or dinner jackets with satin lapels. The female stars of Hollywood were always dressed to the nine’s. Courtship was a ritual at ringside. Rich men from South America sent white orchids to the girls backstage. Often the flowers contained little treasures, like a diamond bracelet, expensive rings, and pearls in velvet boxes with love notes. And, of course, Champagne was always popular (though Jules Podell would not allow us to open it until after the show had ended).

 What could someone lucky enough to get a table at the Copa expect? If it were the 8 p.m. dinner show, you’d get a terrific meal expertly cooked and elegantly served, with a choice of good wines or fine mixed drinks. Chinese dishes were the specialty, but there were other cuisines as well. There was a $3 minimum in effect, but never a cover charge. Meals ranged in price from $4.95 for a ham omelet to $6.40 for a Chicken-a-la-King on toast, up to $7.95 for tenderloin of prime beef Stroganoff. A jumbo shrimp cocktail was $3.35. Coffee was 80 cents. Of the celebrated Chinese food, an egg roll was $2.10, lobster chop suey was $8.15, roast pork chow mein $5.50, and shrimp Cantonese was $7.40. Pork fried rice was $1.65. A bottle of beer was 90 cents. A martini and most other mixed drinks were $1.70 or $1.80 except $2 for a Bloody Mary, and $2.40 for a mint julep. And these were the days when the average guy took home $40 a week! Of course, the average guy didn’t go to the Copa.

 Writing in Esquire magazine, columnist George Frazier’s “Painting the Town”, mentioned the club’s “fine, fine food,” and described the Copa as “one place where you will not be clipped” — which says something about other nightclubs as well as the Copa. Frazier’s feature, which the Copa reprinted in a promotional brochure, said it was “absolutely impossible for a waiter at the Copa to switch checks on a customer.” It continued: “You must believe us when we tell you that this system is all too rare in New York nightclubs.” I believe those sentiments were not just hot air. The Copa’s lifeblood was from repeat customers. Copa regulars were not just regular. They were frequent. If the price and the food weren’t right, the Copa’s generally affluent, sophisticated nightlife crowd wouldn’t be there.

  But, the main reason you came to the Copa that evening was to see and hear the star – the headliner. The Copa carved out a distinct niche for itself with the talent it presented. For the most part, the main performers were on the brink of being true stars. The saying went if you had a successful run at the Copa, you were almost guaranteed stardom. So the regular patrons saw great talent on the verge of stardom, as well as those who had already achieved it, thanks to a successful Copa booking. Of course, many of the successful entertainers made return trips to the Copa, even after they no longer did nightclub gigs, to see what the up-and-coming talent was like, and as recognition of where they had their first huge success.

 So, when I started my own fully-fledged show career there I was in good – in fact in great – company. 

Read the prologue, or review the book.

Copyright 2003 – All Rights Reserved


About Brie Austin

Brie Austin is co-author of 'I'd Do It Again', a website content writer, columnist, and reporter. He is a member of the International Federal of Journalists, National Writer Union, and Society of Professional Journalists.

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