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There were supper clubs and there were supper clubs. And they don’t exist anymore. What they call a club today has almost no connection with the legendary supper clubs of the great years. There were the big, fancy rooms for high rollers, like the Copacabana and the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel just across the street, and the jazz clubs like Birdland, Basin Street East, and the Village Vanguard (although originally it also had folk singers and comedians in addition to jazz), and the more intimate nights spent at small cabaret rooms, like Upstairs at the Downstairs, where the audience was poorer but somehow more exclusive – that was where you went if you wanted to impress your date with your taste rather than your money. But all of these venues were more akin to a Broadway revue than anything you’ll find in Supper clubs today; today you just get one singer or specific show for 70-80 minutes; from the 1940s to the 1960s, you got a whole show, multiple singers, comics, dancers, and a star headliner. (Even the jazz clubs offered multiple acts in a single show.) Like the old Cotton Club in the pre-war days, the Copa particularly aimed to give customers a show to compete with what you could see on Broadway, and not only that, the top-flight supper clubs offered the four D’s as well: dinner, drinks, dancing, and dress-up.
Two clubs that emerged around the early war years were the Copacabana on 60th Street, right off Fifth Avenue, and the Latin Quarter, which opened in the site that had been the Times Square Cotton Club in 1942. Our great friend Julie Wilson was a part of both of those establishments, which was around the time she first arrived in town from her native Nebraska – years away from being the legend that she is today. Around 1945, Julie got a job at the Latin Quarter, singing in the chorus. Normally when you think of a chorus in a nightclub, you think of a line of dancing girls; but this was a singing chorus. It seems like a distant memory that some nightclubs were so well-appointed that they actually could hire a mixed choir to sing behind the star vocalist. And that was Julie’s first major job, not long after she landed in New York, New York.
After working for a few months, she was hired away from the Latin Quarter, to do essentially the same job at a higher salary by the Copacabana. “Well, who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you? I mean, for fifty dollars more? She told us, “You worked seven days a week. You did two shows a night. It kept you off the streets. Ha!”
Julie’s first memory of The Copa is the way that the shows were directed and choreographed by Doug Coudy: “The guy that was our leader and our coach. He’d say, ‘Alright. Put your shoulders back and down. And keep your posture. I’ll never forget.” She later added, “The chorus girls had a little routine. They were real good dancers. Doug was very nice to us. But he was a nut about posture—the correct movements and all that. He’d say ‘shoulders back and down!’ So we all developed good posture. I passed that on to so many girls. They’d say, ‘How did you get that good posture?’ I said, ‘Somebody told me what to do! Take a deep breath. Put your shoulders back and down.’ That’s it. For life.”
The southern comedian, Lonnie Shorr—whose delivery has often been compared in the tradition of Will Rodgers—worked the Playboy circuit for two straight years. He told us, “I’m glad I did! It was a great learning experience and an opportunity to perfect your act —although you never really reach perfection.
“I found my niche working for Playboy because you did so many shows for them. It was a ‘floating‘ schedule because usually you did two shows a night. But if the last show had an attendance of fifteen percent of the room capacity, you had to do another show! In other words, if the room sat a hundred people and you had fifteen people in the audience—you did another show. So theoretically, you could be doing a lot of shows!
“One thing about Playboy that was different from the way things are today is that you couldn’t use four letter words. Nobody did that. If you did, you had an unfavorable report written about you. This report was sent to the company headquarters in Chicago, and if you received too many bad write-ups you were dropped from the circuit, and no one wanted that. There were guys that were a little suggestive, but no cursing.
“The Playboy Clubs were one of the few places we worked that had standards, very high standards for everyone—the staff, the Bunnies, and the entertainers. The other day, I had a guy from one of our local newspapers ask me about the entertainment scene today, and I told him I thought that the Playboy principle of entertainment was what they needed today in some of these other clubs.
The Playboy Clubs always had two acts—once in awhile they’d have three acts in the bigger clubs. It was a place where you could go and see a show and, at that time the prices were really nominal –then you could go downstairs and listen to some music while actually talking to the person you were with. That’s the kind of place we could use nowadays.”
In 1969, Roslyn was booked for an engagement at the Plaza Hotel’s legendary Persian Room—an accomplishment on any level but especially for an unknown eighteen year old. “I celebrated my nineteenth birthday during my Persian Room run,” Roslyn told me. The critics wrote that ‘she brought a youthful essence that was never known to that room.’ “I did songs like ‘Promises, Promises’ and ‘Hair’ because I was young and wasn’t going to do older songs. I was a little out of whack, with a whole different energy than they were used to. I was determined not to do stuff someone else was known for.
“There was a huge amount of pressure on me at the Persian Room because it was not only my New York debut, but also my first major introduction to both the public and the critics. The plan was for me to go out and make a big splash on my own, without the mention of Barbra Streisand—my mega- superstar sister. I needed time to develop as a performer without that attachment and comparison. Then I did The Ed Sullivan Show, and someone from my record company leaked it to the media. So then I had to evolve in full sight of everybody. On top of that, the Persian Room wasn’t like the little clubs—the ones in the village where you started without the rigamorole. This was major press and major people wanting to come and see and gasp. I had to live up to a lot of things I wasn’t ready to live up to.”
Ros told me about what it was like, working out of town to prepare her show for the big New York Show. “One night, while I was working at a club called the CopaHavan in Oklahoma City,” she began, “a big fight broke out. These drunken guys had stayed for both shows, and when they heard the same songs in my second show they got very pissed. We told them we were trying to break in a show for New York, and we had to do this material as much as possible. They were just not having it, and a big Western-style brawl broke out. I swear, people were flying over the banisters and over the bar, and my musical director signaled me to leave the stage by a different route. These guys were so rude and out of control the police had to be called in.
“Afterward, I saw my manager. He had been hit in the nose and his glasses were broken. He told me not to tell his wife. I had to laugh and replied, ‘You won’t have to say a word. She’s going to look at your nose and face, and she’ll know!’ That was my experience, in some of the towns in Oklahoma and Texas on the road leading up to the Persian Room. Thank God in New York you had maitre d’s to keep the weirdo’s at a distance.”
Roslyn went on to sing at other major settings around the world, seasoned by her early experiences—both on the road and at the Persian Room. “Someone once asked me,” she said, “‘What’s the difference between working a small room and a major venue?’ I said the trick is to make the humongous room feel like a small, intimate room. That’s my job. That’s why I’m here.”