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Authors: Mickey Podell-Raber

The Copa

BOOK: The Copa
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The Copa

Jules Podell and the Hottest Club North of Havana

MICKEY PODELL-RABER WITH CHARLES PIGNONE

I dedicate this book to my three grandchildren:
Claudia, Luca, and Madison.
I wish they had known their great
grandparents, and also their way of life.

This book is also dedicated to the generations of children past and present who should know what an immigrant can do with his life and how he could shape the futures of many young hopefuls. It was the most exciting of times in New York and will probably never come again.

—Mickey Podell-Raber

A postcard used for advertising purposes with a drawing by artist Wesley Morje of the Copa's most famous image; Claudia Podell would tell daughter Mickey that her image was the inspiration for the rendering.

More than sixty years have passed since the original Copacabana opened its doors. Until now little has been revealed of the nightclub's rich history and the man behind its success, Jules Podell, my father.

Jules Podell's personal story is as interesting as the history of the club. His legendary reputation was well known, and he was both respected and feared by those who worked, entertained, or visited his club. Podell's unusual and compelling personality attracted a broad spectrum of characters that ranged from underworld gangsters to entertainers to a nun and her group of orphans.

The list of performers who played the Copacabana is staggering and spans decades, a virtual who's who of the greatest names in the entertainment business: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Peggy
Lee, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Tom Jones, Paul Anka, Diana Ross, and the Temptations, to name a few.

The story of Jules Podell and the Copacabana reflects a truly unique time in American history when a confluence of wealth, relationships, and the burgeoning frenzy of American pop culture created one unique spot in which various classes (and races) mixed with the world's most influential entertainers, underworld gangsters, and sports figures to create a cultural phenomenon that was fueled by drinking, dancing, and amazing entertainment.

But it is also the story of my family and what it was like to grow up in the world of show business and bright lights and bright stars.

Nathan and Malka Podell, Jules's parents.

It all began in the town of Odessa; Nathan and Malka Podlubno lived there along with their two daughters, Minnie and Rose, and their small son, Julius. Odessa is a city of the Ukraine, which sits on the edge of the Black Sea. Catherine the Great founded the port city in 1794. Odessa served as a haven for Jews who were banned from certain regions of Russia but were free to make their home in the city. Because Odessa was open to everyone, foreigners of all kinds flocked there and it soon became one of the biggest cities in Russia.

From pictures I have seen and the stories I have heard, Malka, my father's mother, was very forceful and made all the important decisions; she was the head of the family. Nathan, by all accounts, was a gentle, meek, and mild-mannered man who worked in the town as a butcher. When he was not working, Nathan attended synagogue daily, as he was devoted to his religious studies and followed the teachings of the Torah faithfully. Malka was left to deal with the everyday duties of raising three children: Minnie, the oldest daughter; Rose, who had been born with a slightly hunched back; and the baby, Julius.

I know, from hearing the story, that one terrible night the Cossacks invaded the town of Odessa. I don't know the exact year, but the Cossacks were burning villages in Russia, trying to banish all Jews from the region. Men on horseback with sabers and torches went from village to village burning them down and driving the Jewish people from their homes. The Podlubno family was forced to flee their home and leave all of their material belongings behind. Minnie, who was only nine years old at this time, carried Julius to safety on her back as the family fled the terror. The Podlubnos found temporary refuge with a maid who had previously worked for them, who welcomed the family into her home as a safe haven.

While the Podlubnos were definitely not the wealthiest family in Odessa, they seemed to live a comfortable “middle class” existence. However, their lives and situation were forever changed once the Cossacks raided Odessa. It seems from that point on, the children's memories of their early years in Odessa were something they tried to forget and would rarely discuss.

The only mention of these past times would come from the oldest sister, Minnie, who constantly reminded Jules and held over his
head the fact that if it hadn't been for her, he might have died. Jules, on the other hand, was grateful and always acknowledged that Minnie had saved his life during the Cossack raid.

I am not sure exactly how much time elapsed after the family was forced to flee their home in Odessa, but because of some hidden funds or a benefactor, the Podlubnos soon boarded a ship for a voyage that would take them to America. They were on their way to the “land of the free and the brave” to start a new life.

Upon arrival in the United States, the family quickly settled in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, on Mermaid Avenue. Even today it remains the heart and soul of the New York Russian community. The neighborhood, near Coney Island, was full of Russians who had fled situations similar to the Podlubnos'. Although none of the Podlubnos spoke English, they were soon able to adapt and adjust to life in America. Through a friend of a friend, Nathan was able to secure a job at a local butcher shop near his new home. Since he was not the overly ambitious type, Nathan was happy to employ his skills as a butcher as he had done in Odessa. Although the job did not pay well and money was tight, Nathan was at least content with the situation. Once they had settled into a fairly simple routine, Malka and Nathan would have another child, a girl. My aunt Ann would become the only member of the Podlubno family who was born in America. I believe it was also at this time that the family Americanized its name from Podlubno to Podell.

Life in America was not easy for a family now made up of six people with a minimal income. Their standard of living was less than ideal at first, and it was a struggle almost every day. Malka would take odd jobs to improve the family's financial situation, but her main focus
was her children. Times were tough, but like other recent arrivals to the United States, the family was happy to escape the horrors of their homeland and relished the freedom in their new home.

The Podell family at a gathering in Coney Island, New York. Malka and Nathan are at the head of the table, with son Jules to their left. Jules first wife stands behind him to the And his sister Anne stands behind him to his left. Sitting next to Jules is his sister Minnie, while his other sister Rose, stands behind Malka.

My father, Jules, was cut from the same cloth as his mother; he had more ambition and drive in his pinkie finger than his father had in his entire body. This trait would become apparent when at the young age of seven, Julius decided he'd had enough of being “poor” and walked out of his school during lunch. The family would say that Jules never looked back from that moment. He simply quit school, abandoning a formal education for odd jobs in the neighborhood to increase his family's income. Young Jules would be educated in the streets of New York by those who were in a similar situation. Ironically, he followed in his father's footsteps for a brief period of time, working for the same butcher shop that employed Nathan. Jules would tell his mother that he was the man in the family and would someday support all of them. True to his word, in a few short years, he did!

There was never much said about my father's teenage years that I can remember except about his ambition and drive to make a better life for himself and his family. He would hand all of his hard-earned money over to his mama, Malka, to supplement his father's income and keep the family afloat. I believe it was at this stage in his life that he met and formed relationships with the people who would be instrumental in his later years as a nightclub owner.

All three of my father's sisters were very plain, stout women, as was his mother. Since the women in his family were not considered attractive, I believe, my father would develop a love for beautiful things, including women. My aunts all dated when they reached their late teens. Minnie was the first to marry and then Rose; both of their husbands
were men from the neighborhood. My uncles were weak in character; it appears my aunts chose husbands who were very similar in personality to their father. It was their brother, Jules, who paid for their weddings and gave their husbands jobs.

Because of his hard work, ambition, and drive, by the time my father was eighteen or nineteen, he was able to own and operate his own butcher shop. Soon after that, he became involved with the operations of the Kit Kat Club. I remember hearing him mention that he had some type of ownership in the nightclub. It was during this time, through his involvement with the Kit Kat Club, when, I believe, he set his sights on one day owning a larger and more elegant nightclub. My father was making a name for himself, and through his connections and associations, he would soon be on his way to bigger and better things. From this point on, his family, especially his sisters, would rely on him for money and financial support—not just for themselves but also for their families. I never had the feeling the sisters had a deep affection for one another or for my father.

Sometime during this period, Jules also married. Since my father and mother never mentioned his first marraige, I was unaware of this fact until after his death. As I was going through some family pictures, I came across one that piqued my interest. The photo was of Malka, Nathan, Minnie, and her husband, Louis, some children, and my father with a young lady at a table in a dining room. Not knowing who the lady with my father was, I called my aunt Ann, his only sister who was still alive—she was living in Florida at this time—and asked her about the photo. Aunt Ann told me that the unidentified lady was a girl my father married before he married my mother. Ann explained that Jules
had married the girl because she was Jewish, and his parents were fond of her. It was strictly a marriage of convenience.

Seated: My father and mother, Dr. Max Som, Ethel Som, Uncle Sidney, and Aunt Rose. Standing: Aunt Ann, Dorothy and Jack Entratter, and Uncle Henry.

On the personal front, my father was conflicted and unhappy. He had met another woman, Claudia, at the time of his first marriage and was deeply in love with her. But Jules knew that his parents would never forgive him or accept Claudia since she was a “shiksa” and a former showgirl. So the story is that my father married another girl, and then, when his parents died a few years later, he had his first marriage annulled, enabling him to marry Claudia, my mother.

In my father's world, unpleasant things were swept under the rug and never discussed. Thus I never knew about my father's first marriage while he was alive. Neither did I know that my mother had been married previously to a man named Fred, from Texas, who had been sent to jail for some unknown reason before she married my father.

From my vantage point, my parents had a very strange relationship. My father was extremely jealous and my mother was extremely vain. My aunts would say that Jules had fallen in love with Claudia after meeting her on a golf course. Apparently, Claudia hit him in the head, by accident, with a golf ball. Knowing my mother, I don't believe it was an accident; I think she was probably looking for a rich husband. My aunt claimed my mother then had another “chance” meeting with my father, this one at a speakeasy. So once again she appeared in his life with her platinum hair and white chinchilla coat, and my father was intrigued and smitten. After these allegedly chance encounters, they began a courtship that would eventually lead to marriage.

Both my parents would have their previous marriages annulled. Since my mother was not Jewish, she converted to the religion for my father. My parents adopted me when they were in their late thirties and
early forties. I rarely witnessed any public displays of affection between my parents; in fact, they did not even sleep in the same bedroom. My mother found what she wanted in terms of a lavish lifestyle and someone to support her. My father, in turn, had a beautiful woman who catered to his whims and looked good on his arm, something similar to a trophy wife, but there was definitely love between them.

My mother, Claudia Papineau, was born in Toronto, the youngest of twelve children from a poor Protestant family. Claudia would keep in touch with her siblings mostly by letters—I only remember visiting her parents once. I think the fact that she had converted to Judaism, to marry my father, kept her family at arm's length. They never approved of the “Jewish-Russian man” their beloved “Rudy” (Claudia's family nickname) had married. I do know that over the years my mother sent her family money and elaborate gifts without telling my father.

My mother, Claudia.

Just as my father was with his sisters, I wouldn't say my mother was close to her family. Her siblings never came to visit her; I think they were in awe of her New York lifestyle and were afraid that they might
embarrass her. When my mother passed away, none of her family called or tried to get in touch with my children or me.

My father's sisters, on the other hand, all fawned over my mother. She was a beautiful woman who took very good care of herself and was regal in her manner. My mother would spend countless hours in the bathroom applying makeup and had a masseuse come to the house daily to give her a massage. She was extremely fastidious about her appearance, as if she was always on display. Her hair was auburn when she was younger and then she dyed it platinum blonde, the color it would be for the rest of her life. She was a perfect size six, and I don't remember her eating anything other than liver or salad. Candy and cookies were never allowed in the house, only the coffee maraschino-cherry ice cream that she liked. When I got older and craved chocolate or something sweet, she would point to someone in the street who was really fat and say “too many cookies.” Her whole existence was based on her face and figure and that is all she thought about.

BOOK: The Copa
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