LOOKING FOR REAL LIFE HEROES? READ THIS…
Monte Proser was a nightclub guy, a saloonkeeper. He built the greatest nightclub in the history of the world called the Copacabana. You’ve seen it in a dozen movies like Goodfellas, Raging Bull and The Green Book.
The problem with the Copa was that the most powerful gangster in the history of the world, a guy named Frank Costello, walked in the front door of the club one day, stuck out his hand and said, “Say hello to your new partner.” Like they said in The Godfather movie, this was an offer Monte couldn’t refuse. Monte was my father and he told me lots of stories like this.
Here’s a picture of my father and my mother in love at the Copa. Click on the picture to hear singer and host of the television game show The Hollywood Squares, Peter Marshall, talk about his time with my father and the Mob.
Modern Day Heroes
Starting in the 1920’s with Prohibition, my father and his friends saw a dark side of American history. That was when gangsters like Costello walked through the front doors of almost every nightclub and bar in America and made offers nobody could refuse. These gangsters were so rich from selling illegal booze that they started buying up all the places like the Copacabana.
First, they’d buy a piece of the business, then the building that the club was in. Then they bought the land under the building. Then they bought a piece of all the businesses and a piece of the wages of all the people around the club like the garbage haulers, the singers and dancers, the talent agents of the singers and dancers, the union representatives for the waiters and bartenders, the meat and vegetable suppliers and then the politicians who represented all these people. Some people refused to go along with it and sometimes those people got killed. That’s how it was. And that’s how my father ended up being one of many modern day heroes. Here is an example of a modern day hero that may be hard for people to recognize.
The gangsters kept buying businesses and people. They bought construction companies, banks and lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers. And this is where the story gets interesting. The story that nobody knew except my father, was that Frank Costello didn’t really like being a gangster. He wanted to be a businessman like my father. He just wanted to hang out at the Copa and go to Belmont racetrack and bet on the ponies. My father dealt with Frank and a series of his gangster friends for 35 years – and managed to help a lot of people.
My father’s story is about standing up for years to people who could have had him killed in minutes. It’s about his life during two world wars, in Hollywood and on Broadway with sexy movie stars and ordinary people. It’s about his unbreakable marriage with my mother – a dancer at the Copa. It’s his story of heartbreak, drug addiction, beautiful music and the vanished Café Society that he loved. It’s his story about America at night.
Frank Sinatra called my father, “The Genius”, columnist Walter Winchell called him “Broadway’s Favorite Son”, J. Edgar Hoover and Bobby Kennedy called him, “…a known business associate of Frank Costello,” and Frank Costello, the architect of the modern Mafia, called him “…my new partner.” You want to know about real life heroes? You’ve come to the right place.
The Hero Within
My father’s meteoric rise to prominence in show business attracted gangsters at every turn, eventually attracting the “capo di tutti capos”, Frank Costello. This relationship with Costello became the struggle that defined the second half of my father’s life and made his Copa the unique crossroads of every level of society, including the lower levels.
By the age of 24, having been an elegant hobo, a boxing promoter, a dishwasher and manager of a lumberjack crew; he then built a successful career as a publicist for the major stars of early Hollywood including W.C. Fields, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers and producer Walter Wanger. At the same time, he became a successful nightclub owner. Monte had “the common touch”.
People loved to be around him because he was fun. His life-long friend Sol Meadow told me about the time he and my father once had a long, hot car ride from New York City to Atlantic City. They were running a bit late for a business meeting there with Skinny D’Amato, owner of the famous 500 Club, to talk about bringing Skinny’s discovery, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, to the Copacabana.
Monte and Sol decided they wanted to change into fresh clothes before the meeting. With no time to check into a hotel or even find a men’s restroom somewhere, they opened the trunk of the car, pulled a fresh change of clothes from their luggage, stripped off their pants and standing in their boxer shorts in the street, started laughing so hard they couldn’t get their fresh pants back on. Soon people driving by were honking their horns and people on the sidewalk were pointing and laughing as the two grown men hopped around one of foot in their underwear laughing and trying to get their pants on. My father’s friends told me dozens of stories like this about my fun-loving father.
But it was more than just fun that drew people to my father. Friends remembered his sunny optimism and his kindness, particularly toward performers. Whether they were youngsters just starting out like singer and dancer Sammy Davis Jr. or older stars like torch singer Sophie Tucker whose careers were fading and needed a break, Monte took them under his wing and if needed, made sure they had a little “walking around money” in their pocket. It didn’t matter what color their skin was, their sex or whom they chose to love. He didn’t care about any of that.
And so, little by little, with his gift of compassion for everyday people and his courageous loyalty to them, my father joined the American tradition of modern day heroes. I think true heroes are just common people like my father who for all his fame and fortune considered himself just a saloonkeeper.
Examples of Heroes
My father hit it big on Broadway as a producer of the musical “High Button Shoes” starring Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray and finally triumphed as the “King of Nightclubs” at the Copa reviving vaudeville stars like “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”, Sophie Tucker and “The Schnozz” Jimmy Durante; launching or rescuing stars like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, Tony Bennett and dozens of others including his special discovery, my mother, Jane Ball, a starlet of 20th Century Fox and mother of his five sons.
But throughout his life, along with the glamour, the enormous successes, the outrageous adventures, the heart-rending love story with my mother and more than a few catastrophic failures, is woven my father’s constant struggle for independence from forced partnerships with the top gangsters of his time.
It started with the brutal Legs Diamond in the wild speakeasies of the 1920’s, then graduated to the deadly Dutch Schultz in the 1930’s who issued a contract on my father over an insult my father told a newspaper reporter. Then in the 1940’s, a 30 year struggle for control of his career began with the sophisticated gangster, Frank Costello. Eventually my father had to deal with all of Costello’s allies including the infamous Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis and Johnny Rosselli.
But enjoyably, Costello was more like Monte than he was like his allies. They enjoyed the same vices – booze and gambling – shared many of the same personal values and had careers seemingly locked in parallel. Although their partnership started as a cautious necessity, when congressional investigations began in the 1950’s, and Monte and the Copa were named and forever marked as targets of the government, Costello revealed his true character as a “stand up guy”. This incredible relationship, that was tested, broken and re-forged over decades, between the “kingmaker” of show business and the “Prime Minister” of the mob is one of the many examples of heroes you will find in the story of MR. COPACABANA.
Hero Short Story
What we see through my father’s life story is a keyhole view of a unique character at a unique time in history as Monte Proser, a saloonkeeper, a supremely talented man, a go-for-broke, shoot-the-whole-wad, long-shot gambler struggling to free himself from the clutches and the taint of the Mafia without getting killed, imprisoned or crushed by competitors. It was one man’s lonely battle in America’s mid-century war against corruption. And ironically, as their stories end, the “stand up guy” who tainted and ruined my father’s career became his savior. This, along with my mother’s stirring recovery from addiction and Monte’s final success, is the heart-warming conclusion to MR. COPACABANA – a story that began in the midst of the First World War…