2/5/18

PARIS 1929: VISIT 'ZELLI'S ROYAL BOX NIGHTCLUB'



Here's quite a find. It's raw footage--documentary, not staged--of an evening in a famous Montmartre
nightclub of the 1920's called 'Zelli's Royal Box Nightclub'. I'm not certain what its purpose was--perhaps stock footage for a movie, a travelogue or newsreel?--but it's a haunting bit of voyeuristic film. The audio is clearly the original, recorded live, and the people dancing are honestly confused by the presence of the camera and sound gear--they look directly into the lens constantly, smiling with curiosity and ill-concealed bafflement. There are five seperate camera angles that capture about six minutes of now long-dead Parisians having a hell of a time of it in April, 1929.

Zelli's nightclub was the brainchild of a most peculiar and enterprising man named Joe Zelli. Born in Rome, he came to New York City as a child and opened his first bar at age 15--this would have been around 1907/08. World War 1 seems to have taken him back to Europe and his nightclub became a center of Parisian whoop-de-do throughout the 20s, with many literary characters sitting around drinking while pretending to finish their novels. Later he opened a version of it in New York--it was a speakeasy and was shuttered the year before Prohibition was repealed. Later gigs included being the Maitre'd at the famed Greenwich Village 'Hotel Brevoort' dining room and becoming a promoter of French salad dressing.

As always with these pieces of documentary footage of the past, the 'meta-film' is the real experience for me. Who were all those happy Parisians? What was the excuse for shooting the footage? Is Zelli the man pictured in close-up (set-up #3)? Did he arrange for the footage to be shot for publicity reasons? What the hell did men put on their hair to make it shine that way? You can read Zelli's New York Times obit from 1971 by clicking here. And here's a lovely website I found called Jazz Age Club with a very nice article on this mysterious and interesting figure of the past.

And here's a personal note. My father was a wonderful cook and one of his favorite dishes was called 'Steak Nino'. Basically it was a Filet Mignon with fried onions and garlic on it, flambed with Brandy. Nino was the chef at the Hotel Brevoort, one of my parents favorite restaurants in their Greenwich Village 1950s days. I remember my father telling me that the Maitre'd liked them enough to reveal the recipe. Could it have been Zelli? If so, my father surely would have slipped a fin into his palm at the end of the evening. Which means they shook hands...which means I touched my father's hand at some point in the fifty-three years I knew him...which means I am one handshake away from the man who ran the nightclub pictured above. Whoop-de-do!

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