Life in Pink
In the 1920s, at 151 East 50th Street in New York City, any tourist who wanted to hear opera and rub elbows with the social crowd would venture over to the East Side Opera House. From the few available accounts, it was a great night out, but the European empresario could not find a loyal American audience. He slammed the door and returned home.
Then on February 8, 1935, a new nightclub opened at 151 E. 50th Street and the entertainment pages of the New York newspapers filled-up with ads announcing the new Versailles, a Continental Rendezvous for Lunch, Cocktail Hour, Dinner, and Supper. Reservations at ELdorado 5-8028. It was purported to have extraordinary divertissements and décor, serving cuisine francaise. New ads each week announced the new acts presented by Nick and Arnold. The two names appeared in every advertisement for the restaurant and the current acts, but no surnames came to light.
Hours of effort to identify Nick and Arnold were rewarded when their names – Nick Prounis (left) and Arnold Rossfield (right) – appeared in a display ad in the New York Daily News.
Prounis was born in Greece and became a naturalize U. S. citizen in 1915. Nick was 88 years old when he died in Colorado while visiting his daughter Florence. He once said the two things he loved most were the twelve-hundred-pound bear he once shot and his grandson.
Rossfield was born in Russia in 1888. He too, was a naturalized U. S. Citizen. Before his involvement at Versailles, he worked as a headwaiter in a New York hotel. He passed in 1974 at age 85 in Palm Beach, Florida. The very modest obituary that appeared in the Palm Beach Post did not mention his partnership with Prounis nor the Versailles restaurant.
For the next 22 years the Versailles was one of the finest restaurant-cabarets in the world. The continental food was lauded in restaurant guides, travel brochures, and newspapers worldwide. The entrees had names like Chicken Maison.
The featured performers presented by Nick and Arnold included Hope Hampton, who was reviewed in glowing terms by the likes of Robert Dana, Louis Sobol, and Earl Wilson; George Hale, Jean Sablon (Sablon was one of the first French singers to immerse himself in jazz); Carl Brisson (the Danish actor who did top-hat song and dance), Dwight Fiske at the keyboard, Evelyn Knight, Carl Ravazza and his orchestra, and Edith Piaf on stage live at dinner and supper.
It seems the earliest performance by Piaf came on September 14, 1949. (Calculated and unverified.)
Piaf biographer, Monique Lange wrote: “Like many of Edith Piaf’s loves, her relationship with America began badly.” When she first appeared in America she went on stage in her little black dress and was the complete antithesis of what Americans had decided was “French Sexy.” Then she sang songs that no one understood. Lange continues, “Finally what the public wanted from her was sparkle and wit, but what she gave them was somber and sad.”
Piaf left New York with the idea that she would win-over the Americans even if it meant going home and learning English. To her that first trip was not a failure it was a challenge.
Piaf went to work and set in motion a new tour plan. She arranged for her American agent to rent the most elegant supper club in New York – The Versailles. It was there that she wove the magic spell that won over her American admirers.
Nearly a year later, to the day, the New York Daily News reported Piaf’s “One Spot Only” contract. Piaf signed with Nick Prounis and Arnold Rossfield and the reporter-of-record, Robert Sylvester, opined that it cost the owners “some money” but it was worth it for all involved. Mostly Piaf, for it guaranteed her five months (six if she wished) of sold-out performances at a salary she could never have dreamt of earning in Paris.
When Piaf was out-of-town, Versailles still flourished. Throughout the 1940s it played host to Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and many others. When the calendar changed to the 1950s, Versailles was the home of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. People flocked there to dance the night away. And back then, while you were catching your breath, you could have your fortune told by Doris the Palmist.
At best it can be told that Versailles was a wildly successful venture, but the whole history can’t be found in public records. The facts are one thing and then there is the legend; the legend tells that late in 1958, revenue agents knocked on the office door and presented Nick and Arnold a subpoena for documents relating to what the government claimed to be a $750,000 tax liability. Sometime between lunch and dinner that day Versailles closed.
Piaf was not just a singer; she wrote many of her own songs. The song La Vie en Rose (Life in Pink) was her own creation. The popularity of the song is testimony to the world’s lasting fascination with her. Lange quotes the Philadelphia Inquirer [that] “Piaf is a jolting reminder that truly great popular art didn’t begin with Elvis and the Beatles.”E
Enjoyed this article so much. Wish I could have been there!
Very interesting! I enjoyed this article very much. Thank you for sharing.
I first learned of Piaf because her name is often a solution to a crossword clue.
Thanks Ray, for another interesting article. I enjoy history, too. Maybe some day you and your wife can come to explore parts of my postcard collection 1 card at a time. I need to seriously downsize !!
Let me know if this would be possible, please.
Great read. Would of been awesome to meet these people