When a life insurance salesman asked Roger Wolfe Kahn what he might do if his music career failed, the teenager flippantly replied, “I could always sell my saxophone.” That he never did sell his saxophone or any of the other tens of musical instruments he owned is a measure of the youngster’s confidence and testament to the planning and organization he applied to his music career.
Nonetheless, not everything Roger put his hand to turned to gold. He had as many failures as he did successes. One of his most widely publicized flops was his and his father’s $250,000 loss on a New York nightclub that the youngster opened at the age of nineteen in 1926. That the press touted Le Perroquet de Paris as the most luxurious and sophisticated nightclub in America may have had some bearing on the inevitability of its untimely closure; nevertheless, that didn’t prevent the club from having a glittering six-month residency before it went dark. Le Perroquet de Paris was the stuff of dreams and had New Yorkers champing at the bit to gain entrance.
That Roger and his father spent over a quarter of a million dollars on refurbishing the venue before its premiere seemed a pittance considering the net worth of Otto Kahn. To be fair, Roger used his own money to match his father’s investment. Together, they purchased a 10-year-lease for the former Ciro’s restaurant at 146 West 57th Street from singer Harry Richman and advertised its opening as if they were launching a splendid new luxury liner. That the club would be decked out with a mirrored dance floor, glass tables each incorporating an aquarium with live goldfish, and a copper and silver-plated proscenium (stage), seemed beyond the realms of comprehension to most New Yorkers.
Prior to its grand opening, the media went to town reporting the comings and goings of its fabulous refurbishment and what guests could expect after paying their $25 cover charge on opening night. For the ladies, the choice of an exquisite bottle of Jean de Parys French perfume Sous le Gui or an original French porcelain doll were offered as souvenir gifts upon arrival. Gentlemen had the assurance of knowing they were entering probably the best nightclub in the world, even though they were paying excessively for the privilege.
Nightclubs in New York City were a relatively new phenomenon. The first to operate in Manhattan is generally regarded as Reisenweber’s in Columbus Circle. It was at this venue that John Reisenweber introduced jazz to New Yorkers in 1917 when he hired The Original Dixieland Jass Band. After a shaky start and a name variation from Jass to Jazz, the band became a sensation, and the idea of nightclubs offering a floorshow and supper was born.
Though America was in the throes of Prohibition, nightclubs were springing up in New York City like exotic truffles to feed the hunger for new and exciting pastimes. It was de rigueur for a successful bandleader to have his own club. Paul Whiteman, Vincent Lopez, George Olsen, et al., all loaned their names to establishments, some more profitably than others. Most were located in the mid-Manhattan region and provided dancing, dining, and a full-supporting show. Though alcohol was prohibited, it didn’t stop guests from arriving with a fancy hip flask hidden about their person containing their chosen tipple. The fun was in concealing it from the cops should they raid the premises.
Vincent Lopez had the ever-popular Casa Lopez on West 54th Street, where he regularly fronted his band after supper. In the summer of 1927, Paul Whiteman opened Whiteman’s on Broadway at 48th Street, which surprisingly was not as well attended as the more intimate Casa Lopez. The acoustics in Whiteman’s ballroom did not do justice to the surround sound of his 50-piece orchestra. Hence, the establishment closed prematurely, unable to weather the summer exodus of wealthy patrons heading for the continent or their country estates.
Roger’s Le Perroquet de Paris catered for the rich fashionista brigade, who were guaranteed to flash the cash. Their loyalty was staunch during autumn, winter, and spring, but as the slack summer months approached, as a precaution, Roger shut Le Perroquet for the holiday season. It was a practice many club owners and restaurateurs did to cut costs and should not have come as a surprise to anyone in the business.
However, there was more going on behind the scenes at Roger’s club than the press had yet to get wind of. Le Perroquet de Paris was a huge operation to run, considering it included a full menu restaurant and cabaret. On the payroll were chefs, kitchen staff, waiters, busboys, cigarette girls, cleaners, and all the other staff that go into running a successful New York venue of its kind, and that didn’t include Roger’s orchestra fees and the supporting cabaret stars that all demanded wages to be paid promptly and weekly. For a teenager of nineteen to run and front such a high-profile niterie was a big deal and entailed long hours, little sleep, and high stress levels. Roger’s work ethic did not go unnoticed by his parents, who at one point ordered him to take a week off to relax at a health resort on Long Island. Undoubtedly, without his father’s financial backing, the project could never have initially gotten off the ground or operated for as long as it did.
It was good while it lasted, but as with all over-ambitious projects, a point is reached where reality kicks in. Roger couldn’t afford to keep his staff of over 100 on the payroll during the summer closure, and his chances of securing their services if and when the club reopened in Autumn were just too mind-boggling to contemplate. It was his father who pulled down the shutter, much to Roger’s dismay, but there was little he could do about it, as his father’s name was also on the lease. That said, the stylish club went back on the market looking for a new tenant. The Kahns didn’t have long to wait before an interested lessee came along, the Broadway producer and impresario Lew Leslie. Leslie snapped up the venue and renamed it Les Ambassadeurs after his favored Parisian haunt and set about redecorating the interior to match his Bohemian vision. He intended to relaunch the club at the start of 1928 with his latest edition of the Blackbirds revue starring the singing enchantress and Harlem favorite Adelaide Hall.
Before the revue opened, Roger had one last shot at throwing a massive party for the fashionista crowd that he hoped no one would forget. It took place on New Year’s Eve at Les Ambassadeurs and introduced the new tenants of the club. Roger and his orchestra, along with songstress Adelaide Hall, celebrated the New Year in lavish style. For Roger, it near broke his heart to hand over the club keys, but for Lew Leslie, Adelaide Hall, and the Blackbirds troupe, it would be the start of a journey Broadway had never before witnessed that would culminate in the longest-running all-black revue Broadway had ever produced.
As for Roger, he learned a valuable, though expensive, lesson, and by mid-1928, he too was staging his own Broadway musical in direct competition with Blackbirds. Roger’s musical Here’s Howe scored one of the defining hits of the Jazz Age, “Crazy Rhythm.” Blackbirds did even better and scored three colossal hits, all sung by Adelaide Hall: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “Diga Diga Doo,” and “I Must Have That Man,” written by the songwriting duo Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh.
Being forever the canny businessman, Otto had one extra clause inserted in Lew Leslie’s lease, paying Otto a split of the profits from the club. Leslie’s six-month lease cost him twenty thousand dollars upfront and came with an option to extend. Leslie, too, was just as astute as Otto Kahn and, in return, used the Kahn connection in advertisements and publicity as often as he visibly could. After a slow start, the Blackbirds revue sold out nightly. Realizing it would be far cheaper for him to stage the show at a legitimate Broadway theater, Leslie chose not to extend his lease at the club and instead berthed Blackbirds at the Liberty Theatre in May 1928. Ironically, the profits from Blackbirds’ tenure at Les Ambassadeur’s indirectly helped pay off some of the club’s debts.
Roger never did sell his saxophone, nor the dozens of other instruments he owned. A few years after Roger’s death, Roger’s second cousin David John Ogilvy, Lord Ogilvy, himself a musician, visited New York on vacation and arranged to meet Roger’s wife, Daisy, at her Long Island home. Daisy seemed quite lost without Roger and reminisced about their wonderful life together. Before David left, Daisy offered him a memento belonging to Roger. David wondered what it might be. As Daisy opened a cupboard door, she turned to David and said, “please take any instrument you want.” Inside the roomy cupboard were all Roger’s top-of-the-range instruments, beautifully stored in pristine leather cases, all monogrammed with Roger’s initials. David was so taken aback to see a whole orchestra of instruments packed idly away in a darkened cupboard; he was lost for words. He chose a modest-sized woodwind instrument—though regrettably not the saxophone—as it seemed the easiest to carry, and still wonders to this day what happened to all the other instruments that belonged to his grand-uncle, the musical wizard Roger Wolfe Kahn.
Iain Cameron Williams was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, of Scottish and Welsh ancestry. His mother was born in New York and his father was born in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India. Iain Cameron Williams is the writer of The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue (2022), The Empirical Observations of Algernon (2019), and Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2003). The KAHNS of Fifth Avenue by Iain Cameron Williams (ISBN-13: 978-1916146587) is available to purchase via Amazon and all good bookstores or via the website www.thekahnsoffifthavenue.com. This article © 2022 Iain Cameron Williams.