Filmmaker David McDonald reanimates legendary club-owner Joe Zelli in The Royal Box

Joe Zelli with Louise Brooks and unknown friends.

When Almanac Weekly last caught up with Columbia County-based filmmaker David McDonald in early 2019, he was looking for backers to make a movie out of his screenplay Ella the Ungovernable. It was a juicy story about the horrific period in 1933-34 when 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was an inmate at the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson when she escaped and within a few months got “discovered” on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater.

When no movie studios immediately took the bait, McDonald reworked his script into a stage play, which drew considerable interest. Its debut at the Valatie Community Theatre in February 2020 sold out the house both nights, other Capital District venues were lining up to host the play. One of Off-Off-Broadway’s most venerable and prestigious institutions, Theatre for the New City, was about to commit to a live production.

Then Covid-19 hit. On May 28, TNC livestreamed a single performance of Ella the Ungovernable. But it was clear that any further productions, live or filmed, would be on hold until the pandemic subsided. Clearly, McDonald needed to find a new project to keep his creative juices flowing while he waited. His inspiration turned out to be lurking in an overgrown gravesite, miles from civilization.

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The real deal times ten

“I have been walking or hiking for about five miles a day ever since the Nineties. And if I had my druthers, I would never do the same walk twice. Which is why I end up on some very, very back roads.” McDonald recounts. And the road where the grave is located, he assures, “is one of the backest of all the back roads in Hillsdale.”

That’s where he happened to be walking last July when he stumbled across a lone gravestone whose inscription identified the occupant as “S. Joseph Zelli, Born in Rome, Italy December 25, 1889, Died in Hillsdale, N.Y. December 12, 1971, Soldier – Restauranteur [sic], Operated The Royal Box, Montmartre, Paris, France, The Original Night Club, Circa 1920.”

Puzzled, McDonald thought it all hype until he started researching Zelli’s life. “In fact, the gravestone may have been underestimating this guy,” he reports. “As it turns out, Joe Zelli was the real deal, times ten. When it says that his night club in the Montmartre in Paris was ‘the original’ night club, that, in fact, may have been true. It was the first-ever nightclub anywhere in the world that would open every night at midnight … midnight! And it attracted the height of Parisian culture, like Cole Porter, Picasso and Buster Keaton, among many others. Performers featured at the club included Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. The Royal Box became a world-renowned phenomenon of that era, talked about in books, newspapers and movies.”

Joe Zelli with camel.

When McDonald recounted his discovery on social media, friends began helping him chase down leads and encouraging him to make Zelli the focus of his next writing project. The comments section of an online article, www.jazzageclub.com/the-incomparable-joe-zelli/1594, led him to make contact with Rosemary Zelli, the London-based widow of the club-owner’s grandson. There had apparently been a rift in the family after Joe Zelli and his wife Bertha divorced in the 1940s. Rosemary’s husband didn’t speak much about his grandfather, but decided after his death to try to piece the story together.

There are a lot of holes in that story, and snippets of information suggestive of dicey doings. Joe Zelli bragged about his patriotic service in the Italian army in World War I, but there are newspaper accounts of him and Bertha being arrested around that same time for running a brothel in London.

 The Zellis appear to have made and lost several fortunes over the years. The Royal Box (only one of many cabarets he opened in various cities over several decades) enjoyed phenomenal success as a magnet for American expatriates during Prohibition, but went belly-up during the Depression.

Fancying himself a theater impresario, Joe Zelli returned to the US and sank enormous sums – rumored to have been fronted up by a notorious racketeer, Owney Madden – into Broadway shows, finding success with Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen and bankrupting himself on the instantly forgettable Mr Papavert. He also lost a great deal of money betting on racehorses, according to Rosemary.

Long road to Hillsdale

Chief among McDonald’s questions, as he learned more and more with Rosemary’s help, was how once-famous Joe Zelli ended up living on a dirt road in Hillsdale, of all places. It appears that as his fortunes waned in the Forties and Fifties he took up work as a maitre d’ in some fancy Manhattan restaurants, including the Hotel Pierre. 

Somewhere in that process, he began developing recipes for salad dressings, and decided to retire upstate to the country home of an old acquaintance, Colonel S. K. Wolfe, to produce them for sale to upscale eateries. And that, apparently, is how he spent his waning years, shunning the limelight – and perhaps hoping to avoid the attentions of some of his less savory former associates.

Joe Zelli with compatriots, some of whom may or may not have been Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Louis B. Mayer, German director D. W. Pabst and Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

It was obvious to McDonald that there was a fabulous movie script in the making here, with just enough unknowns to leave plenty of room for imaginative speculation. The knowns have plenty of cinematic potential as well.

The Royal Box was a cavernous space, its entertainment offerings leaning toward grand spectacle. It was the first club to feature telephones at tables in the elevated boxes, where big spenders could order up champagne by the bottle, to be delivered – along with other products and services – by waiters and waitresses chosen for their attractiveness. Famous writers and artists held court at its tables. Josephine Baker was accompanied by a live cheetah when she performed there.
“To my utter surprise, I also learned that the now-legendary Eugene Bullard had been Joe’s orchestra leader and bar manager,” McDonald recounts. “The more I learned, the more the story just started writing itself.”

Now there’s a full script for The Royal Box, and McDonald is shopping around for studios, or backers who will enable him to produce the movie himself. Aiming for a tone somewhere between a classic gangster flick and Casablanca, he fantasizes about Martin Scorsese directing, with Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio cast as the older and younger Zelli, Morgan Freeman as the older Bullard, and Marion Cotillard as young Bertha. “It’s been a blessing to have this project to work on during the pandemic,” he says.

“As this project started percolating forward, I really started to have more of a feeling that Joe Zelli had literally reached out to me from beyond the grave that day, knowing that he had finally found the right person to tell his story. ‘Don’t let them ever forget about me, David!’”