To we shabby modern New Yorkers, glamorous night spots of days gone by like The Stork Club, The Colony and El Morocco seem more than a world away. They're a complete culture away. But links to that romantic cafe society of yesteryear still exist. And not always where you might think.
Neil Ganic is a talented Brooklyn restaurateur. He owns Le Petit Crevette on Hicks Street near the BQE and La Bouillabaisse in Red Hook, and can do magic with seafood. But on the walls of the tiny Le Petit Crevette, there are some curious photos of a young, mustachioed Ganic posing with celebrities. Here's Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, circa "New York, New York." There's Joe DiMaggio. Where'd all this take place? "El Morocco," replies Ganic, showing by the dry tone in his voice that he was not so very impressed with the place or its clientele.
El Morocco was legendary. It began as a speakeasy on E. 54th Street and, after Prohibition was repealed, quickly graduated to The Place to Be. It was run by John Perona, an unlettered Italian immigrant who made for an unlikely host to the stars. Regulars include bluebloods like the Vanderbilts and celebs like Clark Gable. Humphrey Bogart was banned for life in 1950, reasons unknown. The club was nicknamed "Elmo," long before a certain red furry muppet came along. El Morocco employees were famous in their own right. Jerome Zerbe snapped photos of patrons that were seen around the world. Doorman Angelo Zuccotti wielding the velvet rope (the first in clubdom history) like a knife. But nothing was more famous than the zebra-pattern banquettes, designed by Vernon MacFarlane.
Perona died in 1961, and El Morocco closed in 1969. It was later resurrected a couple time. I have to imagine Ganic, who's still a fairly young man, worked in one of these later incarnations. He was, reportedly, the youngest head chef ever in the club's history.
Here's a short video featuring the old El Morocco.