The hottest spot north of Havana has merengued into Manhattan with a new lease on nightlife.
The sixth and latest iteration of the Copacabana opened last month on West 51st Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the legacy of Manhattan’s most famous hotspot kept alive for five decades by nightclub kingpin John Juliano.
“I just don’t want it to die,” Juliano, 91, a lifelong Bronx resident, told The Post. He partnered in the new nightspot with Manhattan hospitality veteran Ruben Rubin Cabrera.
The original Copacabana opened in 1940 at 10 East 60th St., where it was celebrated in American pop culture even after closing its doors in the wake of Mafia murder and scandal in 1973.
The club showcased the nation’s top talent of World War II and for nearly 30 years beyond: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, among many others.
“When the club opened there was no Las Vegas, there was no TV. You had to play the Copa to be somebody,” said Juliano, who patronized the original club “almost every day.”
He was enthralled by the Copacabana’s celebrity culture and larger-than-life image while working to build his own nightclub empire.
Juliano and partners raised the curtain on the Copa’s second act as a disco in 1976 at its original location. The club flourished for another 17 years. Other versions of the Copa followed at West 57th Street, West 34th Street and West 47th Street, which Juliano reluctantly closed two years ago amid pandemic lockdowns.
The legend of the Copacabana has only grown over the decades, even as the club meandered around Manhattan.
Martin Scorsese’s “Copa scene” in “Goodfellas” is a celebrated cinematic hallmark. Copacabana patron Francis Ford Coppola reportedly based Don Corleone of “The Godfather” fame on the club’s longtime mob operator, Frank Costello. The notorious nitery inspired Barry’s Manilow’s infectious 1978 hit song “Copacabana” detailing a deadly gunfight over showgirl Lola.
Her suitors Tony and Rico were named after two Copacabana bartenders, Juliano said, though the duel in the song is only imagined. The real story of pop stars and Gotham glitterati mingling with murderous mobsters is even more sensational.
Costello, the Copa’s mob operator and a real-life Godfather, survived an assassination attempt outside his residence at The Majestic on Central Park West in May 1957.
Just two weeks later an all-star collection of New York Yankees, including Billy Martin, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, busted up the joint in a bare-knuckled brawl with a group of Bronx bowling buddies, The melee was a grand slam for New York City gossip pages.
Notorious gangster “Crazy” Joe Gallo was the reputed behind-the-scenes Copa operator in the 1960s and early 1970s. He celebrated his 43rd birthday with cake, champagne and a Don Rickles performance at the club in April 1972, with his pal, actor Jerry Orbach.
The mobster then drove with an entourage in his black Cadillac from the club to Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy for an early-morning dinner. He was gunned down there in a blood-soaked scene worthy of the silver screen.
It was a last blast of infamy for the nightlife landmark. The club closed its doors in disarray the following year after the death of long-time underworld-connected owner Jules Podell.
“Nobody ever knew who really owned the Copa,” said Juliano.
The original Copa’s tropical-vibe decorative palm trees have been planted at each location that followed, though they are in storage today and have yet to appear in the new club, Juliano said.
Little remains otherwise from the Copacabana’s sprawling original East 60th location other than the name and the legacy Juliano remains determined to carry on today.
“It’s a fabulous history. I’d be ashamed if the Copacabana disappeared.”