Legendary New York nightclub Copacabana is back! It relaunches this Saturday in Hell’s Kitchen with a jubilant, carnival-themed jamboree at its new W51st Street location.
Copacabana originally opened in 1940 and would eventually welcome notable performances from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke — several of whom would go on to record live albums at the venue. The iconic nightclub was one of the early victims of the pandemic and closed its Times Square location on 8th Avenue and W47th Street in May 2020.
But music and passion has brought longtime Copacabana owner John Juliano and nightlife impresario Ruben Rubin Cabrera together for a triumphant return of The Copacabana. After founding owner Jules Podell died in 1973, the club shut down for several years, reopening in 1976 under the leadership of Juliano. The serial nightclub owner told W42ST while sitting at a booth in a midtown diner: “It was my pet, the Copacabana was my pet and still is.” He rebuilt an environment where “people started coming in from the old days — Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett — I met all of those people,” says Juliano.
Among his favorite Copa memories is serving Bob Hope a drink at the bar (he regrets making him pay for it) and spending 3 hours in conversation with Clint Eastwood and his wife — “He had 7 gin and tonics, but walked out of there straight as an arrow.”
This melding of 40s Golden Age mystique and 70s hazy, boisterous discotheque was forever immortalized in Barry Manilow’s 1978 smash-hit Copacabana (At the Copa). The song, a fictional, three-act tale of one showgirl’s descent into madness over her murdered lover, hit the Billboard Top Ten in 1978 and would go on to be adapted into a full-length TV movie musical and cult hit stage production.
It was within this world of glitz, glamor, and Copacabana showgirls that Cabrera first fell in love with nightlife. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and found himself working as a teenager at a catering hall on East 60th Street in 1979. The owner used to go to the Copa on Tuesday nights, “and one Tuesday he invited me to go with him. “He said, ‘Let me take you downtown and show you the real club scene’,” Cabrera recalls. He was only 14, “I was a tall, skinny kid who looked older than I was,” and the owner “bought me my first suit” to wear to the club.
Cabrera put on the suit and snuck into the Copa, where he was smitten by the big band and the bright, noisy, world of nightlife. “The Copa girls were my first love — I fell in love with them, I fell in love with the bartender, I fell in love with the club scene and I have been in it ever since.”
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Cabrera had been running the venue as Casa 51 up to the onset of COVID, now he’s thrilled to be bringing the vibrant energy of the Copa back to Hell’s Kitchen. “I grew up spending a lot of time going to every bar and restaurant in Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen, and spending lots of sleepless nights here,” he says
During his over 45 year tenure, Juliano has run nightclubs throughout Hell’s Kitchen including Copacabana venues on 11th Avenue at W34th and W57th Street as well as the famed Red Parrot and Emerald City. He hosted the Copa’s most recent location in Times Square, where he expanded the club’s reach by positioning it close to bustling tourist hotspots. A stroke and the COVID-19 shutdown forced him to step back, but he has since recovered and is excited to bring back “Latin dancing — there’s no place to go to do salsa and merengue, this will be it.”
Cabrera and Juliano will start the Copa reunion tour by hosting salsa and bachata nights on Saturdays from 7pm to 2am. Every 2-3 weeks the club will add another night of operations, with the hope to have a full schedule of events like Big Band Tuesdays, comedy Wednesdays, signature gay night Thursdays, and Disco Fridays up and running by May. For now, they’ll plan to be there on Saturday “far before the doors open and well after they close.”
So grab some yellow feathers for your hair and put on your dress cut down to there for an evening celebrating the new era of the Copa — and make sure to stop by Juliano’s table, where he’ll be holding court all night — “Bring back your memories.”
Ruben and John are promising a raucous, roaring festival of complimentary salsa and bachata lessons, dance hits from every decade featuring sets from DJ Henry Knowles and Elmer and special guest appearances. Tickets start at $20, with premium options that include an open bar ($60) and table reservations with bottle service ($300). Copacabana, 625 W51st Street between 11/12th Avenue. thecopanyc.com