12 Pell Street
Nestled among the steaming chop suey joints and smoldering opium dens of turn of the last century Chinatown, there was a dingy saloon that spilled ragtime piano into the moonlight.
On any given night, the bar played host to a packed crowd of millionaires and murders, pickpockets and tourists, all on account of The Professor on the piano and a seventeen year old singing waiter named Izzy Baline, who would one day be known as Irving Berlin.
The place was The Pelham Café, headquarters of the unbelievably politically incorrectly nicknamed Nigger Mike Salter, a Russian-Jewish gangster. The papers called Mr. Salter the uncrowned prince of Chinatown, and the prince had his hands in everything: prize-fights, dice games, opium parlors, and most of all, politics. He was rumored to have killed ten men on the road to becoming Big Tom Foley’s chief election captain, and Salter’s specialty was getting out the vote.
The House of a Hundred Entrances
False registration, ballot box stuffing, and good old fashioned repeat voting earned Salter a special place in the heart of Tammany Hall. As a reward in 1904, the Hall permitted him to open a saloon in the Chinatown vice district in a tenement known as the house of a hundred entrances located at 12 Pell Street.
Salter spared no expense decorating the joint. Ivory inlaid teak furniture filled the front room. Red burlap wallpaper, framed by gold paint, lined the walls. Sawdust covered the floors, and a dense, ever-present fog of bluish cigar smoke hung above the bar, a bar that sat the A-list of the New York sporting set.
A Den of Ragtime and Vice
Characters like Big Mike Abrams, Chuck Connors, Staten Island Sally, and Hoboken Harriet, wined, dined, and danced the night away. At the bar, Sulky, a homicidal loanshark that kept a tidy ledger, served brews to gangland’s finest. Part time pugilist and full time gangster, Jack Sirocco, and his chief gorilla, Chick Tricker, could be found there on the regular.
In the back room, the Professor, “Nick” Nicholson manned a tinpan piano while Izzy the singing waiter belted out raunchy versions of hit songs that kept Chinatown abuzz.
Nobility Visits The Pelham
Word spread of Izzy’s musical talents, and Chuck Connors guided legions of celebrity slummers through the saloon’s double doors. John Jacob Astor, Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame), and August Belmont all came to sample the hullabaloo, but nothing could top the visit by Prince Louis of Battenberg, a Rear Admiral in the British Navy and the fourteen reporters following him.
Before leaving the prince remarked to Izzy:
I have had a delightful time, not dreariness, not weariness, and not one bit lonesome.
When the prince attempted to tip Izzy, the singing waiter waved away the coin, exclaiming:
No, sir, it was my honor to sing.
On the Prince’s way out, Izzy and the orchestra of banjos, coronets, and fiddles stuck up a ragtime version of God Save the King.
The Making of Irving Berlin
By this point Salter knew he had something. Inspired by booze, he badgered Izzy and The Professor into writing a song because of the success of “My Mariucci Take a Steamboat”, a ditty written in a rival saloon on Doyers street.
The result of their collaboration was: “Marie from Sunny Italy.” The effort earned Izzy a whopping thirty-seven cents; but more importantly, the sheet music listed the lyricist as I. Berlin, and Irving Berlin was born.
Berlin later reminisced:
It was an important song, though, because it did get me out of Chinatown.
However, Salter’s success was short lived. In 1907, the police arrested The Prince of Chinatown on charges of false voter registration. Marshals closed down his bar, and Salter skipped bail and skidooed off to Canada for three years. Berlin wouldn’t see his boss again until 1922, when he came to pay his respects at Salter’s Funeral.