Zanzibar Cafe, New York: home of Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway spent some quality time at Zanzibar... entire months! Café Zanzibar, "Home of the Stars", was a Broadway theater that opened in 1943 with the aim of succeeding the prestigious Cotton Club which had recently closed.  But Zanzibar brought one notable difference: the black audience was accepted there. This policy greatly contributed to its success both with orchestras and the public. The Hi De Ho Blog tells you everything he knows about the Café Zanzibar.


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"Flashiest sepia night club on Broadway since The Cotton Club"
- Billboard, June 26, 1943 -

With a name evoking African roots, the Zanzibar gradually leaves the cotton fields behind. And with the support of both audiences, it was to do at least as well as the famous Cotton Club which had to close its doors in the summer of 1940 after a tax audit.
On the 8th of July 1943, the Café Zanzibar opens its doors on the site of the old Frolics Club, just above the Winter Garden Theatre. The decor has changed completely from its predecessor’s: draperies and mirrors give the illusion of a larger space, while preserving touches of privacy. Ella Fitzgerald, backed by Don Redman’s orchestra, tops the bill for the opening with a company including the Berry Brothers and the duo Moke and Poke (see the ad above). The show is embellished with “sepia” chorus girls, described as the most beautiful around.  With a crowd of 350 people, there are three performances per evening (8pm, 12pm and 2am), produced by Clarence Robinson – who previously managed the stage at the famed Cotton Club. With the official announcement of the upcoming opening of Zanzibar, Brooks and Felshin, owners of the Queen Mary restaurant, thought they were smarter than others and changed the name of their joint to... Club Zanzibar! They had wanted to buy the site of Frolics for a while and were rejected.  Small revenge.

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Winter Garden in 2009, above was the first Club Zanzibar.


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Joe Howard & Carl Erbe: the happy co-owners

Prior to co-owning the Café Zanzibar, Joe HOWARD (1867-1961) was first a composer, a music publisher and a famed producer. He is a son of a hairdresser on Mulberry Street in New York. After escaping from his parents, he comes to St. Louis where he sells newspapers and sings in bars and on stage. There, he is called Master Joseph, Boy Soprano. He’s married for the first time at 17 (and would repeat this coup 8 times!) He enjoys growing success, not only among women but with the public. He’s on stage in the U.S. from the west to the east. He publishes his first song in Chicago where he establishes his publishing house in 1897. “Hello My Baby” is his first hit. He then produces many shows between 1905 and 1915 in the Windy City. During the Great Depression, he goes back on stage and tours nightclubs and vaudeville. He hosts the famous radio show “The Gay Nineties” just at the beginning of the Second World War. Then he becomes the manager of boxer Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant on Broadway between 49th and 50th Street, near the future location of the Zanzibar. This fan of fire trucks (his grandfather was a fire chief in New York) eventually dies of a heart attack on the stage of the Chicago Opera... before the firefighters get there on time. His amazing life gave birth to a 1947 biopic, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” and an autobiography in 1955, “The Gay Nineties Troubadour.”

A very different character, but with a business sense at least as great, Carl ERBE (ca 1901-1982) is a man of communication and public relations. At a time when propagandists like Edward Bernays manipulate public opinion, Carl Erbe is undoubtedly an important name in the profession and has his own PR agency on Madison Avenue.

Moreover, following the successful launch of Zanzibar, Erbe and his sidekick Spencer Hare were placed at the top of the nightclub press agents in September 1944 after a poll organized by Billboard (Erbe opens another night club in Lake Placid the same year and even purchases the Singapore Bar in 1946 in New York). The following year, Erbe is still on the top of the podium. Still very active on all fronts (industrial, noble causes, the army), Carl Erbe becomes an adviser to Charles Revson, John L. Lewis, Kate Smith, and even Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista! He might be from Rock Island, Illinois; he was a great hunter, and a newspaper said of him in 1967 that he had travelled around the world 16 times, including once backwards!


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Café Zanzibar in its new location (LIFE, 1944)

From Club Zanzibar to the New Cafe Zanzibar

With their success, in August 1944 Erbe and Howard raise their expectations. They begin negotiations for new premises located at 46th Street and Broadway on the site of Childs Restaurant. This is a first in the nightclub business—a fully functioning place chooses to move. They ultimately settle on the former Hurricane Club, on the corner of 49th and Broadway (they paid more than $50,000 and apparently another $35,000 to redecorate the place in gold, beige and black!). Ironically, some time earlier, Cab Calloway had considered buying the Hurricane for his own purposes. Maybe one day we’ll learn whether Cab gained a privileged rank in the new Zanzibar organization—or if he held a personal grudge. If so, he hid it well on stage (note that Cab’s offices later settled at the opposite corner of the Café Zanzibar, at 1619 Broadway in the famous Brill Building where 95% of what was in show business was born)...

Cab Calloway has the honor of closing the show in the “old” Café Zanzibar until its final shutdown. And on October 6, Claude Hopkins inaugurates the New Zanzibar, just a little further down Broadway. I must add that these two orchestras alternated regularly on stage at the Zanzibar and continue until the incident which we have previously related in these columnsthe punch that Calloway gave Hopkins and earned him a trial in September 1945. Gladys Beavers who attended the altercation and had suffered some collateral damages even asked for $20,000 compensation!

The new Zanzibar stage takes the entire lower level of the room which is horseshoe-shaped; the other 3 sides are occupied by tables. Tables at the front of the stage are generally occupied by white customers. In September 1944, in an article for the Chicago Defender, writer and standard bearer of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, described the existing segregation in the room despite the regular presence of black artists. Hughes describes raised platforms that are placed on the sides of the room to allow the best seats up front to white audiences (sometimes some whites are seated on the sides so that the management is not accused of segregation). However, he noted that there were “so many black customers that they will have to build more sides to the room to be able to sit them all!” Hughes even tells an anecdote where he was taken by the server to a spot far back behind the band and reacts with a Listen man, I am not in the show!” Nevertheless, the Zanzibar Club is the talk of the black public, especially those who are visiting New York and all of Langston’s friends who come from outside of New York still want to go to Zanzibar during their evenings in the Big Apple. Hughes believes that this is indeed one of the finest nightclub shows on Broadway.


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A space and another later are naturally reserved for dancing, but it is frankly tight! No problem: the place is air-conditioned. 


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The Nubian bar in back of the room allows customers to attend the show while simply having a drink.


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Zanzibar souvenir photo, sold to the customers

Dinner costs $2, show and dancing included, and prices for drinks are quite affordable for the time (see the full menu in photos). In a regular week, the Café Zanzibar, with a capacity of 700 seats, hosts about 1,500 people a night and nearly 2,300 on Saturdays. Total estimated revenue of the nightclub is two million dollars a year!


Success means war chiefs

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The success of the Café Zanzibar was instantaneous and the national radio broadcasts were the envy of the business (the contracts were apparently better than elsewhere). That’s why Zanzibar was quickly nicknamed “Home of the Stars.” In August 1945, a quarrel pits Louis Jordan versus Duke Ellington on who will headline and who will broadcast. The dispute was such that only a few advertisements were put in the newspapers since the two parties could not reach an agreement.

When Louis Armstrong and Bill Robinson were performing in December 1944, Erbe had the ingenious idea of asking the public and journalists who should get top billing and who was the main attraction, resolving a difficult ego problem with the two stars.

We must not forget to remind you of the story of Claude Hopkins and Cab Calloway fighting in August 1945 (see the article).

In September 1945, Pearl Bailey appeared with a bruised face after intervening in a fight between her brother and dancer Bill Bailey with one of Cab’s musicians.

Still later, Cab Calloway, who had introduced Pearl Bailey to the Zanzibar stage, was greatly grieved when he was told that the young girl on the rise would earn more than her mentor. However, the two remained best friends throughout the rest of their lives (including sharing the bill in Hello Dolly! on Broadway in 1968).


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Cab Calloway dressed as Hi de Ho Romeo at the Café Zanzibar

Zanzibar is Zenzational!

Throughout its existence, the Café Zanzibar never stopped advertising. And with Carl Erbe, one could expect anything because he always used innovative ways to be the talk of the town. For example, in December 1943, he announced that he had hired an architect to draw up plans for a roof capable of accommodating helicopter taxis so that his prestigious clients or stars could move from one show to another. Visionary, right? In any case, even if the project did not lead to anything, it got a few lines in the press, which was essential!

Another example for the day after the New Year’s Eve show celebrating the arrival of 1946, Zanzibar offered free aspirins to all those who had made the party!

For the shows, there are also the small promotional items that are found in other nightclubs such as matchbooks, postcard-backed menus (stamped by the club), souvenir photos ... During Cab Calloway’s engagement in 1945, they even had the idea of distributing postcards pre-written in “Jive.”

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Cab, Carl’s star

In 1946, the clever Carl Erbe, who never forgot he was a great public relations man, sent this invitation to the personalities in New York:

“Professor Cab Calloway opens his summer school at Zanzibar U. tonight under the Z.I. Bill of Rights. If you care to enroll, call Registrar Erbe and matriculate at the 8 to 12 pm session. Entire new faculty includes Pearl Bailey, the Charioteers, the Peters Sisters, the Miller Brothers and Lois”

(quoted by Ed Sullivan in The Afro American, July 13, 1946).

The premier star of black show business, Cab Calloway had to appear at the Café Zanzibar. So, barely six months after its opening, Cab performs his first show there.

Quickly becoming one of the stars of the Zanzibar, Cab composed a tune to the glory of his new favorite place: “Zanzi(listen to it here).  In the printed programs, Cab even appears with the title of "musical director" of the place.

Advertising for Cab Calloway’s premiere at the Zanzibar (New York Post)

In all, Cab Calloway spent nearly six months at the Café Zanzibar. The Hi De Ho Blog details all the passages for you (naturally, the numbers and attractions that supported the show changed throughout the engagement, depending on their success):


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Zanzibar Cafe, Broadway - Cab Calloway ad

Cab at the Zanzibar in 1944:

  • July 2: radio program "One Night Stand" (# 681) is broadcast.
  • From August 10 to October 5: shows at 8:30, 12:30 and 2:00am. National broadcasts are made several times a week.
  • Songs noticed: Holiday for Strings, Straighten Up and Fly Right (D. Saulters, voc), Saint James Infirmary
  • Also in the show: soprano Fay Canty sings a Swing Carmen; the 6 Zanzibeauts; chorus girls, tap dancers Clark Brothers; Dorothy Saulters, the singer in the band; Dorothy Donegan, the incredible pianist who will appear later with Cab in the movie Sensations of 1945; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with whom Cab had shared the stage at the Cotton Club; and Peg Leg Bates, the one-legged tap dancer.
  • The story to remember: A few days after Cab’s “session” at the Zanzibar, the Ink Spots follow him on stage. And on 18 October 1944, Hoppy Jones of the Ink Spots collapses on stage and dies a few hours later.


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Cafe Zanzibar program, Cab Calloway 1944


Cab at the Zanzibar in 1945:

  • From May 21 to August 31: “Zanzibarian Nights” with shows at 8:15 , 12:30 and 2:30am. Broadcast almost every night.
  • Songs performed: Rimsky-Korsakoff vs. Jive with Cab and Dotty Saulters; Caldonia (D. Saulters, voc, although the musical accompaniment was considered a bit noisy…) King Cab, the First (musical sketch that tells the love life of the singer with 8 women - chorus girls, of course); Candy. Often, the Billboard critic was not a Cab Calloway fan and considered him a “warbler” accompanying his singer too heavily.
  • Also in the show: Dotty Saulters (voc), Count Leroy (dancer on skates), Broadway roulettes), Cook and Brown (sketches), Pearl Bailey (voc), the comic trio Day Down Dusk and the dancer (and brother of Pearl) Bill Bailey. Claude Hopkins orchestra alternates with Cab for dancing.
  • Stories to remember:

 - May 21, opening night, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – who got married the day before – attend the show. Cab dedicates to them “Woman is the Key to an Everlasting Peace”.

 - In early August, three trumpets from the orchestra are stolen backstage at the Zanzibar...

 - It was during this engagement that Cab had his concert interrupted by the announcement of the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. A radio broadcast captures the crowd and its reaction (same as Harry James, Duke Ellington and many others).

 - After this long commitment Cab granted four weeks of paid vacation to the orchestra (an absolute rarity at the time!), with the exception of September 11, devoted to the recording of a V-Disc. Cab then flew off for a holiday in South America.


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1945 Zanzibar ad - Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Bill Bailey
and extra added attraction: the Berry Brothers


Cab at the Zanzibar in 1946:

  • April 29: Celebration of the 60th anniversary in show business of Bill Bojangles Robinson, Cab’s old partner (see our article on this). Among the artists celebrating are W. C. Handy, Noble Sissle and many others. Cab is the Master of Ceremonies.
  • From 26 June to late August probably: "The Calloway Summer Show." Performances at 8:30, 12:30 and 2:20am
  • Songs performed: 15 Years, Woman’s Prerogative, St. Louis Blues, Legalize My Name (Voc. Pearl Bailey on 4 titles) Chusen, Kala and Mazeltov (Voc. Peter Sisters).
  • Also in the show: Pearl Bailey as special feature, the Peters Sisters, The Miller Brothers, Lois and The Charioteers as extra added attraction. Also The 4 Congaroos, dancers, and ballet dancer Alan Dixon.

Outtakes from "The march of Time" (March 22, 1946).
Cab does not appear there but you can admire the entrance with Pee Wee Marquette,
Claude Hopkins's orchestra, The Ink Spots and the Zanzibeauts.


From success to closing

With weekly revenue of $60,000 (with orchestras paid as high as $15,000 per week), the Café Zanzibar begins to undergo changes in the nightclub business brought on by the end of the Second World War. In December 1945, Billboard magazine announces that the Zanzibar (like the Latin Quarter and most nightclubs, hotels and cafes) no longer enjoys the success of the past with fewer soldiers passing through New York since the end of the war.

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The Zanzibeauts, pretty, elegant and… fired!

October 1946: the Zanzibeauts are fired and management believes it is time to change the policy in order to get white talent, saying that they had to repeat too many artist’s appearances because of the lack of available black talent...

Early in 1947, the Baltimore Afro American announces that from January 20, Zanzibar is going to move to the Ole South Club located in the Latin Quarter site when the nightclub is redecorated. The reopening is scheduled with a new name and a policy change since the room will now be devoted exclusively to white artists!

Do not worry about Howard and Erbe: they soon get back on their feet dealing with other restaurants and nightclubs in New York (The Harem, The Vanity Fair, Singapore Café...) and throughout the United States. However, Joe Howard has a heart attack in April 1947 and falls into a coma, forcing Erbe to ask Nat Harris from the Latin Quarter to manage current operations, and eventually Joe Howard is excluded from the business, since he was considered less effectual.

Spare a thought for Three Peppers who had signed a 5-year contract in May 1944 with the Café Zanzibar for 20 weeks a year on stage at what was then one of the trendiest places in Gotham. I do not know how their fate was settled... It’s Don Metz, from Club Casino and Sky View, who acquires the Zanzibar. He immediately announces he would continue the policy of the venue, namely black bands, the first attraction announced for October 1946 being the Ginger Snaps.

Today, nothing remains of the Café Zanzibar (see photo) and one by that name that currently exists in New York on 9th Avenue has nothing to do with the original (and they know nothing about their "ancestor"!).


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Former site of the New Cafe Zanzibar, Broadway (2009)
In 2009, Café Zanzibar is now…a pizzeria!


Sources and references:

  • Baltimore Afro American
  • New York Post
  • Billboard magazine
  • New York Times
  • Langston HUGHES and the Chicago Defender, University of Illinois Press
  • Hoffmann, Franz, Jazz Advertised, vol. 7, Out of the New York Times, 1989
  • Article on Joe Howard, 1939

Many enduring recordings of Cab Calloway at the Zanzibar are available. Several were published on vinyl and CD. Some are among the best evidence of the quality of the orchestra of that era, including incredible solos by Ike Quebec, brilliant arrangements by Gerald Wilson (Cruisin’ With Cab is one of my all-time favorite tracks).

On LPs:

  • Jumpin’ Jive, Swing House SWH15. Broadcasts of September 8, 1944 and September 1946
  • Jumpin’ Stuff, Golden Era LP15013. Broadcasts of September 8, 1944 and other undated
  • Get With It!, Swing House SWH38. Broadcasts of September 18, 1944 and January 23, 1946 and September 1946
  • Jazz Off The Air, vol. 4, Spotlite SPJ148. Broadcasts of September 22, 1944 and July 16, 1946 and others from other venues, 1943 and 1944
  • And All The Lads, Metronome Records MNR121. Broadcast of August 15, 1945 and other undated
  • Club Zanzibar Broadcasts, Unique Jazz 006, July 8 and 10, 1945


On CDs:

  • Cab Calloway ’44, Magnetic Records MRCD 123. Broadcasts of September 8 and 22, 1944
  • Cab Calloway ’45, Magnetic Records MRCD 132. Broadcasts of July 9 and 15, 1945
  • Cab Calloway Legendary Radio Broadcasts, Storyville (2-CD set with fantastic Fats Waller broadcasts on CD1). Broadcast of July 8, 1945
  • Cruisin’ With Cab, Drive Records. Broadcast of July 30, 1945
  • Live at the Café Zanzibar, Broadcasts from July 15, 1945, September 4, 1946 (the rest is not from the Zanzibar contrary as indicated. Also, the picture on the cover was NOT taken at the Zanzibar but in 1941 during a Quizzicale Show). A 2013 release by Mr. Music but with too many mistakes in the liner notes...

Many thanks to Keller WHALEN for his help on the translation.

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