From 1900 until 1925, if you nipped around the corner from Times Square to the place on 41st Street with the large, glowing, green snake on its sign, you would find yourself in a world that had none of the herky-jerky, black-and-white stiffness silent movies have trained us to expect from the period. Joel’s Green Room, it started out as, then Joel’s Great Bohemian Resort, Joel’s Bohemia, Joel’s Café and finally, by 1912 or so, just plain Joel’s. And, what, pray tell was Joel’s? “Joel’s is the Home of New York’s true Bohemians—Actors, Artists and Newspaper folk—the most lovable people on earth,” one of the establishment’s postcards claimed. Joel’s claimed a lot of things, though—it was to New York “what Maxim’s is to Paris,” its cuisine was “unexcelled,” with no lard in the cooking and “no canned goods”; its beers were “the talk of New York,” its cabaret floorshow featured 20 singers and the whole place seated “1000 diners,” including “500 show folks always at Joel’s after [the] show.” Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, should your curiosity extend to matters intellectual your waiter would be happy to sell you a book penned by Joel himself on the “polygeneric theory of life,” disproving the theory of evolution.
Joel Rinaldo was admittedly something of a crank. The fine food at his place was chili con carne, tamales and chicken. The beer was good, but it was beer. The “500 show folks” were not necessarily footlight favorites. And though the tall, immaculately dressed Rinaldo posed as an exotic Latin of aristocratic blood, he was in fact born in New York of Russian Jewish stock. Whatever his act, it worked for him. As the prolific New York journalist Benjamin De Casseres wrote in 1932, Joel’s was “the most colorful, the most romantic, the most vibrating place in all New York.” From the ground-floor bar to the massive, block-wide second-floor “music room” to the upstairs clubrooms, it was indeed packed with the unconventional, the revolutionary (Joel even kept a table marked “Reserved for Literature and Revolution”) and the just plain fun. Sooner or later, everyone stopped by, from O. Henry to Emma Goldman, and there was the night that Enrico Caruso, forbidden by contract from singing anywhere but the opera, nonetheless stood up and, beating out time with a forkful of spaghetti, let loose with “O Sole Mio” while Charlie Chaplin hurried up from another table, grabbed a violin from the house band and accompanied him.
“Nothing was too absurd, too amusing, too nearly inconceivable” to be spawned at Joel’s, as De Casseres maintained. That would include the house cocktail, the Blue Moon. It was slightly sweet, fragrant, “high powered in action” (as Broadway columnist O.O. McIntyre described it) and, startlingly, a color variously described as anywhere from “Prussian blue” to a purple so deep that it left a persistent stain on anything it spilled on. Alas, since Rinaldo did not include an official formula in his published works or recorded utterances, it is difficult to establish which of the half-dozen very different formulas circulated in the 1910s and 1920s is the authentic one. But with a more than usual amount of test drives and the expert assistance of a column that veteran barman Patrick Murphy devoted to the drink’s mysteries back in 1940, I think I’ve come up with something that would get Caruso waving that fork.