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Warren Spottswood is a very intelligent, big, somewhat bulky comedian who, because of his size, has tremendous presence on stage, which, I've suggested, is 90% of the battle. He wrote his own material, and let's just say he must have done a tremendous amount of drugs in his youth. It was so off-the-wall, that also helped. (He did one routine about his recent double-hernia operation that was hilarious. I believe he placed 4th in the SF Comedy Competition one year, behind 3 very strong comics.) Warren was one comic I actually enjoyed being around. Most of the rest I just tolerated or ignored to keep me from snapping their heads off.
He was the House Master of Ceremonies before he and Cantu had a falling out (which I'm about to describe). But he was far superior to me . He usually got the crowd really laughing before introducing the first comic; I usually succeeded in at least not embarrassing myself, so that was a victory for me. He also did not do a lot of incidental material between acts, like most emcees do, unless it was necessary to win the crowd back if a comic bombed.
Spottswood was a rock musician, tinged, I seem to remember, with a little jazz. He wanted to start a band, so he put one together (called Midway - Warren loved the WWII Battle of Midway). He asked Cantu to let his band open the weekend shows to do about a half-hour gig at the Holy City Zoo and pay them hundreds of dollars each week. We were barely scraping by, but Cantu figured Warren was too valuable to upset, so he agreed.
People didn't come to the Zoo to hear music. They came to hear comedy. Midway was an unnecessary distraction, ate up comedians' time and was a horrible drain on our meager resources.
We were always struggling to pay bills. The Zoo was a small club with only a beer and liquor license. (We had to pay one supplier in cash, because they got sick of the checks bouncing.) Cantu finally told Warren that Midway had to go. I believe that's when Warren quit being the emcee, because if Midway couldn't be there on weekends, he wouldn't be there, either.
But before this blow-up happened, I suggested to Cantu, "This place is so dusty and filled with grime - it's probably never been really cleaned - why don't we shut the club down for a Sunday night, and during the day get a group of volunteers in here and clean it from top to bottom, inside and out? And then throw a private party for the volunteers. We'll order food during the day and have Midway play at the party, where we'll give out free beer and wine."
Which is what we did. I organized it and supervised it. We had a large group of people come in around 10:00 AM and got to work. There was an awning that hung over the front of the bar that was covered with wooden tiles. I got a row of people up on ladders (everybody brought their own supplies) and we brushed the years of accumulated dust out from between the cracks and then we scrubbed them). Cantu came over and said, "Nobody looks up there! Do that last." I asked him, "You don't know the first thing about cleaning, do you?" He said, "What?" I said, "So, we clean the whole club, and then finish by brushing down dust all over it. You always work from the top down." Cantu is always pleased when he learns something new. He said, "Oh, yeah! That makes sense! I never would have thought of that!"
Cantu, Rebecca Erwin and I would work in running the club from around 2:00 PM to 2:00 AM seven days a week. None of us had a social life; none us had a chance to date. But we did get perks to make up for that and our low salary - if we got paid. We usually forewent our salary and only took the barest minimum we needed to survive, because the money was so tight. (When I left in a huff after a fight with the guy who put up the initial money for the Zoo, I think I was owed about 3 months wages.) But Cantu would allow Rebecca and I to invite friends in for free, and they could have all the beer, wine or soft drinks they wanted.
While Midway was playing, I was standing outside, and an absolutely beautiful woman looked in to see what was going on. I told her, "It's a private party, but I help run the club, so would you like to come in as my guest?" She said, "Sure!" I then asked her what she wanted from the bar and got it for her, explaining, "It's on me." We talked about the club, and it was so refreshing to be with someone not involved in comedy, especially someone as young and gorgeous as she was. She was having a good time, and so was I.
An open mike comedian named Howard Rosenberg had helped that day and stood nearby watching me having a needed talk with this woman. After about a half-hour, she finished her drink. I asked her, "Would you like another?" She answered, "I'd love to! That would be very nice!"
The second I got to the bar and was waiting for the drinks to be poured, Howard, who had been waiting for his opportunity, ran over to her and said, "Would you like to dance?" She was very sweet and didn't want to turn him down, so she said, "Okay." I watched them dancing and started to seethe. I called Cantu over and explained what had happened. I added indecorous language.
When they came back together, I talked to Howard, using my evil mode voice and giving him The Look. (I've never seen it, but I once stared down and embarrassed four Samoans in the Mission using it. And if you don't know much about Samoans, let me just say that, as a whole calling them "Large" would be an understatement.) I explained to Howard, "You owe me $9." He said, "Are you crazy? For what?" I answered, "For the $5 we'd usually charge for a show like this that I comped her in for, and $2 each for the two drinks I comped her. I should charge extra for the underhanded way you went about doing it." He looked at Cantu and said, "This guy is crazy!" Cantu responded, "Pay him or get out." He left. Never came back. The altercation freaked her out so she left a couple minutes after that and never came back again, either.
This is what you get when you deal with comics. I remember walking into another club Cantu was running after he left the Zoo. I would stop in maybe once every two months. Cantu was talking with a comic I had never seen before. He saw me, called me over and said, "Don, c'mere, I want you to meet him! He's a comic, but he's not a butt-head!" . He actually used a much strong term, but I'll leave that to your imagination. But that's the attitude you get when you've hung around hundreds and hundreds of comics - one is very acceptable if he's not a self-centered idiot.
As I've said many times... comedy... exciting? Glamorous? Full of constant laughter?
Don't make me laugh.
"superior to me" Cantu note: Actually Don was a lot better MC than he remembers. He was better than a lot of more experienced comics because he knew how to read the audience. At some future point you will get to read an article of his about this valuable skill. Stevens also did not do a lot of incidental material between acts, like most emcees do, unless it was necessary to win the crowd back if a comic bombed.
"People didn't come to the Zoo to hear music" Cantu note: True. So why did I try it? If you study the bios of the, at that time, reigning comedy stars (Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, etc.), you will learn that venues where they began (Bitter End, Purple Onion, Hungry I, etc.) were not comedy clubs, but rather nightclubs that featured both music acts and comedy acts.
Having an all comedy line up would have been a novelty. Most of the famous clubs of the fifties and sixties constantly paired musical acts and comedy acts. San Francisco's Hungry I boasted not only of showcasing Bill Cosby and Woody Allen but also Barbra Streisand.
Also, a lot of the comics liked Midway because many comedians are just frustrated rock stars. If they could sing or play an instrument they wouldn't be in comedy: A few of the comics who sat in and sang with the group included Bob Sarlatte, Al Clethan, Jr., Barry Sobel, and Kevin Meany.
But Stevens was right - it was an unmitigated financial disaster. It hurt us financially. Hurt us terribly. I don't think the club every really recovered from the financial drain. On a non-comedy note, but rather just a personal vent, what really annoys me is to hear speakers pontificating with their feel good business advice. You hear these business gurus like Tom Peters flippantly toss around statements like say "Think outside the box"; "Go ahead. Do something different."; "Take a risk." - no risk advice for them - cause they ain't around to help you pick up the pieces if it fails.
"large group of people" Cantu note: It was amazing. We must have had 40-50 people show up and pitching in for the worst of grunt work - just cleaning, sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing. Imagine people volunteering to be janitors for a day - for no pay. As Larry "Bubbles" Brown once said to me, The Holy City Zoo was magical."
"paid/3 months wages" Cantu note: Sorry, not exactly germane to Stevens essay but another bit of feel good business advice that fries me is "Do what you love and the money will follow." We (Myself, Stevens, and Erwin) loved the Holy City Zoo and the work. The comedians loved the Holy City Zoo and the work. The audience love the Holy City Zoo and the work.
So where is the money? Sevens mentions he was owed three months back wages when he left. I left with over 5k in back wages due me. It was a beer and wine club. We did not have hard liquor license and all the love in the world could not change the cash flow. Today the Holy City Zoo (408 Clement Street) is "The Other Place," a martini bar. So much for "Do what you love and the money will follow."
This something I also hated about comics. They were so chicken shit about picking up babes. Most of them didn't have the balls to pitch a girl on their own, so they'd feed off your energy. They would do exactly what Rosenberg did. They would watch you pitch a babe and then see if she was friendly or not. If she was approachable, then the vultures would jump in.
I was shocked when my first wife, comedian Patricia Daniels told me, on our wedding day three different comics pitched her.
"Pay him or get out/butt-head!" Cantu note: Don and I have shared an expression from time to time "Comedians- scum of the earth!." Mind you there are some intelligent, decent down to earth comics. Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, David Feldman, Tony DePaul, Rob Becker, Rob Schneider, come immediately to mind. But they get good; they move on and you lose contact with them. Which leaves the hacks, the psychotics and the ones without social graces. (Comics are so out of it, they could pick their nose, extend their hand and then wonder why you don't want to shake hands with them.)