Throwback Thursday: My friends and I used to own a comedy club

Santa Monica Outlook piece on UpFront

Twenty years ago, UpFront Comedy was, in the words of the great Fred Kaz, "a real sanctuary for decent freaks." The theater may be gone, but its memory lives on.

Helen Kaz, one of my partners at UpFront Comedy Showcase, recently uncovered this old LA Times article on the theater. It brought back a lot of memories.

Business ran smoothly until the quake rendered the Upfront's storefront space unusable. "People were ready to kill themselves," says Morris. "We serve a community of over 200 performers, and they went crazy. The phone never stopped ringing. 'You're going to reopen, aren't you?' The answer was 'Yeah, we can't not reopen.' "

Morris and Michalski quickly found a suitable space blocks away on Broadway and, with the help of city officials, by the end of the summer had turned what had been a Greek restaurant into a spanking new improv room. The Upfront now boasts vastly superior sound, lights and sight lines over the old place and is proving to be a very satisfying spot for eager players' rampant imaginations.

"We're open again because of the players," says Morris. "They made it happen. It's their place, and we couldn't exist without them."

When the Second City finished a run at Santa Monica's MayFair theater and closed up its West Coast shop, a number of the actors banded together to open their own place. That theater was called UpFront Comedy and it lived on Santa Monica's newly revitalized Third Street Promenade. Around this dark cave of a theater, with a postage stamp sized stage jammed oddly into a corner, an incredible community formed.

Danny Breen, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Harry Murphy and Fred Kaz perform at UpFront

Danny Breen, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Harry Murphy and Fred Kaz perform at UpFront.

Second City vets Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris were also talented teachers and directors. Fred Kaz, just finishing a run over nearly 30 years as the Second City's musical director, manned the piano. A mob of expatriated Chicago improvisers who had played with, learned from and loved Jeff, Jane and Fred formed a nucleus of incredibly talented folks.

People like Ryan Stiles, Joel Murray, Edie McClurg, George Wendt, Mina Kolb, Rick Overton, and Dan Castellanetta were regular players. Guys like Robin Williams and Jim Belushi were frequent surprise drop-ins. Talented Second City alums drew in a crowd, both audience and talented locals. There were shows 6 nights a week. The theater was my home.

As the linked LA Times story details, we lost the first theater in the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake. I was living in Chicago at the time, having moved there to work for the Second City (and having lost the job before my road trip got me there). I was horrified that UpFront had fallen down. After a few phone conversations with Jeff, Jane and some of the others, and I flew home to invest what little savings I had in helping re-open the club.

Old UpFront gift certificate

The new UpFront Comedy was a far larger, more wonderful place to play in. The community came back in force and for years the theater provided West LA with some amazing comedy. Dorian Frankel, Mina Kolb, Arthur Mortell, Darby Armbrister, Rick Batalla, Russell Fear, Fred & Helen Kaz, Jeff, Jane and I all partnered up to raise the cash we needed, and to serve as a board of directors going forward. It was an amazing place to be and one of the best times in my life. I spent every day with incredibly talented and hilarious people.

UpFront was the first time in my life I worked to help manage a creative community. I often joke that herding improvisors was good training for herding bloggers, and I very seriously attribute what I learned at UpFront with helping set me up for success everywhere else I have gone. Everything is improv and I sure appreciate when it works out.

Today Jeff and Jane run L.A.'s Fanatic Salon. A wonderful but tiny theater. They teach workshops and put up a few shows every week. You can see some wonderful ensembles there. Sadly, our good friend Fred has passed away, but you can find his music here. As she can, his wife Helen makes more of it available.