Comedy and Magic Club plans comeback in Hermosa Beach
After being closed by COVID, Hermosa’s ‘Cathedral to Comedy’ plans a comeback
by Kevin Cody
Among Hermosa Beach residents’ foremost, post pandemic concerns is whether or not Comedy and Magic Club will reopen. For four decades, Comedy and Magic has been the anchor point to Hermosa’s cultural identity. The Lighthouse may be better known, but Comedy and Magic’s contributions to Hermosa, and to popular culture, have been more far reaching.
It’s where Jay Leno tested jokes every Sunday night during his 1992 to 2014 reign as “The Tonight Show” host. He’d read jokes from index cards and toss the cards that didn’t get laughs over his shoulder. The cards that got laughs became the following week’s opening monologue, heard by “The Tonight Show’s” 14 million viewers.
It’s where Jerry Seinfeld first headlined when he moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s. And where Seinfeld returned to stand-up when “Seinfeld” ended in 1998. And it’s where, one night in the Comedy and Magic greenroom, after the audience had left, Seinfeld paid homage to the father of late night talk shows.
That morning, Seinfeld called Comedy and Magic founder and owner Mike Lacey to ask if he could headline that night.
At the time Seinfeld was the most sought after comedian in the world. Lacey told him no, that he already had a headliner. Lacey’s reputation for treating his comedians with respect was well known.
Seinfeld understood, and asked who the headliner was. Lacey told him it was Steve Allen.
Allen was the first host of “The Tonight Show,” which he co-created in 1954.
Seinfeld, like almost all comedians who followed Allen, was in awe of him.
“Can I open for him,” Seinfeld said.
“I’ll have to call you back,” Lacey said.
“You want me to follow Jerry Seinfeld?” Allen said when Lacey called him. “Tell Seinfeld I’ll open for him.”
Seinfeld headlined, but after the show Seinfeld showed he knew who the evening’s real star was by questioning the 77-year-old Allen about television’s first late night talk show until 2 in the morning.
Comedy and Magic’s importance to Hermosa includes the fact that it is Hermosa’s only venue with sufficient seating for Chamber of Commerce dinners and charity fundraisers. It’s also the uncontested first choice for first dates. Where better to test a prospective mate’s character and compatibility?
Comedy and Magic’s failure to reopen would be a twofold loss for Hermosa. Its 120-foot-long Hermosa Avenue frontage would almost certainly become a bar, twice the size of the city’s current largest bar, American Junkie, around the corner on Pier Plaza.
Neither residents nor businesses want another downtown bar.
The club’s reopening hinges on the simple issue of seating. Since 2003, the city has allowed the club 250 seats. In its early years, the club had 350 seats.
In a recent interview, Lacey said he needs 350 seats to be competitive with newer comedy clubs, such as the Laugh Factory in Long Beach, and the Improv clubs in Ontario, Brea and Irvine, which have 600 seats.
“I don’t want 600 seats. But I don’t want to keep losing money, or barely breaking even, like I have been for decades, since the city took away my seating,” he said.
City Community Development Director Ken Roberston, in an interview two weeks ago, said Lacey can have 350 seats, contingent on planning commission approval of a new floor plan by Lacey’s architect, BJ Wickett of Houston/Tyner, in Torrance.
Lacey distrusts Hermosa’s city government, comparing it to a bad personal relationship.
“No matter how good you try to be, they still abuse you,” he said.
Lacey was 24, dyslexic and a stutterer, whose previous employment was parking cars and bartending at Millie Riera’s, when he opened Comedy and Magic in 1978. And perhaps most disqualifying of all for the owner of a night club, he disliked alcohol, more so after three drunks threw him down the club’s parking lot stairs.
(The drunks weren’t Comedy and Magic patrons, Lacey noted, because it’s impossible to get drunk at his club. Other clubs have two drinks minimums. Comedy Club has a three drinks maximum, and doesn’t serve shots.)
Lacey’s inspiration to open a comedy club followed a visit to the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip.
“My uncle, Franklin Lacey, wrote the book to ‘The Music Man.’ He had a new play that needed some punching up and wanted me to produce it. So I went to the Comedy Store to look for a writer, and met this young comic who was pretty funny. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to produce plays. I wanted to open a comedy club,” Lacey said.
He opened Comedy and Magic the same year the young comic he met that night landed a role on ABC’s groundbreaking television comedy, “Mork and Mindy.” The young comic, who became a frequent Comedy and Magic headliner, was Robin Williams.
As in all successful comedy, timing played a large role in the club’s improbable success. The year Comedy and Magic opened was the year comedians picketed the Comedy Store. Mitzi Shore wouldn’t pay them. Lacey would, and comedians have long memories.
Comedy and Magic was so successful in its early years, that Lacey was able to buy out his investors, expand from three to six storefronts, buy the club’s 9,500 sq. ft. building, and submit an offer to buy a property across the street for parking.
“There was no Uber and people constantly demanded refunds for their reservations because they couldn’t find parking in Hermosa,” Lacey recalled.
Lacey poured his profits into making Comedy and Magic what an Easy Reader writer described as a “cathedral to comedy.” Revolving lights resembling a giant jukebox framed the stage. The carpet was custom designed to look like confetti. Shows opened with a recording of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blasting from a studio quality, Swedish sound system.
The history of American comedy was told on the showroom walls, in climate controlled, glass enclosures of famous costumes. Among them were costumes worn by Charlie Chaplain in “Limelight,” Robin Williams in “Popeye,” Lucille Ball in “The Long, Long Trailer,” and by the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields in their stage and film performances.
Seinfeld’s “Puffy Shirt” was mounted just left of the stage. The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. also displays a Seinfeld “Puffy Shirt.” But theirs is clean, Comedy and Magic’s has makeup stains, Lacey proudly pointed out.
The most important costume in his collection is not in the club, he said, because he is concerned its display might be misunderstood. The khaki shirt and pants, black tie and military dress cap were worn by Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator.”
Lacey bought the costumes not as an investment, nor even with the thought of displaying them. He wanted to help preserve comedy history. The Western Costume Company was going to break up the collection by auctioning off the costumes, individually.
For comedians used to performing in seedy bars with stripper poles, Comedy and Magic is a refuge, particularly during the club’s anniversary weeks, when 20 comedians perform each night. The anniversary nights offer rare opportunities for the traveling comics to meet, to see one another deliver five minutes of their best material, in preparation for late night television guest appearances.
“I feel like I have to do a joke on TV before I can do it at the Comedy and Magic Club,” quipped Laurie Kilmartin, a “Last Comic Standing” finalist, and writer for Conan O’Brien.
An Easy Reader photo taken on an anniversary night in the early ‘80s shows Leno, Seinfeld, Gary Shandling and Jeff Foxworthy waiting backstage for their five minutes.
Stars such as Seinfield and Rosanne Barr work out their new standup routines at Comedy and Magic, for the same reason Leno performs almost every Sunday. They want an audience of ordinary people, not jaded industry types.
Barr scratched out Seinfeld’s name on the autograph wall in Comedy and Magic’s green room, then made an uncharacteristic apology when called out about it on “The Tonight Show” by host Jimmy Fallon, (the third of the show’s six hosts to have performed at Comedy and Magic.)
Comedy and Magic Club audiences are routinely surprised by stadium performers such as Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, and Trevor Noah being introduced under pseudonyms because their contracts don’t not allow their names to be announced.
Through the club’s prominence has arced upwards through the decades, but profitability hasn’t. Lacey blames his club’s financial challenges not on the internet, or competition, but on the Hermosa city government.
“I began with 353 seats. Then the city cut my seating back to 318, then to 299 and finally to 188. I was never told why,” he said.
“For 30 years, I’ve barely broken even because the city made mistakes, refused to correct them and blocked me when I tried to correct them. It’s heinous.”
If the city documented the reasons the seating was reduced, those documents have been lost.
In February of this year, Community Development Director Robertson produced a chronology of the city’s interactions with Comedy and Magic. But the chronology only goes back to 2017, with the exception of a reference to “2000 or 2001,” the year the club’s “occupancy load” was reduced to 188.
As the club’s finances hemorrhaged, so did Lacey’s health.
In 2003, he went into the hospital for three weeks with an intestinal disorder. Doctors told his wife Kathy to call for Last Rites. Instead, she called Hermosa Beach Councilman Sam Edgerton.
After Lacey surprised his doctors by recovering, Edgerton convened a series of meetings at the Comedy Club. City representatives included Edgerton, Councilman Pete Tucker, city manager Steve Burrell, building director Charlie Schwartz, Community Development director Saul Blumenthal and the fire chief.
Lacey was accompanied by his architect Steven Jones, of Redondo Beach.
According to the Community Development chronology, seats were reduced to 188 in the early 2000s because, “the owner altered the interior without permits.”
Jones, in an interview last week, disputed this explanation.
During the early 2000 meetings, Jones said, “The only explanation the city gave Mike for taking away over 150 seats was, ‘We shouldn’t have given you that number in the first place.’”
“I studied what the city had done. Tucker, a building inspector for Redondo, loaned me his code books. But Charlie Schwartz, Hermosa’s head of building at the time, was a former contractor. He didn’t understand the code,” Jones said.
Not even an appearance before the city council by comedian Gary Shandling, then starring in the “Larry Sanders Show,” could convince the council to restore the 350 seat occupancy Lacey contended the club needed to be viable.
A Nov. 2, 2002 Easy Reader story about the meeting reported, “The council laughed, and then told a joke of its own, before referring the matter back to the building department.”
A February 2003 Easy Reader council story quotes Councilman Art Yoon lamenting, “We lost the Either/Or bookstore, we lost the Bijou theater. This is where we draw the line.”
But the expressions of support from council members were no more than that. The same Easy Reader story reports, “City officials said that despite the mistake [of reducing the seating] Lacey must live with the smaller occupancy…unless he remodels.”
That year, following the addition of sprinklers and new fire exits, the city increased the club’s allowable occupancy to 250 seats.
“At the time, the city was having police problems with the bars. So the city surveyed the bars and their occupancies levels. Then the council approved an ordinance, limiting both the number of bars and their occupancy levels to the survey numbers,” Jones recalled.
As a result, Lacey said, whenever he asked for more seating, the council said it was handcuffed by the ordinance’s “moratorium” on more bar seats.
“I’m not a bar. I’m a dinner theater. I don’t even have a bar, except in the kitchen. They could never tell me why I was classified as a bar,” Lacey said.
(Ironically, classifying Comedy and Magic as a bar is why, today, if Comedy and Magic closes permanently, the location almost certainly will become a 120-foot long bar.)
Tension between Lacey and the city peaked during a charity event at the club in July 2018.
(Lacey allowed local charities to sell admission tickets and keep the proceeds for Tuesday through Thursday shows. A major reason residents are anxious for the club to reopen is that over the decades, charities, such as The Wellness Foundation, the Hermosa Woman’s Club, service clubs, and education foundations formed dependencies on funds raised at their annual Comedy and Magic Club nights).
That evening, Mayor Jeff Duclos approached Lacey to thank him for supporting local charities, and to congratulate him on the club’s 40th Anniversary. The previous week, the council had issued a proclamation declaring July “Comedy and Magic Club Month.”
Lacey, by his own account, lost his stutter and lit into the Mayor. He accused the mayor and the city of trying to drive him out of business.
“You take away my seats. You won’t allow me to host daytime events. And now the city is promoting comedy shows on Saturday nights directly in front of my club,” Lacey said.
[A provision of the Comedy and Magic Club’s CUP (conditional use permit) states, “Comedy/theatrical production shall be maintained 50 percent of the operating time.” As a result, the club can’t host weddings, or business conferences.]
Duclos, in recalling the charity night encounter, said Lacey had just gotten off a phone call, where he had learned the promoter of the Saturday night summer beach concerts had added comedians to their shows, including some who performed at the club.
Duclos said he told Lacey he hadn’t known the promoter had booked comedians, and he apologized for the fact, and that Lacey later apologized for venting at him.
Spyder Surf owner Dennis Jarvis, who observed the encounter, recalled telling Lacey, “You don’t look good. You’re white. You should go home.”
Shortly before COVID forced the club’s closure, Lacey retained Wickett to draw up new plans for 350 seats.
Upon reviewing the club’s building history, Wickett said, he was puzzled over why the city ever reduced the seating from the early 353 seats.
“I’ve never heard of a fire marshall lowering a seat count. The original number should be an entitlement,” Wickett said. He further questioned why the community development department was even involved in the seating count, which he believes is the fire department’s responsibility.
Robertson, in his Comedy and Magic chronology, notes, “Occupant Loads are dictated by both building and fire codes.”
In the interview two weeks ago, Robertson said the city will assist Comedy and Magic in reopening in every way it can. But it can’t act until a new floor plan and an application for a new CUP are submitted.
Lacey said he is encouraged by Robertson’s openness to restoring the 353 seats, but he remains wary of the city, in part because a request for a new CUP, makes all 23 provisions in the current CUP subject to change, not just those he objects to, in particular the requirement that 50 percent of his business be comedy or theater.
Wickett said he understands Lacey’s distrust of the city.
“This is his child, and he was abused for years. Now, he’s being asked to make a leap of faith,” the architect said.
Lacey said this week, he’ll do it.
In part, because he feels an obligation to his long time staff, including line cooks he hired from Millie Riera’s when he opened, Umbaldo Moraza, Martine Barajas and Raul Nunez; as well as long time booking agent Richard Barrett; tech manager Bill Murray; bookkeeper Darlene Perez; club managers Rebecca Meyer, Ann Yarnell, and Chris Cuff, Lacey’s wife Kathy and his brother John.
“They’re the ones who really run the club,” he said.
But more importantly, he said, “I want my grandkids to have a place to see great comedy. They may not know who Steve Allen and George Carlin are. But they know today’s Allens and Carlins — Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman, Adam Sandler, Ray Romano, Daniel Tosh, Aziz Ansari, and Jo Koy.”
“I want veteran comedians to have a place where they can pass on their craft, and young comedians to have a place where they can practice their craft while earning enough money to quit their day jobs. Without comedy clubs, comedy will collapse the way folk music collapsed when the coffee houses closed,” he said.
“And I want Hermosa to have a place to carry on its support for the arts, in the tradition of The Insomniac, the Lighthouse, Either/Or, the Bijou, the Old Baptist Church, Boogaloo and Saint Rocke.” ER