John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

It's 9:15 pm, an Empty Room, and Panic. My First Night as Manager of the Holy City Zoo

by John Cantu ©

For the first couple of years of comedy at the club, most comedians thought Tony DePaul owned the Holy City Zoo. The owner rarely showed up and he let Tony run the "Zoo" as Tony saw fit. And when he did show up, he kept a low profile.

By 1978 the copycat clubs had started. The Other Café in the Haight and the Punchline in the Embarcadero were both gaining steam. There also were maybe a half-dozen more comedy venues in the surrounding communities. The competition for the local comedy audience was starting to drain people away from the "Zoo."

The owner felt he had to cut back on his expenses and he asked Tony to take a pay cut. Tony didn't want to take a pay cut and Tony was also more interested in developing his standup career, so he resigned as manager/producer and I returned as show producer again with the added responsibilities of being a bar manager.

Now when I originally started writing my Holy City Zoo memoirs, I thought "this will be easy. Once a month I'll knock off an essay about a memorable Holy Zoo experience and God knows, I've had hundreds."

Au contraire. I'm a big picture and big idea guy. Details bore me to tears - but details not stated or misstated are what draws the most email from readers. So I do not remember the exact month or date of my first day as full manager in 1978. But I do remember the day because it's one of the few times in my life where I had a major, almost paralyzing (but momentary) bit of self-doubt.

My first day as producer replacing Tony DePaul was a Tuesday. That night there were only four people in the club when we opened: Two staff members - myself and the waitress, whose name I remember as Sira Windwer (She married Gil Christner, a Holy City Zoo comedian regular and founding member of Tony DePaul's improv troupe Papaya Juice. Christner was also featured with me on the E! Entertainment channel's documentary "Paula Poundstone, the True Hollywood Story.")

The other two were comics who had signed up to perform - Tony DePaul and another aspiring comic, Rich Marks. And that's it. No one else. No audience. None, nada, zip, zilch, zero.

And we chatted about this and that and about twenty minutes after nine there was one of those momentary lulls that sometimes happens in a conversation. No one spoke for a couple of minutes and in those few seconds of silence I went into a major panic mode.

I thought, "Oh, my God! It's twenty past nine and there is NOT ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER IS HERE. No wonder Pete, the owner wanted to cut back on expenses. What was I thinking?"

And then after about five minutes of painstaking fear (that I did not show to the others) I bounced back. I thought, "No, it's gonna be OK. 'Cause I have some very specific ideas to turn the club around."

Side note: Now, while this is ostensively a memoir about comedy shows and comedians, and other humor issues, it's actually a memoir of a business turnaround expert.

I took a fading venue and turned it into a magical place that still draws nostalgic memories from comics who've gone on to far greater things.

After those five angst-ridden minutes of doubt, I regained my perspective and never looked backed.

I have never feared being unemployed or homeless. I'm an idea man. And the one essential bit of business knowledge that I've learned in the school of hard knocks is that ideas are better than money in the bank.

Money is everywhere, but good ideas are a rare commodity. Workable ideas beat out a MBA degree any day of the week. If you can come to a business and bring ideas that increase productivity, decease costs, or increase sales, you have a lifetime guarantee of finding employment some place.

I had a few ideas and I was convinced they would be effective in filling the club. And remember this: You will get what you focus on most of the time.

Thus, if you focus only on laughs, chances are you'll die with a lot of memories of laughter and very little money. So try to focus on both laughs and money. Never forget that in "show business," "business" is twice as long as "show."

Tony's career as a stand-up was becoming fully established and by then that's what his primary focus was. But by then I had pretty much stopped performing so my focus was to make the club the number one club in the Bay Area.

Cantu notes:

By the way, that night our first audience member showed up about 9:30 pm. We ended up showcasing about 15 comics to maybe 30 or 40 audience members and our show ended about midnight.

Six months later to the day, we started at 8:00 pm. with a standing room only crowd, who watched fifty comics perform (five of which had national television credits.)

NEXT: A Comedy Club and a Comedy Club Show - What's the Reality?