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

Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 2)
by John Cantu ©

On January 20, 1980, I read a newspaper business article about President Carter's decision for the United States to boycott the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But the article covered more than just the athletes being disappointed. It was also about the millions of dollars the Olympic sponsors would lose.

One key sentence in that article suddenly made my long-cherished dream feasible, the line about the "millions of dollars the Olympic sponsors" would lose. I realized in that instant, how to make the event happen - You get sponsors to put up the necessary funds. Sponsors put the money up and you put their name on the backdrop and the supporting literature, the news release etc, i.e., they give you money, you give them publicity, exposure, and community goodwill.

Great, now that I understood how to get the financing I began thinking about some of the other elements I had problems with originally. By now I had a few years under my belt as a producer and I knew the answers to many of the questions I couldn't answer as a novice producer back in 1975. Sound system? We could probably get a sponsor to lend one for the day or we could rent one. And if I had to rent it, that's part of the budget. Publicity? Budget for it.

The real issue was to get enough sponsor money to cover the budget. I started mulling ideas on who would be appropriate sponsors. And I started to form a budget. At the time I really saw only three expenses: a sound system, publicity and rental or licensing fees to use Union Square. Hah - little did I know.

I started getting some ideas together. Now, what you have to realize is at this point in time the concept of Comedy Day didn't exist. I was working on a concept for a one-hour show in Union Square at noon on a Friday featuring Robert Shields, the mime and half-a-dozen local headliners. The name "Comedy Day" didn't even exist - well how could it when I had only been planning for a one-hour show. (In fact if you look in the archives for Chase's Calendar of Annual Events for 1981 you will see it lists the event as "Comedy on The Green" one of the earlier working names.)

I knew before you can approach a business for money you had to have a proposal. However, since I am a high school drop out, while I knew the concept of presenting a proposal, I didn't have a clue how you put one together or what went into it.

I don't remember the exact time frame, but a few days later I read another business blurb that so-and-so had been promoted to handle the local promotions for Coca-Cola. And I had a connection to her. She was a backup singer for a local performer Karen Drucker. Coca-Cola immediately seemed like a potential sponsor. Not just because I had a connection to her, but because at the time Coke's slogan was "Coke and a smile."

A side note. From time to time I've read articles and stories about something major that has happened to someone and they will mention that somebody who they no longer remember was pivotal to the event occurring. I could never imagine how they could forget someone who had been so important to the situation.

But now I am in the same situation. While she, in my opinion, was the single most critical person in making Comedy Day happen, I can't for the life of me remember her name. I even called Drucker recently, but my description of the former backup singer didn't ring a bell with her either. But, in my opinion, without this unknown woman, Comedy Day would not exist today.

I called Madam X and spoke briefly over the phone. She said it didn't sound like something that the local Coke distributor would sponsor, but she would meet with me for an hour to discuss the idea. When we met, Madam X told me she couldn't do anything for the event with regard to money, but she could brainstorm with me. Well, I frankly was quite disappointed. I thought "Brainstorm?" What's to brainstorm? I've got the idea. All I need is money. But I agreed to meet with her. I have always been open to new ideas. Who knows? Sometimes people surprise you with their ideas. And did she ever - with two key questions.

Madam X asked two questions that, in hindsight, were pivotal amongst the amazing confluence of elements that came together over time to create an event that has become a San Francisco institution going into its 18th year now.

Her first question was "Why Union Square?"

I casually replied, "What do you mean?" But mentally, I got slightly defensive. For five years I had been envisioning an event in Union Square and the possibility of another venue never once entered my head.

She said, "Union Square is surrounded by four streets. You will be fighting traffic noises, car honks, car backfire, the occasional bad muffler. In addition, there are a lot of people who hang out there to drink and/or to panhandle. And during noon a lot of people will be going either to or from lunch so you'll have a lot of thru-traffic to contend with instead of a stationary audience who is there specifically for your event.

"So, why not think of somewhere nice, some place quiet, some place that doesn't have all the downtown cement you find in Union Square. Somewhere with more open space and not surrounded by high rise buildings, somewhere . . . like Golden Gate Park?" I realized immediately that she was correct. Conceptually, Golden Gate Park was a much better location than Union Square.

And then Madam X asked question number two - and BROUGHT ME TO THE MOON.

She simply asked a four-word question that ultimately made Comedy Day a San Francisco institution.

"Why not First Annual?"


"Look, Cantu, the hardest part of producing an event is doing it for the first time. You have to guesstimate your budget, you have to guesstimate how many will show up and you have to guesstimate on the right location. If too many show, you alienate people by turning them away. If too few show up, they feel foolish being a small crowd in a too large a space.

"You have to guesstimate how large a sound system you need - too small not everyone hears, too big and you blast people's ears. You have to guesstimate on what publicity will generate a turnout. You have to guesstimate how big a staff you need.

"But - once you have done it successfully, you have a blueprint you can follow. You can produce it again the following year in less time, with less wasted expenditure, and with a better projection for your turnout."

WOW. With those two suggestions, she took the idea of a one-time, one-hour show featuring a mime and maybe a few comics with an audience of perhaps 200, people mostly going to and from lunch, and turned my thoughts toward an annual event with the possibility to present it to three, five, maybe even ten times my first vision of 200 people. I probably would have started hyperventilating if I had known what hyperventilating was.

In the time that had passed since that first 1975 meeting when the idea was first discussed, there were now probably a dozen clubs in the Bay Area presenting comedy from three-to-seven days a week. And there probably were another dozen who had one or two nights of comedy. But the Punchline was THE club. It was the largest and it had a legal capacity of about 200. So the option to put on a show with an audience several times that was unimaginably exciting.

During the next week I got a map (yeah I am a male who actually believes in maps) and marked off possible locations in Golden Gate Park simply by using the map. I knew nothing about Golden Gate Park at the time. Strictly from the map I was leaning toward a section called "Marx Meadow" because I saw great potential in generating publicity by "temporarily" naming it "Marx Brothers Meadow" for the day of the event.

I don't drive so I got one of the Holy City Zoo volunteers to drive me around Golden Gate Park checking out potential spots for the comedy show. We looked at Marx Meadow. We went to a couple of other locations that I no longer remember and then we got lost. And that's when I first saw the GOLDEN GATE PARK BANDSHELL...

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(The Holy City Zoo was so beloved by regulars that we had an ongoing list of one to two dozen volunteers who would cheerfully support the club with labor and supplies.)

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 3)