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 3)

by John Cantu ©

An inexplicable feeling went through me when I first laid eyes on the Music Concourse. The structure was built for and donated to the City of San Francisco by Claus Spreckels (of Spreckels Sugar) in 1899. It was originally named, "The Spreckels Temple of Music." The modern name was the Music Concourse, but was colloquially called the "Bandshell."

It is a beautiful, imposing edifice towering 80 feet with Greek Corinthian columns on the main building's corners and Greek Ionic columns supporting the side wings. Located in Golden Gate Park, it occupies a vast open space between the Steinhart Aquarium/Morrison Planetarium and the De Young Museum. (The lovely Japanese Tea Garden is slightly behind it to the right.)

The structure had been used for many concerts and civic activities including "Opera in the Park" and Sunday band concerts. But I was sure it had never been used as a stand-up comedy backdrop. To be able to present a show in such a historic San Francisco landmark would be a double coup - the first stand-up comedy show in the park and the first comedy show in the Bandshell.

Not only was it a towering structure, it also had a frontage width of 240 feet. That gave me a stage that could allow even Robin Williams to pace, frolic, and run madly every which way and still be in full view of the audience.

I got out of the car and walked over and looked up at the Bandshell. I was enthused and intimidated at the same time. Enthused by the idea of using it as a backdrop for an out door comedy show, but intimidated by the potential cost. I had no event budgeting background, (I'm a tenth grade dropout who got his GED in the army) and therefore, I had no basis for estimating the possible rental.

But, at that instant I felt . . . "Man, if the rent is more or less reasonable . . . if the rent is only affordable . . . if the rent is just doable. Oh, what a wondrous, joyous event you comedians could participate in." To use an expression of the times, I knew this production would "blow the comedians' minds." In the San Francisco comedy world, it was an idea of heretofore, unimaginable hubris.

Ascending the steps to the stage, I walked out and took a position center stage. I noticed there were a large number of green benches where people could sit and watch the stage. I didn't count the number of benches to guesstimate just how many people could sit on the benches. I just did a quickie calculation off the top of my head and assumed there were enough seats for an audience of 500. (This off-the-top-of-my head estimate would later came back to haunt me.)

I had a distinct vision of all the benches filed and, in my mind's eye, I could envision three additional rows of people sitting on the ground. Where this idea of so many audience members came from, I don't know. At the "Zoo" I could rarely pack in more than 120-150 people (and legally only 75). But I was certain that if I could scrape up the necessary rent, I would have a show bigger than any ever produced in San Francisco. After all, the biggest club in the San Francisco Bay Area at this time was The Punchline and it only had legal capacity of about 200.

As the volunteer driver took me back to the Zoo I percolated with ideas. For the first time, I had a palpable sense that this event could actually happen. And happen on a scale that made the original idea of a single noon show at Union Square puny in comparison.

As soon as I got back to the Zoo I called the San Francisco Park and Recreation Department. I was nervous. "Maybe they only allow non-profit organizations to use the Bandshell for functions." I was afraid that if they did let businesses use the Music Concourse, the rent would be exorbitant.

I dialed the number and waited.

"San Francisco City Park and Recreation."

"Yes, my name is Cantu. I own a comedy club called the Holy City Zoo. I have an idea for a possible event to be held at the Bandshell. I uh..., I uh..., I uh.... I was wondering, how does one apply to use the Bandshell for an event?"

"What kind of event?"

"A uh, a uh comedy show. With stand-up comedians." I silently waited to hear, "I'm so sorry, Mr. Cantu, but that sort of thing isn't allowed in the Bandshell. We have families and kids in the vicinity."

Yes, I know if you go to Comedy Day today you will find families with picnic blankets making a day of it, but back then, comics were most often thought of as grubby characters who said dirty words in small dingy smoke filled rooms to a bunch of alcoholics. The avalanche of successful comics coming out of San Francisco was yet to be. This was 1980, just on the cusp of the great comedy boom of the eighties.

But what she actually said was, "When would your comedy show be?"

"Well, I don't know. I haven't found a place for it yet. I don't want to set a specific date till I know for sure I could have a place to hold it. It is too big for my club."

"Do you have any idea how long your comedy show would last?"

"I'm not sure. I'm still working out the details. I can't really say until I have a place and even then I won't know for sure until I know how much time I have at the venue. But, uh not more than one day - somewhere between four to eight hours including set-up and break-down." (Ha. Did I underestimate the time.)

"Okay," the voice came back at me. "Send in an application requesting a one-day usage of the Music Concourse."

"Uh, we're a business, we're not a non-profit organization."

"Yes. I believe you said your club was the 'Holy City Zoo'?"

"Yes, it is the Holy City Zoo. So what does a for-profit business do to use the Bandshell?"

"I just told you, you send in an application requesting one day usage of the Bandshell."

"And if my application is approved, uh... uh... uh...what would the charge be?" And here I literally stopped breathing - I could feel the sweat oozing into my shirt. I was hoping against hope. Make it affordable please, please not more than $500. We maybe could go as high as $1000. . .


"Excuse me - - - Nothing?" I was sure I had misheard. I was dumbfounded. I simply couldn't believe that wonderful edifice could be used for free - there had to be a catch. In the bar business, if you are having a function somewhere and you want to sell alcohol, you have to pay for a special one-day license. While I had no plans to sell beer or wine, I was sure that either I had misunderstood or she was new and not familiar with all the regulations.

"Did you say, 'Nothing?' I asked again."

"Mr. Cantu, The Golden Gate Park Music Concourse is city property."

"Uh...yes. And that would mean..."

"Mr. Cantu, it means that the Music Concourse is paid for by your tax money. It belongs to you as a citizen of San Francisco. Requests to use the Concourse are reviewed on a first come, first served basis. If your application is accepted, there is no charge."

And that was the greatest real life civics lesson I ever learned. My tax dollars at work. I love this country!!!

I took action. "How do I submit an application?"

"Well it's too late for this year. All the days were assigned last year. But I can send you the forms and you put in an application now for next year. You will be notified sometime in October." I requested the forms be sent to me and they arrived in the mail a couple of days later.

While waiting for the forms to arrive, I did some research. There is that classic line by Mark Twain about San Francisco weather "The coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco." In my mind, shivering and laughter did not go together. I wanted a warm sunny day. But how do you predict the weather in San Francisco? You can't, but you can increase you odds.

I went to the library and researched the warmest months in San Francisco the past 100 years. It turned out to be July. Then I researched the warmest days in July. They mostly occurred in the first week of July and I knew I wanted to do it on a Saturday.

But I didn't want to do it the first Saturday because it was July 4th. The second warmest days fell in the second week of July. So, I picked July 11th, I filled out the forms, mailed them back, and crossed my fingers.

I will be eternally grateful for the San Francisco City Park and Recreation staff's prompt processing of my request. In just a couple of weeks, I had a response. "Your request for use of The Music Concourse on July 11, 1981 has been approved."

Now I had a place and a date for the show. In that instant I was absolutely certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that the comedy show of the year would happen. I had no money for the event. I had no idea of a budget for the event. I had no marketing plan. I had no comedians lined up. In fact, right up to that moment the event only existed as a concept in my head. The name "Comedy Day" hadn't even been coined yet, but I was dead certain Comedy Day WOULD happen.

The instant euphoria lasted just a few days. Because as I started the uphill job of bringing Comedy Day to fruition, I began to experience unexpected foot dragging, mocking, scoffing, and even sabotage throughout the comedy community.

NEXT: Comedy Day: The Creation of A San Francisco Institution (Part 4)