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

The Holy City Zoo the Early Years
Belly Dancing and Belly Laughs - Thus Was Born the San Francisco Comedy Boom (Part 2)

by John Cantu ©

Here's the story of a couple pivotal events in the history of San Francisco Comedy. As I have written before, I was the original MC and producer of the first Sunday night all-comedy shows back in 1975 at the Holy City Zoo Comedy Club, on Clement Street in a part of San Francisco known as the "Richmond District." (from Part I)

So here we are in the mid 70s, maybe 1975, performing comedy every Wednesday night doing alternating sets with a belly dancer. The owner has told Darryl Victor Dubin, the producer and MC of our fledgling comedy showcase, "You are the most depressing person I have ever heard in my life. I don't mind the comedy. You can keep the comedy show going, but YOU CAN'T PERFORM HERE ANY MORE! You can't get up on stage. You have to get a new MC."

It is to Darryl's credit that he didn't just tell the club owner, "It's my show. I am the producer and if I can't MC, there's no show!" The San Francisco comedy boom of the 70s/80s (which also led to the nation's comedy boom which I will tell you about in a future essay) came that close to being snuffed out before it even started.

But Darryl was besotted with Zania the belly dancer and he wanted a reason to hang out at the "Zoo" without looking like a love struck fan, so he kept the comedy show going and tapped Terry Hamburg as the new MC. I have written previously about my experiences with the Terry, Marty, & Lorenzo Show. (PART I & PART II) The Terry, Marty, and Lorenzo Show was running at the Savoy Tivoli during the same time the fledgling Zoo comedy showcase was starting.

So the Zoo's Wednesday night comedy continued with comics doing alternating sets with Zania, the belly dancer. Belly dance. . . Break. . . Belly laughs. . . Break. . . Belly dance. . . Break. . . Belly laughs. . . And over the course of some three months, the comedy started to cause a few problems.

First there began to be a noticeable and distinct split in the audience. People would come in to see the belly dancing and leave during the comedy. The comedy audience would then leave during the belly dancing and a new audience would come in for the belly dancing, and so on. More disconcerting for Zania was the fact that we began to outdraw her. Slowly, but surely, the belly dance crowd began to be noticeably smaller in comparison to the comedy crowd.

Zania was starting to get unhappy and she was making noises about pulling out. The owner was a guy who really didn't like changes. And since Zania had been there longer than us, he also felt more loyalty to her than to us. If anyone was to be asked to leave, it was to be the comedians.

But he also wasn't happy with the idea of having to tell us comedians we had to leave since we were an obvious draw. And more importantly, we were performing for free. So, in a Solomon like decision he told us to leave Wednesday night.


He offered us our own full night of comedy on Sundays. Up until then he had been closed on Sunday nights. He offered to open on Sunday for an all-comedy showcase. But still with the stipulation that Darryl Victor Dubin not perform. We took Sundays, even though Darryl now had to stop by Zania's shows on Wednesday as just a fan.

Two momentous things happened during our switch from Wednesday to Sunday night. One was that Terry Hamburg made it abundantly clear he no longer wanted to MC the comedy shows and secondly, I ended up being the first MC and producer for the Zoo's all comedy shows.

I would love to tell you that the other comics decided on me as the new producer/MC because of my great comedy wit, my innate MCing skills, and my obvious superior producer capabilities. But to tell you the truth, I don't have a clue as to how I ended up being the producer/MC. One does not go thru life documenting every decision one makes as if it will turn out to have some historical importance.

But what I do remember of that first Sunday night comedy showcase, is myself and about a half-dozen comics (Bob Sarlatte, Mark Miller, Tony DePaul, Lorenzo (Buzz Belmondo) Mattawaren immediately come to mind and others I can't recall) standing around at 9:00 pm waiting for our audience to show up.

That was the first time I had experience with the fact that people are creatures of habit. Yes we had a following, but our comedy audience was used to coming to the club on Wednesday night for comedy not Sunday. We had no Sunday night following.

So, the audience consists of about a half a dozen comics and maybe a girlfriend or two. And at 9:00 pm the owner said, "You're the producer. It's 9:00. Start the show."

And I said, "But there's no one here."

And he said two things I never forgot. First he said, "I'm here." And secondly he said, "If somebody stops by and sticks their head in the door to see what's going on, I want them to see someone on stage."

From then on, any event I produced has started on time. I say the prompt people should be rewarded and the latecomers should be penalized, not the other way around. And I have always insisted that some comedian get up on stage at the starting time, even if the comic complains, "No one is in the room." My response is always, "What am I, chopped liver?"

Recently Steve Kravitz did a set for one of the San Francisco Comedy College Shows and even though it was sparse house, he did a fantastic job. Great show, very loose, no discomfort at performing for a house much smaller than one would expect for a comic of his stature.

Afterwards I complemented him on how well he played to such a small crowd. And he said, "Cantu, do you realize how many times you made me open a show, playing to nothing but empty chairs? Hey, a small crowd? - I got it down pat from all the early days at the Zoo and Cobbs. You know, I remember one time, when we had a terribly small turnout, you said to all the comics, 'I know Kravitz will perform, but does any one else want to?' "

So, as I was saying about our first show... I huddled with the other comics for a minute or two to put together a line-up and discovered - surprise, surprise - no one want to be first. So by default I did the first set and thus have the distinction of not only being the first MC/producer of the Zoo comedy showcases, but of also being the first comedian to perform at the start of the Zoo's fifteen year comedy run.

I was at another one of the San Francisco Comedy College productions about a month after the Kravitz show and a very new comic, Mike Holly, was performing. He had been on stage only about a dozen times and he made a comment along the lines, "Man this is hard. I've been given ten minutes and I only really have about four minutes of material."

Did that ever bring back memories. When I got up at the Zoo that first night, many, many moons ago, I had maybe seven-eight minutes at the most and only about three or four minutes of that was polished.

And I did an hour.

One excruciating, horrible hour. I don't remember what I said after I ran out of material. But I will never forget the pain of stretching eight minutes of material for a sixty minute presentation. I remember the pain of that performance to this day.

Then by 10:00 pm maybe three or four people had come in and a few other comics had stopped by and so we now had maybe twelve people total. The other comics then went up and the show was pretty much over by 11:00. Comedy had officially started at the Zoo and we had gotten through our first real comedy showcase.

Well, the next week it was the exact same thing. There were the same six comics and me and the owner and a couple of girlfriends in the audience and once again, I'm getting up at 9:00 pm - - - knowing I'm gonna have to do probably another hour till the audience shows up (all three or four of them).

And knowing I still only have about eight minutes of material.

And this time, knowing that everyone has heard all this stuff the week before.

NEXT: Holy City Zoo the Early Years (Part 3)