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

The Holy City Zoo - Introduction

by John Cantu ©

From 1975 till 1981 I was intimately involved with The Holy City Zoo Comedy Club, in a part of San Francisco known as the "Richmond District." I was the original MC and producer of the first Sunday night all-comedy shows. Before the Sunday comedy shows started, we had been doing comedy on Wednesday nights and "I kid you not," as Jack Parr, used to say, doing alternating sets with Zania, the belly dancer.

I stayed intimately involved with the club through its evolution into a full-scale comedy club, presenting comedy shows seven nights a week, 365 days a year. By 1979 I was manager/producer and by 1980 I was a co-owner and full producer of the nightly shows. I left in 1981 due to partnership problems, but continued to teach and coach comedians and also produce shows at a variety of other ventures in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Holy City Zoo closed in the early 90s. (I don't have an exact date. This is a memoir, not a documentary and by then I was no longer associated (sob) with what, at one time, was my sole reason for existing.)

The Holy City Zoo is legendary in comedy circles for the talent that either started there or developed their persona there during the fifteen-year San Francisco Comedy Renaissance (1975-1990). This includes well established nationally known comics, Comedy Central guests and regulars, and comedy club headliner favorites such as:

The Amazing Jonathan, Buzz Belmondo, Rob Becker (Defending the Caveman), A. Whitney Brown, Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Dana Carvey, Margaret Cho, Gil Christener, Marty "Party Hearty" Cohen, Evan Davis, Tony DePaul, Nora Dunn, Will Durst, David Feldman, Dr. Gonzo, Jake Johannsen, Mark McCollum, Kevin Meany, Mark Miller, Mark Pitta, Paula Poundstone, Michael Pritchard, Bill Rafferty, Rick Reynolds, Bob Sarlatte, Rob Schneider, Steve Kravitz, Bobby Slayton, Carrie Snow, Barry Sobel, Fran Solimita, and Robin Williams. (If you consider yourself part of the SF Comedy Scene and I have inadvertently missed you, I apologize.)

Comedians who dropped into the Zoo either to do a guest set or to simply check out the club when they were passing through San Francisco include:

Ellen Degeneres, Bob Dubac, Whoopi Goldberg, Larry Hovis, Eric Idle, Denny Johnston, Jay Leno, Jackie Mason, Dennis Miller, Diane Nichols, Kevin Pollack, Freddie Roman, Lenny Schultz, Margaret Smith. And a host of others, whom I know I've forgotten.

The Zoo was also a must see when producers came to San Francisco looking for talent: A few of the auditions I was involved in included the New Laugh-In Show for producer, George Schlatter. Saturday Night Live for Jean Doumanian. Fernwood Tonight for Norman Lear. And there were some 100 other auditions for booking agents at various levels of show business from independent manager and agents to other club owners, looking to raid the Zoo of talent for their venues.

The major impetus for this book is my longtime writing/business partner Susan Cerce. Hers has been the loudest and most persistent voice in a chorus of many who have said over and over and over, "Cantu, you ought to write down your experiences!" The specific impetus to actually sit down and start to write this opus came last month. (I am writing this September 25, 1999. I had gone to San Antonio, Texas for the 1999 National Speakers Association convention August 7 through August 12. Then I spent an extra two days with comedian buddy Tony DePaul and his wife, Dorothy.)

At one point Tony and I got to schmoozing about the good ol' days at the Zoo and Tony went to his desk and pulled out an old stack of photos. He showed me one and said, "Hey Cantu, remember this?"

It was a picture of me and obviously taken near the end my free-lovin', dope-smokin', hippie days because I had hair to my shoulders. The photograph showed me sitting at a table with three other people: an unknown male, Mark Miller who left San Francisco to become well-known sit-com writer, and Robin Williams.

I told Tony, "Don't have a clue."

He said, "Cantu, this was taken at Robin's bachelor party when he was getting married to Valerie (his first wife)." Even after that prompting I couldn't remember a thing about Robin's bachelor party. Tony reminded me of a host of other long-forgotten tales:

When a bunch of us went to the Boarding House to see Jackie Mason and there were a total of - - - ready? - - - thirteen people in the audience. And I had persuaded ten of them to accompany me. And then after the show, Mason asked Pat Daniels, my writing partner and by then ex-wife out for coffee and . . .

He reminded of the time he opened for the Talking Heads after fellow comic, Gil Christener, quit after one performance. During Christener's first set someone threw a beer bottle at the stage and it hit a chair and broke it (the chair). Christener said, "Thank you very much. Good night."

He reminded me about when he and I and Carvey and Williams and others used to perform at the La Salamandra in Berkeley. It was located directly across the street from the non-profit organization, Center for Independent Living which provided help for the disabled. And the disabled would come to the club and get drunk and have wheelchair races in the back of the club while we were on-stage performing.

He reminded me of a lot more anecdotes I had forgotten. The time Whoopie Goldberg came in depressed because her car had just died and three club comics helped push it to a nearby gas station... When Robin Willimas got fired as a bartender - - - and he was working for free and dozens more.

I felt like the character in that oft-told tale where the gnarled old-timer meets a newbie and grumbles: "I've forgotten more about this business then you know." Well this was the first time it had been demonstrated to me.

The Holy City Zoo's address was 408 Clement Street between 4th and 5th Avenues and the original structure is still there, but it is now a bar called The Other Place. (Not to be confused with the long running comedy club competitor of the Holy City Zoo, the Other Cafe in the Haight, now long gone.) If you are visiting San Francisco and want to see the club as it is today, make sure you go to the Clement and 5th Avenue, not 5th Street - big, big difference.

NEXT: A Brief History of a Place That Launched a Thousand Quips

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