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

The Third Vital Factor That Made it Possible for the Zoo to Flourish - Cantu (Part 3)

by John Cantu ©

Let me give you an overview of the three phases of my involvement with the Zoo.

  1. 1975 first MC and producer for maybe three months. Then I turned club production over to my buddy, Tony DePaul. I would occasionally run the club for Tony when he was booked, but for all intents and purposes it was DePaul's club. However, I still did perform for about a year and I was also the local comedy gadfly giving unsolicited advice.
  2. Because my writing career never really took off, I took a job as bar manager around 1978. Became manager/producer in 1979 and co-owner 1980 -1981 until I had partnership problems.
  3. In 1988-1989 I returned briefly as workshop leader and part-time producer.

My major influence on the Zoo was during the #2 time period. And I recently made the bold claim that the three reasons for the Holy City Zoo mystic was Cooperation, Sex and Cantu. I firmly believe that I had a major role in the success of the Zoo - but how?

Was I strong performer? Hardly. Today I get mid-four-figured booking fees plus expenses per keynote (whether humorous or educational). I've publicly said many times, "In the beginning of my performing/speaking career I went from terrible to mediocre."

Was I a good businessman? Nah. I had absolutely no business experience whatsoever. I was a tenth grade drop-out, an army Vietnam vet, and I had been living in San Francisco's topless/bottom North Beach district in a fleabag hotel supporting myself with low-rent/low-class jobs that included being a strip joint barker.

(Oh, no - - -it's a Broadway Street flashback: "Hey sailor, they're topless, bottomless, and shoeless! . . These girls are wearing nothing but a smile and right guard. . . You've heard of San Francisco's famous hills? Carol Doda's got two of them on her chest. . . .   She's got a great act. Crawls out on stage and tries to stand-up. . ." )

Was I good manager? No, I was a terrible manager - because I had no role models. My father is Mexican and speaks with a thick Spanish accent and all his Mexican friends were factory laborers. And they only had derisive comments about their bosses - the "white shirts" and "ass-scratchers."

And because I was pretty much a self-made individual who came from the school of hard knocks, I had a roughness others couldn't relate to. I was direct, to the point, and didn't suffer fools gladly. And I've since discovered, if you don't suffer fools gladly, you lose about 80% of both your internal customers - other departments in your company that you have to get cooperation and/or agreement from. And in a comedy club, that's the wait staff, admin, volunteers, and the comedians. And your external customers, the people who give you money for (or buy) your service or products.

Susan Cerce says, "Cantu, when I met you, you had long hair, smelled bad, and yelled a lot. And the long hair looked terrible. It emphasized your ax murderer appearance." ( I was once cast in an Unsolved Mysteries episode as one Alcatraz's toughest convicts. This is true. When I asked, "Why choose me out of the dozens who auditioned?" The director said, "Cantu you have the meanest face and you looked the most like an ax murderer!")

Okay, so why do I think I had a major influence on the Zoo?

Let me turn to a philosophical point for a moment. There is one primary principle that will most affect your success in life: The ability to capitalize on your strengths (as opposed to constantly trying to correct your weaknesses).

I feel I have, and have always had, three MAJOR strengths that I had discovered way back in the second grade. One afternoon, looking around the classroom, I began to idly analyze my classmates.

There was Bob, captain of the boys, his two lieutenants, and the various and sundry other boys who always took direction from Bob.

There was Mary, queen of the girls, two ladies-in-waiting, and the various and sundry other girls who always took direction from Mary. (By the way, I really did think in those terms "captain" and "queen" and I have no idea why.)

I tried to determine where I fit in. My image was of me sitting in a corner, and simply watching, observing, analyzing, and evaluating, but never being a part.

And what most struck me back then was the awareness of one constant pattern: Bob was ALWAYS the leader of the boys and Mary was ALWAYS the leader of the girls.

I was fascinated by this because on any given day you could find a variety of variables within the students. They might wear different colors and different styles of clothes (dress pants versus jeans, a button-up shirt versus a pullover, etc.) Different shoe styles and colors, different foods for lunch - baloney sandwich versus peanut butter... But one thing stayed consistent: the non-changing roles each kid played: One was either a leader, a 2nd or 3rd in command, or a follower.

So at the Zoo my three MAJOR strengths were: I am observant and analytical; I easily discern patterns (pattern discernment is the basis for my first ezine, CantuHumor - the quantifying the patterns that people consistently use to provoke laughter); AND I understand people and how they relate to each other.

In the next few essays you will learn about observations made along the way and how they were made. You might think about some of them, "Well that's obvious, one learns that in first year psychology or first year business management or first year whatever."

And while that may be true, as a high school dropout I had no formal knowledge of what I now realize are basic principles of human behavior and business management. Back then, I was making decisions on the run and solely according to my gut.

Let me modify that. I did have one operating principle. Every single thing I did at the club stemmed from my attempt to KEEP NON-COMEDIAN PEOPLE (external customers) COMING BACK and to get them to COME BACK WITH FRIENDS.

In running a comedy club there are numerous processes regarding the show and the comics: How they signed up; what order they were put up; how much time they were given; how they were chosen for the paying nights, etc.

But, what was MOST IMPORTANT to me was just one constant result: Make the customer happy; happy to spend money; leave feeling good about it; come back again and again and again, and drag friends back with him.

Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING I did at the Zoo was based on this simple principle. It was so obvious to me that if you focused on this one thing (the important strength), you would have the best result - a large and enthusiastic audience.

Without that - all else was wasted time and energy. And a large and enthusiastic audience was what would keep the primary internal customers (the comics) flocking to club no matter what.

One of the major reasons the Holy City Zoo lost it's glamor and ultimately went out of business is that subsequent managers usually made a fundamental mistake. They took my marketing gimmick "The Holy City Zoo, the comedy club that the comedians call home" and they mistook that as being the product. They actually tried to run the club as a comedian's clubhouse.

But under my reign, the Zoo was never the comic's clubhouse. That tag line was not meant to be descriptive, it was a marketing strategy based on the advertising principle that today that is known as "positioning." (More on this in the future.)

Managers who followed me at the Zoo often didn't realize that although it was a comedy club and it was a favorite club of the comedians, comedians were not (and never were) the most important element and thus you could never cater to them.

The comedian's purpose is to be the primary lure to get the most important element - the paying (external) customer to come in and spend money. Granted, it's a symbiotic relationship, but as a parallel to the age old question of which comes first the chicken or the egg, in business it's always - the customer.

The Holy City Zoo in a sense, still exists today. That is, people still go to 408 Clement Street and spend money and drink and bring their friends. That locale exists as a business entity. But the comedians have been forced to swallow the unfunny bitter pill of reality. The discovery that customers can exist without the comics - BUT comics cannot exist without the customers.

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