March 28, 2008

A History: Kansas City's Comedy Sportz

This was taken straight from a post written by Corey Rittmaster himself on If any of this is wrong, blame him.

"Kansas City's Comedy Sportz did it's first shows in February of 1987, and I didn't join the cast until April of 1990.

From ComedySportz as a national organization was started in 1984 in Milwaukee, WI by Dick Chudnow, who based it on the competitive Theatresports improvisational techniques of Keith Johnstone from Calgary, Alberta. Expansion began with the addition of Madison, WI, in 1985.

As I heard it told, a few of Chudnow's guys started heading out to start up clubs in various cities around the country. KC was unique in that it was the first ComedySportz club to open that wasn't started by a former Milwaukee or Madison player.

1987-1989: KC was started by Clancy Hathaway, who answered an ad that Chudnow had placed in the paper (I think KC Star) during his aggressive expansion stage. Clancy was an (at the time) out of work actor who had done a ton of scripted work, lots of children's theater, summer stock, etc. He's actually a very accomplished actor. Anyway, Clancy answered the ad and Chudnow sent him a binder with games and format explanations and a videotape of a show, plus a plan for a one-time visit from some Milwaukee players for a workshop.

Clancy held auditions in late 1986, cast a group of misfits and ne'er-do-wells and this ragtag bunch of ruffians started rehearsing. They secured a space in the back room of Torre's pizza in Westport, doing 4 shows a week (8 and 10:30 on Fri and Sat) Clancy keeping the ticket money and Torre's selling food and drink. The first shows were February 1987, Clancy picking February to start since it was the shortest month, and what little money they had allotted for operating costs would have the best "dollars per day" ratio of any month. True story.

1989-1991: The shows were crude (in terms of the improv skills, not language) but successful. There was nothing like it in KC at the time. After a couple of years Clancy was itching for a space of his own, and found it on 8th Street in Lucas Place downtown. CSz relocated to 8th St. in early 1989. I think Spring, but I'm not sure. The 8th St. location was nice in that CSz now had it's own space, a walk-up bar window, could seat almost 100, had an office and a tiny green room. It was located next door to Gino Schiraldi's pizza and they started offering a pizza buffet+show combo option. The downside of 8th St. was that it was located directly beneath "The Edge", a gay dance club. The music would start thumping during the late show, and you could literally see our ceiling bouncing a half inch or so up and down with the beat. Kinda scary. During the run on 8th St., though, crowds continued to grow and a Thurs show was added. The show times were switched a half hour earlier to 7:30 and 10:00, too. It was during the 8th St. years that KCCSz held their first "World Series of Comedy" tournaments and also when "Out On A Limb" and "Lighten Up" improv groups were spawned out of former CSz players.

1991-1995: After about 3 years battling the bass beats on 8th St (and one unfortunate plumbing breakdown from above. Yes. Yuck.) it was time to move again. CSz was a few years ahead of its time by deciding to move to the River Market. 5th St., across from where Winslow's is now. CSz was there before it's eventual neighbor the River Market Brewery, and after we left the wall was knocked down and the Brewery expanded into our old space. 5th Street was a booming time. Seating grew to about 125, and a Sunday show was added. Now up to 6 shows/wk (Th 7:30 Fri/Sat 7:30 and 10 and Sun 7:30). Crowds were so good and sellouts so regular that we started requiring credit cards to guarantee seating. There was a huge, full bar on 5th St. The pizza buffet continued, and popcorn, hot dogs and nachos were added to the menu. In my opinion, the "Golden Age of KCCSz" began during the 5th Street run, and carried over to the next location, a block up the street and around the corner to Delaware.

1995-1998: CSz moved to 5th and Delaware in the Fall of 1995. The Brewery wanted to expand and the landlord had this bigger location up the street and we were selling out a ton. It was a win-win-win deal. We moved up to Delaware to a much bigger location. Now we seat about 165, have a full kitchen, full bar, separate lounge/waiting area from the theater, a backroom/party room, green room area, walk in cooler, and an office. The lounge was named for Rob "The Turtle" Lawrence as The Smoking Turtle Lounge, as smoking was allowed there, but not in the theater. Now there's an expanded menu, we're making our own pizzas, burgers, dogs, fried stuff, etc. We literally worked through the night for a few days to get the stage built and painted, the lights and sound system set up, and raised seating for the further back seats. The first show in the Delaware location was for the 1995 World Series of Comedy CSz invitational. The shows were rocking, crowds enormous. We're now only reserving seats with pre-paid credit card purchase, and still selling out the Sat. 7:30 show as much as 2 weeks in advance. We add a 5pm Sat. show to help with spillover. At a CSz National Tournament, we see a Comedy Courtz show, and decide to add that to the lineup. It's now Wed 7:30 Courtz, Thurs 7:30, Friday 7:30 and 10, Sat. 5, 7:30, and 10 and Sun 7:30 CSz shows. Additionally, with the lounge having a small stage, we start offering Sat midnight alternative shows in the lounge. Everything from the acoustic guitar of Todd Geritz to song parodies of the Great Lukeski and Lurlene the Trailer Park Queen, to my personal project, the sketch comedy of Der Monkenpickle, among others. In 1996, KCCSz hosted the CSz National Tournament. Something like 26 teams from across the country were there. Workshops and shows from Tues to Sun. The sellouts were continuing. We eventually dropped the Court show from the regular lineup, only doing it for private parties."

At this point Corey states that he left town...Pete Calderone then finishes up as best he can.

1998-2000: The Blazing Bright Present
Times were still good. The economy hadn't tanked yet and people were still flush with disposable income. In addition to the Sat 7:30 show being sold out in advance, the 10pm show was now selling out in advance. Friday's 7:30 was selling out and the 10PM was almost a 50-50 on selling out. Typically, with walk-ups it would. The rest of the shows had pretty solid numbers between 50 - 100 I would estimate. Aside from the club shows, CSz KC was also getting booked for probably 20-30 remotes in a month. There was a tour of several colleges and even a three week IBM conference tour. It was also a competitive time and if you didn't bring your A game to the stage, chances are you weren't going to get much stage time.

1998-2000: The Darkening
However, sometimes the cast of 35 or so performers wasn't enough to keep up so people eventually made their way to the stage. This meant that some people who probably shouldn't be on stage (you know what I mean, every cast has one or two or more of these people) were logging playing time when they should still have been in workshops. The spirit of improv took a hit as these people started relying less on the tools of improv and depended more on bits and shtick. In the midst of all the success, a dark malevolent presence was rearing it's ugly head in the North. Whispers on the wind blew word that Dick Chudnow was tired of running the business of ComedySportz and there was interest by a former Ralph Loren (iirc) investor in taking over the franchise. Rumors were well founded as Jay Goldman bought the franchise rights and was looking to make CSz a household word. He wanted to produce CSz-TV and bring franchise costs and pricing uniform across the board. ComedySportz: Cookie Cutter style. He wanted the show to be the same no matter what city you saw the show. From vending to the national anthem to the show end, the same. Now not only did he want that, but he also wanted to raise franchise/royalty fees, increase the cost of a remote regardless of what market you were in, and he wanted creative control over everything that happened on a CSz stage. Creative control of an improv show. Let that sink in, I'll wait.

*aaaannnnnnnd we're back* A little side story before we continue: at this time, aside Milwaukee, CSz KC is producing the most shows and pulling in the most revenue, but for some reason there's growing animosity from Chudnow and Goldman (who was retaining Dick's services during the transfer of ownership). Don't misunderstand, there was animosity before, but like any good improv scene, it was now heightened. A mini power struggle ensues within the CLA (Comedy League of America, which was just the group comprising all the CSz franchises). Many franchise owners wanted nothing to do with the new Chudnow/Goldman regime and basically ceded from the CLA and formed the NCT (National Comedy Theater). Then came the chest pounding, cursing of the fates, and gnashing of teeth. There's more to be said about that whole fiasco, but I'll rejoin the tale already in progress by leaving you with this: the straw that broke the Clancy's back came in the form of a "cease and desist" letter. The claim of the letter? Clancy was charged with failing to "hire, train, and retain quality performers".

Thumbing his nose at the cease and desist, ComedySportz changed it's name to Comedy City (or more aptly, it was the Comedy Sports show at Comedy City) so audiences would associate with the location and not the show. Notice the clever? Yeah. Despite all that crap things still appeared bright and promising. With all of the sell-outs and the desire and opportunity to get out from under another lease, Clancy opted for purchasing his very own building. Thus begins the slow downward spiral.

2000-present: The Roller Coaster
In August of 2000, with the success of the previous years bolstering him, Clancy moved the business "just east of the City Market" to its current location on Charlotte. The thought wasn't bad. Comedy City now had its largest location to date; a spacious 225 seat theater, a ginormous bar area that could also accompany buffets or catered events, multiple meeting areas which have since become the black box theater and the party room, a kitchen still cranking out concession style food, a green room, a "notes' room, and plenty of office space. One problem, the crowds didn't follow the move. Now we have a confluence of events occurring; 9-11 happens, the economy tanks, disposable income disappears as jobs dry up, and CC moves to a neighborhood that many feel is a bad one. The general public doesn't like poorly lit areas with no foot traffic. Even though the Delaware location had jack for parking, it was still accessible within a block or two and the streets were always well lit. Typically, there were people about at most hours and audiences felt safe. It continues to be a struggle to this day. In an effort to build a bigger audience, Clancy, fresh from a trip to Chicago co-opts a show from The Neo Futurists (Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind) and Monkeys With Hand Grenades is born. Audiences responded well and Monkeys turns a floundering 10PM time slot into a near sell out each month. The Upright Citizens Brigade national touring group gets booked for 2 near-sold out performances and the seeds of Too Much Duck become planted."

Pete finished off this story in 2007, since then Monkeys and Duck has been cancelled, as has many shows. There are now only 3 improv shows a week, 1-5 private shows, and the end is said to be looming. A great history, a great tale, and of course, a sad ending soon to be. The nostalgia is there, but the motivation and the audience is not. We here at Kansas City Improv wish that everything could just go back to the good times, but sadly times must change. Hopefully for the better.

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