When Michael Lacey first opened the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach in 1978, business was so slow that he once had a comedian stand on the beach with a bullhorn to entice people inside.
And money was so tight that Lacey did most of the cleaning and tended bar. “A lot of times we only had 20 people in the audience,” he said in an interview. “I lost money for the first three years. It was really slow.”
But today, as the club marks its 10th year in business, Lacey can relax while his 100 employees do the cleaning and tend bar for near-capacity crowds.
These days, it’s not surprising to find lines trailing outside the club and big-name comedians like Garry Shandling, Harry Anderson, Jay Leno and Mort Sahl appearing inside.
Lacey, a soft-spoken 35-year-old resident of Hermosa Beach, said that although the club is far from the tinsel, lights and publicity of Hollywood, he never doubted it would succeed. “When something feels absolutely right . . . you know it will work.”
Lacey attributes his success to his ability to get the big-name celebrities who no longer play small clubs. Shandling, star of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” on Showtime and Fox Television, and Anderson, star of NBC’s “Night Court,” have made frequent appearances at the Comedy and Magic Club but rarely appear elsewhere, according to Anderson and Lacey.
Anderson, who began doing his magic acts on Lacey’s stage years ago, said in an interview recently that the reason he returns is simple: “Lacey.”
“This is one of the classiest places to work,” he said. “It’s because of Lacey.”
Comedian David Woods, who performed with Anderson not long ago, agreed.
“Some places don’t make you feel happy that you are in entertainment. Here I feel happy,” he said. “Part of it is that they take care of their people.”
Kelly Dunn, Lacey’s aide, provided an example. She said that years ago, before becoming host of his own talk show on NBC, David Letterman appeared at the club but attracted only a small audience. So that Letterman would not have to play to a nearly empty house, Lacey invited friends to fill the empty seats.
Anderson said that when he performs, Lacey arranges for a hotel room in case he feels too tired to drive home to Hollywood. “We are No. 1 here,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like the performer comes before the clientele.”
Lacey also has been able to get comedians like Leno, Anderson and ventriloquist Jay Johnson to do benefits for such charities as the American Diabetes Assn., the South Bay Child Abuse Center and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
“They are still really loyal to Mike because he treats them so well,” Dunn said.
Wood, who has appeared in clubs around the country and on Letterman’s television show, said some comedians--Shandling and Leno, for example--return to Lacey’s club to try new jokes on young South Bay audiences before using them on nationwide television.
“They have a great cross-section of America here,” said Wood, comparing the South Bay audience to the much tougher and more unruly crowds at the Comedy Store and the Improvisation Cafe in Los Angeles.
Anderson agreed. “Every place has its drunk crowds,” he said. “This place has a higher class of drunk crowds.”
The only complaint heard from the audience seems to be that the lines outside the club are too long and that parking, which is at a premium in Hermosa Beach, only accommodates about 40 cars on a lot on the club’s roof.
Bill Blackman, who drove from San Bernardino to attend Anderson’s performance recently, said: “It’s real festive here. . . . I’m definitely coming back.”
Erik Feigin, a booking agent for the Improvisation Cafe in Los Angeles, said that although the two clubs book many of the same comedians, there is no competition between them; there are enough comedians and customers for both.
Feigin noted the different atmospheres in the two clubs. He said that the Improv is a showcase where several comedians perform for 20 minutes, while the Comedy and Magic Club has about three comedians perform for 45 minutes to an hour each.
“We’re totally different,” he said. “Here we have industry people and there is talk and there are deals made. . . . They are by the beach and are more laid back.”
Lacey said his infatuation with comedy began when he was young and spent hours in front of television watching comedians like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin.
“I would make any deal with my parents to stay up and watch television,” said Lacey, who added that he never had ambitions to be a comedian himself because of his stage fright.
In October, 1978, at age 25, Lacey organized several investors to buy the vacant building at 1018 Hermosa Ave. and open a club. At the time there were few comedy clubs in the country and almost none featured magic acts, he said.
“There wasn’t any other form of entertainment around,” he said. “People wanted an alternative.”
It took three years to pay off the investors, Lacey said, and another two years before he saw any profits.
Finally, around 1983, comedians like Anderson, Leno and Shandling, who began their careers in small clubs like the Comedy and Magic Club, started to gain nationwide popularity and fill Lacey’s 310-seat club nightly.
Lacey has put much of the profits back into the club by buying the two adjoining businesses, expanding the club on one side and adding office space on the other. Five years ago he refurbished the interior with wood paneling, antique Charlie Chaplin posters on the wall and made-to-order carpeting. Recently he purchased computerized robot clowns to entertain customers before the show.
While Lacey said he has no ambition to open more comedy clubs, he noted that he has considered opening other Hermosa Beach nightclubs with “other kinds of entertainment. Something unique to the South Bay.” He would not elaborate.
In any case, he said, the Comedy and Magic Club his is first priority.
“I love this place,” he said. “This is home.”