New Site Gives Upfront Last Laugh : Quake That Brought Down the House Was Really a Blessing in Disguise

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The talented improvisational players at Santa Monica's Upfront Comedy Showcase can turn people into animals, household objects into formidable monsters and a few words of nonsense into stirring comic-drama--all without the aid of any script. But a year ago, when the earthquake brought the house down at the Showcase's Third Street Promenade location, the risk-taking players found themselves without a safe theater to play in.

A year later, the comic risks are back up on stage, and the Upfront is doing remarkably healthy business at a new location around the corner from the old one. Thanks at least in part to California's terra non-firma, the theater is enjoying a second life, attracting brand-new audiences and providing a wide variety of improv and sketch troupes with the room and opportunity to generate some spontaneous comedy in high style.

"The earthquake was a blessing in disguise for us because everybody loves the new space," says Jane Morris, who founded the Upfront with her husband, Jeff Michalski, in October, 1990. The pair of Second City vets came from Chicago to be a part of Santa Monica's short-lived Second City outpost. When that venture failed, a few of the couple's workshop students persuaded them to take a shot at running their own improv theater.

"It was kind of insane," Morris says with a laugh, "but we just went ahead and did it. We really believe that improv is an American art form that's always evolving, and we wanted to create a place for people who weren't afraid to push the envelope."

By early 1991, the Upfront had attracted top-notch improv groups like the PostModernaires and the Spolin Players and developed a rep as the friendly, low-budget venue where familiar comedy faces such as Chris Farley, Jon Lovitz or Jim Belushi might drop in to brush up their improv chops.

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Business ran smoothly until the quake rendered the Upfront's storefront space unusable. "People were ready to kill themselves," says Morris. "We serve a community of over 200 performers, and they went crazy. The phone never stopped ringing. 'You're going to reopen, aren't you?' The answer was 'Yeah, we can't not reopen.' "

Morris and Michalski quickly found a suitable space blocks away on Broadway and, with the help of city officials, by the end of the summer had turned what had been a Greek restaurant into a spanking new improv room. The Upfront now boasts vastly superior sound, lights and sight lines over the old place and is proving to be a very satisfying spot for eager players' rampant imaginations.

"We're open again because of the players," says Morris. "They made it happen. It's their place, and we couldn't exist without them."

Along with the classic improv games performed by the PostModernaires and the Spolin Players, regular Upfront offerings include the inspiring comic mutations of the Transformers, the darkly irreverent sketch work of the Deadpan Handlers, the multimedia high jinks of the Amazing Onionheads and a stunningly intricate free-for-all called "The Harold."

Morris and Michalski still provide workshops for up-and-coming improvisers, but the performance groups operate autonomously. Group members tend to be fiercely dedicated to their improv work and seem to be thrilled with their new performance space.

"It's a natural theater, and working there is a complete release for me, like getting happily drunk on a Saturday night," says Paul Dooley. The veteran character actor is currently featured on HBO's "Dream On" and ABC's "Grace Under Fire," but he hardly ever misses a Saturday-night workout with the PostModernaires.

"No matter how busy I get, I seem to always make time to improvise. It's great to hear some real laughs, and the challenge of it is exciting to me. I become not only an actor, but the author of my lines. It invigorates the spirit."

Dan Castellaneta, better known as the voice of Homer Simpson, is also an Upfront regular, working every Thursday with the Spolin Players. "I can get a little lazy doing voice-over work, but I always need to be sharp doing improv," he says. "I've been doing it 15 years, and I'm still learning. The Upfront is a terrific meeting place for the improv community, because while we players all want to further our careers, we're not just starting out. We're doing improv now for the pure love of it."

Fred Kaz thought he'd seen his last improv game after logging more than 30 years with Second City. But that was before 1990, when he became the Upfront's musical director and, as Morris puts it, "the theater's spiritual guidance counselor."

"I was under the misapprehension that I was set for life, just working on my boat and writing music," Kaz explains. "But as soon as the new place opened up I fell in love with improv all over again. Working at the Upfront means that Thursday is the best night of my week, Friday is the best night of my week, and Saturday is the best night of my week. Then I can't wait to do it again. The place is a real sanctuary for decent freaks."

One of the newer collections of freaks is the Amazing Onionheads, a group whose members began as Upfront students and have grown into the theater's hottest success story, packing the house to capacity for their monthly sketch shows. The group also landed a hit single on Dr. Demento's radio program with their herbivorous rap parody, "Down With VEG."

"The Upfront is like our little clubhouse," says Onionhead Andrew Roperto. "It feels good to be in the new space whether we're performing, rehearsing or just sitting around smoking and talking. It's our home base. It's where we've earned our fans and where they know they can always find us."

"The Onionheads are a good example of why we pressed so hard to keep this place open," says Morris. "For a while, our experience in L.A. was that you rent a space, you put on a show, and people don't come. You lose money and maybe you end up with an agent. What's the point? We wanted to create a place where the work is the point. And it's work that can't be seen anywhere else."

* The Upfront Comedy Showcase is at 123 Broadway, Santa Monica. New groups perform Tues.-Wed. at 8 p.m. Main groups are featured Thurs.-Sat. at 8 and 10 p.m. Groups and cover charges vary nightly, and the schedule changes frequently. Information: (310) 319-3477.

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