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The Ice House in Pasadena is no joke

Steve Martin is reminiscing about the night he bombed. It was in the early 1960s, at the Ice House in Pasadena, then a rollicking little folk club that showcased comedians intermittently between musical acts.

Martin was an unknown, 21 or 22, fresh from performing live magic at Knott’s Berry Farm and doing what he calls “the kitchen sink act” — an eclectic mix of banjo, poetry and comedy.

That night, midweek, the Ice House was mostly empty. “I’d been on for 20 minutes with 10 minutes to go and I realized I had not gotten one laugh,” says Martin. “I thought, ‘Oh, jeez this is awful.’ And then I thought, ‘Why not go for the record? Try to get no laughs.” He chuckles. But the beauty of it, he says, is that the Ice House was known as a place where comedians could make missteps and still be invited back, because the staff was so supportive and nurturing. “That’s the feeling I had there.”

Of course Martin’s laugh-deficient experience was an exception — for him and the club. The Ice House, which just marked its 50th anniversary, is now dedicated solely to comedy and known for drawing especially hot acts. It’s the oldest comedy club in the country, and that familial atmosphere Martin speaks of remains a defining characteristic. Lily Tomlin recorded her first two albums at the Ice House, and the Smothers Brothers and Bob Newhart also recorded live albums there. Many developed signature characters, such as Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, in the 165-seat main room. George Lopez got $25 to be a Tuesday night MC in the ‘80s.

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Photos of George Carlin, Gabe Kaplan, Gallagher, Cheech and Chong, Paula Poundstone, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Tim Allen grace the wall of fame. As does a browned and brittle framed contract from 1978 offering a young David Letterman $250 to perform for the week.

Today Southern California is a hotbed of comedy experimentation. There are 10 established full-time comedy clubs in the greater L.A. area, as well as more than 50 one-offs at smaller venues, according to Ken Pringle, founding editor of the industry Web resource chucklemonkey.com. Consider the international comedy festival circuit and social media networks, and access to audiences, promoters and other comics has never been more speedy and direct. “But back in 1960,” says Pringle, “no one was doing this sort of thing. The Ice House was groundbreaking.”

In fact, when Willard Chilcott opened the club on Sept. 23, 1960, comedy clubs as we know them didn’t exist. Folk music was all the rage. Sen. John F. Kennedy had campaigned for president in Denver that day, and the L.A. Rams creamed the St. Louis Cardinals, 43-21. The Ice House kicked off its first night with the Steel Town Two, a popular folk duo; Pat Paulsen would soon be the first comic onstage in a routine that included hanging upside down and brushing “art” onto a canvas with his paint-soaked hair.

Other influential comedy clubs would of course go on to break seminal talent during the comedy boom of the 1970s and 1980s — with the Comedy Store opening in 1972, and the L.A. outpost of the Improv and the Laugh Factory to follow. But in 1960, the landscape for young, aspiring comics to test material or catch the eye of a Hollywood insider was relegated to tiny coffeehouses or larger nightclubs featuring musical acts.

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Bob Newhart says even in 1965 the Ice House was “the only game in town.” He was looking for a place to record his fifth album, “The Windmills Are Weakening,” and wanted a venue that would draw a young audience. His producers, he says, chose the Ice House in part for its wholesomeness. “It was such a changing time — comedy was changing, music was changing. I always work clean, and there was a temptation at that time to work blue — language, the areas you get into. But I never felt comfortable doing it,” he says. “The record producers — they knew the kind of audience they wanted. And I guess they felt the Ice House seemed to fit the bill. They had that reputation. You could bring your family.”

Incidentally, Newhart shares the Ice House’s anniversary, as this is his 50th year of doing stand-up. “I’m amazed we’ve both lasted as long as we have,” he jokes. “It happened so suddenly [for me] that I just assumed it would end just as suddenly.” The Ice House will celebrate its golden year with a week of 150 rotating comics starting Sunday, and leading up to an “All Star Comedy Show” at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Oct. 10. . The evening will benefit Hillsides Home for children and the Bob Hope USO.

A year after the Ice House made its debut, Chilcott partnered with Bob Stane, who steered the club for 18 mostly successful years. “We were at the top during the folk boom, doing really well,” Stane says. Toward the end of his run however, in the mid-'70s, live entertainment was changing: The electric guitar was edging out acoustic, audiences were restless, and Stane was having difficulty drawing crowds. He blames the Beatles. “You might say the Beatles changed everything. We went from college-educated performers to people who were in garage bands. Things deteriorated pretty quickly. We weren’t getting the talent we wanted and we had to start fighting to get audiences.”

Bob Fisher, who had been running the Laff Stop in Newport Beach, bought the Ice House in 1978 and transitioned it into a full-time comedy club. (Fisher, who originally had three partners, is now sole owner.) “Comedy was hot. Folk music was kind of going over the hill,” Fisher says. “I’d made the place in Newport Beach fantastically successful, so I thought, ‘Let’s do that here.’”

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More than 50 live albums have been recorded at the Ice House, which has hosted up to 100 live shows a month for more than 4 million customers. Still in its original location, up an alley north of Colorado Boulevard, it’s now a veritable comedy campus, with two showrooms, including the 70-seat Annex dedicated to emerging acts. There’s a festive urban feel, with lots of exposed red brick, slanted aluminum overhangs and a web of lights over the patio, and Fisher says a key to its success is that he’s cultivated a decidedly un-Hollywood vibe. It draws a somewhat less jaded, less industry-oriented audience, he says. “This is like off-Broadway — real people seeing real shows.”

Tim Allen agrees. He was a road comic, unknown in L.A. during the late ‘80s — a time, he says, that was particularly stressful. “Comedy was red hot and it was getting very difficult in Los Angeles. It was such pressure at the Improv and even at Igby’s and Comedy Store to do five minutes; especially if you’re doing 35 to 40 on the road,” he says. “But at the Ice House, you were allowed to do longer sets. And it was a very different, much less jaded crowd to me, which I loved.... It was like being on the road.”

Allen was “discovered” one night at the Ice House — 1987, as he remembers — when DJ Geno Michellini of KLOS-FM caught his act and put it on “The Five O’Clock Funnies.” “He taped me at that point and it became a big, friggin’ deal, a huge jump in calls — you know, ‘Who was that guy talking about lawnmowers and stuff?’ I went right into doing huge concerts from there.”

Dana Carvey holds the official Ice House record for most standing ovations in one night — five — before he landed on “Saturday Night Live” in 1986. “The comedians of that era — we were all obsessed with ‘Scarface,’ the movie. One of the bits I did [that night] was a 10-minute bit of Scarface at Thanksgiving dinner.... I had a great night.”

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He attributes some of his success that evening to the room itself. “If you take away money, fame, power, all the rest of it, probably on some sort of primal campfire level you would just work in a space like that — 150 seats, low ceiling, slightly raked. It’s like a comedy box built to perfection.”

Gabriel Iglesias, a comic who’s made appearances on “Last Comic Standing,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Tonight Show,” performs so regularly at the Ice House he calls it his “home club.” He says that even though “there are a lot of comedy clubs popping up now, a million places,” the Ice House is known around town as the comic’s club, a place for those truly serious about stand-up. “To know you’re in a place with so much history … the comedians who take it seriously try to play at the Ice House,” he says. “There’s a lot of comics out there ... they don’t really care about it. They’re trying to get a sitcom, a movie.... They don’t have real passion for it. The people who really love and appreciate and respect the art of stand-up comedy — they’re definitely trying to get into that room.”

Through the years, Fisher says, he’s predicted stardom for only one upstart, a young kid in a Hawaiian shirt who’d just landed a role on a late-'70s sitcom about an awkward, displaced alien. “I thought something good’s gotta happen. I didn’t predict stardom for anyone but Robin Williams.”

His lengthy stint running the Ice House has also given him a unique, panoramic perspective on how comedy has evolved. “Comedy never goes out of style, but it does have its ups and downs,” he says. “It was really popular in the ‘70s, then it started to flatten out a little in ’85.” The tenor too, of comic styles, changes with the decades, says Fisher. “It’s generally not as witty and clever as it used to be” he says. “I’m not saying there aren’t witty, clever comics now — but audiences aren’t demanding that. They want energy and fun. And we give [them] what they want: good times.”


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