For a break from City Hall toxicity, try an open mic in Tarzana

A smiling man holds a microphone inside a bar
Jerome Anderson runs Soapbox Sessions Open Mic at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

I thought we could all use a break from the toxic churn of City Hall news following the leak that exposed the corrupt, racially reductive politics that run Los Angeles.

So last week I found myself at an open mic in Tarzana at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon. But even an hour’s drive into the west San Fernando Valley was not far enough to escape the political drama.

“If you guys don’t like me or my jokes, just remember, I’m not a member of the L.A. City Council,” joked comedian Shane Kenny to open his act.


It turns out there are a lot of similarities between an open mic in Tarzana and our current City Council.

Jerome Anderson, center, laughs at a joke as "V" performs her comedic act at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana
Jerome Anderson, center, laughs at a joke as “V” performs her comedic act during the open mic called Soapbox Sessions at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Here, as on the City Council, there are dreams that refuse to die. There are performers bombing with the audience but choosing not to notice, just as Councilmember Kevin de León has with the calls from all around the political universe to resign. There are people who should have given up the mic a long time ago, not unlike Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and people losing themselves under the blinding spotlight, like former Councilmember Nury Martinez.

And as with City Council politics, those paying attention to the show are vastly outnumbered by the people loudly trying to have a good time and ignore it.

But there’s no resentment from open mic host Jerome Anderson, 51. Performing against a deafening backdrop of indifference is part of the challenge, he said.

“They’re financing this whole thing, after all!” Anderson points out with a laugh.

Depending on the night, Anderson also serves as the stage manager, fill-in act and bar back. He also takes on a more understated role as caretaker to the fragile dreams of open-mic-ers, handling their ambitions with surprising delicacy. He claps for every act, laughs loudly at the jokes no one else does and brings up every act with equal fanfare, no matter the talent level.

Audience members laugh at a comedian's joke during the open mic night at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“I see these young kids coming to L.A., and the place eats them alive,” said Anderson. “So I try to give them a soft landing.”

The Soapbox Sessions Open Mic has been going for 15 years, and Anderson has been hosting for the last four.

Jason Brain, 37, launched it in 2006 when he was working at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Ventura Boulevard. His manager donated sound equipment, and Brain found a bunch of apple crates on Craigslist to use as seating. Back then the crowd was a mixed bag of slam poets, musicians and comedians — who had to keep the jokes PG-13 out of respect for the families eating at the nearby California Pizza Kitchen.

Brain’s dream was to become a touring slam poet, but then he met his wife at the open mic. They moved to Orange County to start a family, and he now works as a massage therapist.

It’s another service the open mic provides. It keeps your dreams alive, but also helps them mature. Ideally, you trim them down to a more practical size so you can fit other things in your life, like family and financial stability. Brain still hosts a version of the Soapbox Sessions Open Mic on Zoom that focuses on poetry, and he’s grown to love the open mic as a format.

“Newcomers aren’t jaded yet. They’re fresh in their expression. That’s been a secret joy of this, seeing those new people having that juice,” Brain said.

V, a comedian, right, is greeted and introduced by Jerome Anderson, at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana.
V, a comedian, right, is greeted and introduced by Jerome Anderson, at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana. Anderson supports the artists and cheers them on and takes surprisingly delicate care with their dreams.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Anderson came to Los Angeles from Cleveland seven years ago with his own dream of becoming an actor. In Ohio he worked in advertising and marketing, but his real passion was in local theater productions. After his kids went off to college, he decided to pursue his dreams in Hollywood — or more specifically, Pasadena, where his first job was.

He lives in Encino now, and his dreams have evolved. One night, he made the mistake of wearing a fedora to a jazz and blues night at the bar. Everyone assumed he was a musician, and he decided to go with it. Now he sings and raps with a number of local jazz bands in the San Fernando Valley.

As for his Hollywood ambitions?

“Actually, I can’t remember the last time I made it over the hills,” Anderson said.

Some of the acts performing at the open mic have gone mainstream. Sandra North, a country singer from Sweden, used to perform at Soapbox Sessions and has released a few successful albums and EPs. Singer-songwriter Sam Stacy performed as a contestant on “The Voice” and got three out of the four judges to turn their chairs around.

Stacy moved to Los Angeles from Lincoln, Neb., four years ago to pursue music, and the open mic scene was a welcome break from the transactional relationships common in the music scene. He went to eight open mics a week during his first few months in L.A.

“It’s a lot more genuine,” Stacy said. “Not like other events, where you’re meeting an exec and it’s more about, how can you help me, how can I help you?”

But talented or not, famous or obscure, everyone gets the same respect from one another at the open mic. They cheer and watch one another’s acts with rapt attention. And in their support for one another, I finally find the wholesome alternative to City Hall toxicity that I was looking for.

“We’re all up there on the same stage. So we try and just sort of spread that feeling of ‘everybody’s welcome here,’” Anderson said.

Jerome Anderson introduces a performer at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana.
Jerome Anderson introduces a performer at the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon in Tarzana.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“I am an angel with a broken wing,” sings a woman in a thin, quavering voice. Her eyes are closed as she grips the mic. It’s clear she does not hear or care about the pool balls clacking against one another just a few feet away from the stage.

Another comedian’s Sylvester Stallone impression borrows a lot from his Robert De Niro impression, but he gets a laugh anyway, and people congratulate him when he gets off stage.

When two members of country and alt-rock band Trucker Bomb take the stage, the bar is getting crowded, and most people seem to be on the third or fourth drink.

Lead singer Troy Richardson is handsome in an aging rocker kind of way, close-cropped silver hair over intense eyes and earrings, like a truck-stop version of Sting. When a bar patron misses a shot at the pool table and shouts a curse word, Richardson gets distracted and the song, an acoustic ballad, wavers a bit.

But then he catches the eye of his partner, Ursula Lari, and they break out into laughing smiles and the song picks itself up. You can tell they’re in love. He dedicates the next song to her, and tells the crowd that he wrote it for her, even if he wrote it 10 years ago for another woman.

Harry Perry, the famous Venice beach musician who plays on roller skates and dresses like a yogi, takes the stage a few acts later. He’s the headline act, and the bar is packed by this point.

He reels off guitar solo after guitar solo, skates jigging to the beat, and by the end of the show, I’m convinced that no one has ever rocked a Tuesday night open mic in Tarzana harder.