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The Ice House reopens in Pasadena with laughs, lofty goals and Lakers magic

A man and a woman smile while standing next to a neon sign saying The Ice House Pasadena
The country’s oldest comedy club, the Ice House, is being resurrected under new owner Johnny Buss, left, and club general manager Penny Toler. The club got a complete overhaul after sitting dormant for years.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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A new era for the Ice House is coming in hot.

This weekend the 63-year-old Pasadena comedy club, revered as the oldest in the country, is reopening three years after being snowed in by the pandemic. But it’s definitely not the same club its customers remember when it closed its doors.

The location, 24 N. Mentor Ave., hasn’t changed, but walking through its new glass doors is like entering a place that’s transformed from a dusty piece of coal into a frosty diamond. A new gargantuan polar bear statue — destined to be a selfie magnet — sits across from a brand new “Welcome to the Ice House” mural behind the mirrored glass of a glitzy merch booth and a neon sign featuring the club’s old-school polar bear mascot holding a microphone.

Throughout the brick building in downtown Pasadena, vintage and modern flourishes demand attention like stylistic punchlines. The glowing stalactite chandeliers, electric neon art of cacti, waves and sun punctuate the walls of the California Room, the venue’s second stage. Guests pass through the red-brick walls of the revamped bar and patio area into the revived main room. Despite the club’s new mainstage set up, dubbed the Legendary Room, it still retains an intimate vibe where stand-up idols and up-and-comers have thrived on the raw energy and laughter of a working class clientele. Once again the building is outfitted with mics in the ceiling to capture the roar of one of L.A.’s loudest laughing crowds. It’s a sound new owner Johnny Buss — the oldest son of the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss — has been waiting to hear since he bought the place in 2019.

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“I’ve got to make sure the fans have a nice place to sit and enjoy comedy,” Buss said. “It’s not all about making it cushy for the performer. It’s about making it really nice for the audience... that’s what my dad did with the Lakers.”

Holding himself to a higher standard because of his father is nothing new to Buss, who grew up in the midst of one of the world’s greatest sports dynasties. His father’s notoriously outside-the-box methods of running a team made him a genius and impossible to predict. Jerry was also a huge fan of comedy. A regular at the Comedy Store, the Improv and the Laugh Factory, Johnny said he and his dad always talked about opening their own club together before Jerry’s death in 2013 at 80.

“He’d say, ‘Hey, you know what, “I think you gotta see this magician. He’s so good. He would be great in our club,” Johnny remembers. “I’d go, ‘OK, well, we don’t even have a club but I’ll go check him out… We literally talked about it for 40 years and never did it together.”

 Los Angeles Lakers Earvin "Magic" Johnson hugs team owner Jerry Buss in the locker room
Los Angeles Lakers Earvin “Magic” Johnson hugs team owner Jerry Buss in the locker room after they won the 1980 NBA championship against the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia on May 16, 1980.
(Gene Puskar / Associated Press)

By the time Johnny stepped down as president of the L.A. Sparks in 2006 — a team he’d helped build into a winning franchise in the WNBA — Jerry’s health had already started declining. After his father’s death, Buss said he didn’t want to think about opening a club anymore. “There’s no way I was going to do that without him,” he said. He shifted away from sports, bought race cars and trucks and started getting into the business of off-road racing.

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Finally, burnt out on sports and other ventures before the pandemic, Buss decided to revive the comedy club dream, buying the Ice House in 2019 from longtime owner Bob Fisher, who was retiring. The club sat in limbo until recently — during which time Buss’ mother, JoAnn Mueller, also passed away, before the club reopened. But over the last several months, the club has finally finished its long-awaited reshaping and is ready to turn the lights back on.

“The obligation to do it right was immense,” Buss said of the historic club. “I told myself, ‘Hey, look, you’re in the comedy family now. Take all of your experience over the last 40 years in sports and bring it to the Ice House and you’ll be successful ... that’s what I tell myself every morning.”

Man sits down on polar bear statue with woman leaning against it
The Ice House owner Johnny Buss and club general manager Penny Toler hang out by a polar bear statue at the comedy club in Pasadena.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Though the Ice House is known as a place for comedy, it was also a stage where folk acts, magicians and other performers wielded wands and banjos, honing their craft in the ‘60s and ‘70s before stand-up emerged as the entertainment of choice. With the club’s revival, Buss says live music and other events will play a role in the monthly bookings including jazz, reggae and country nights.

“There’s enough little niches that I think will draw people in,” Buss says. “And it’s not all about the entertainment, it’s also about the ambiance of the building. When you show up here, it’s going to be really good food, really good cocktails, and by the way, you get a show.”

Even as the oldest heir to the Buss legacy, Johnny knew he couldn’t overhaul the club by himself. Falling back on his WNBA past, the first choice for a second in command was former L.A. Sparks point guard and general manager Penny Toler.

As an original draft pick for the Sparks when the team started in 1997, Toler was the first player to score a basket in WNBA history. After Buss hired her as general manager of the team years later, she assembled the roster that led the Sparks to a championship victory in 2001. For all the years she was involved in the WNBA, Toler says she and Buss always had a great working relationship that allowed her to grow in her career.

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“But I don’t know anything about a club, I’ve never managed a club,” she told Buss over the phone when he first offered her the job. “But Johnny said, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be hard for you, all your skills would translate over here… and he said, ‘More importantly, I trust you.” To learn more about the bar side of the business, Buss also offered to pay for her to go to bartending school to learn about booze (to this day, Toler doesn’t smoke or drink).

Man and woman sit in red lounge chairs in a wood paneled room
The Ice House owner Johnny Buss and club general manager Penny Toler relax in one of the rooms at the comedy club in Pasadena.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

When it turned out her previous plan as a basketball executive to acquire an NBA team fell through, Buss called her shortly afterward. “What are you doing right now?” he asked. She said, “I’m at bartending class.”

Since being hired as general manager of the Ice House, Toler sees the world of comedy clubs and sports franchises as synonymous when it comes to bringing in sponsorships, succeeding at marketing and acquiring talent.

“It’s a little easier for me with the club because the Ice House has a legendary history. My phone rings off the hook when people want to perform,” Toler said.

Though Buss and Toler believe that the entertainment business is all about the fans, it’s also the club’s duty to take care of the comics. It’s one of the things she takes pride in on a recent afternoon as she walks comedian Suli McCullough (known on the big screen for his role as Crazy Legs in “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”) through the club on a tour of the revived venue.

Getting his start as an L.A. stand-up decades ago, McCullough remembers gravitating toward the Pasadena club, working his way from the open mics to the main room before beginning his acting career. Later he became a writer for the Oscars and the ESPY Awards. He’ll be one of the many comics coming to the stage opening weekend with the first installment of his monthly showcase, “Crazy Legs and Friends,” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

“I’m really excited about what this club’s gonna be,” he said. “I think it’s gonna have a dope lounge feel. You never know who’s gonna show up and big people are gonna feel comfortable coming out to Pasadena, getting on stage and getting down.” That theory will be tested in a major way when one of the club’s biggest breakout stars, Gabriel Iglesias — who now sells out stadiums for a living — hits the stage March 24.

A man and woman pose behind reflective glass with a lighted chandelier in the background
Ice House owner Johnny Buss and club general manager Penny Toler bring their basketball world experience to the comedy club circuit. Toler sees the world of comedy clubs and sports franchises as synonymous when it comes to sponsorships, marketing and acquiring talent.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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For Buss, giving a place for new and up-and-coming comics as well as veterans like Chris Rock, Ali Wong or Bill Burr to perform and work out material is the main asset for the club circuit in an era where big performers are able to get theater shows and streaming specials like never before. It’s also a place where he dreams of discovering the next big star.

“For me personally I’d like to try to find the next young comic and groom them here,” Buss said. “For every famous comic, there’s 10 that are trying to break into the business. So that means there’s probably 100 really good comics out there that haven’t even shown their stuff yet.”

Though it’s always served its purpose as a training ground, the Ice House is also going to be a place where stars can mingle while they watch famous funny people perform. That’s where the club’s secret crown jewel, the newly built VIP lounge, comes into play.

Fashioned after the Lakers’ Chairman’s Room at the Kia Forum, the swanky private spot at the back of the Legendary Room is awash with classy crimson vibes. A giant chandelier anchors the lounge with plush couches, vintage chairs and top-shelf liquor where celebrities who sneak in can enjoy the headlining show through reflective glass and surround sound without being hassled. There’s even a private smoking room within the VIP lounge where Dave Chappelle might occasionally pop in to light a cigar.

For Margaret Cho, the club’s first big headliner to perform Thursday night, the details in a comedy club make the comic’s experience and the fan experience feel like they’re being taken seriously.

“I really appreciate when you actually make the experience more of an upscale one for comedians and also audiences because comedy now has become a very elevated art form,” Cho said. “So we need venues that we perform at to match that and I think that’s happening with the Ice House.”

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Man sits in the main showroom of a comedy club
“I’ve got to make sure the fans have a nice place to sit and enjoy comedy,” said Ice House owner Johnny Buss, the oldest son of the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “It’s about making it really nice for the audience... that’s what my dad did with the Lakers.”
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Since she became the club’s general manager, Toler’s been regaled by every comic she meets about stories of the club from back in the day. These tales keep motivating her to ensure that the club spends the necessary seven figures to upgrade itself without selling its soul in the process.

“We’re changing [the club] but we’re not changing its legacy,” Toler said. ”We kept everything that we could of the original Ice House… so you may see those little imperfections. Could we have fixed them? Yes, we could have but we didn’t want to. We wanted the Ice House to have its history.”

Sitting in his designated booth at the back of the Legendary Room, Buss says he can’t wait to enjoy a show with the spirit of his favorite comedy fan right beside him.

“I think it’s something that I’m going to be very proud of and my father would have been extremely proud of what I’ve done,” Buss said. “I think he’s right there with me.”

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