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Entertainment & Arts

From the Archives: Echo of laughter: As her sons try to revive her fabled club, has Mitzi Shore become the Norma Desmond of comedy?

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Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with sons Peter, left, and Pauly, right in 1986.
(The Comedy Store)

Mitzi Shore, the legendary owner of Los Angeles’ Comedy Store, died Wednesday at age 87. Below is a June 22, 2003, profile from The Times about Shore and her sons, who were trying to revive her comedy club.

Pauly Shore emerged from his childhood home. It was a Sunday afternoon, the time of the week when a good son goes to see his aging mother.

For the record:
3:25 PM, Apr. 11, 2018 This article has been updated to include the full, original version of the story.

“I just fed her,” he said.

Inside, in her den, was Mitzi Shore. Mitzi Shore, who was friends with Lenny Bruce’s mother. Mitzi Shore, who married a comedian (Sammy Shore) and divorced a comedian but not before giving birth to a comedian (Pauly). Mitzi Shore, who says a comedian (Shecky Greene) helped her secure a business loan when she got the Comedy Store in the divorce from Sammy.

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Mitzi Shore, whose whole life has been comedians: having affairs with them, mothering them, partying with them, housing them, feeding them, giving them breaks, not paying them, alienating them, never speaking to them again. Richard Pryor and Robin Williams spent late nights in her den, Letterman baby-sat her kids. Leno slept on the back stairs at her club, where Jim Carrey would later be one of her doormen.

The Comedy Store — it has defined Mitzi Shore’s self-image and continues to. She was off in the wings, all-powerful, during a remarkably fertile time for stand-up comedy — the 1970s and early ‘80s — when many of today’s comedy stars showed up in L.A. to go onstage at the only place that mattered.

But it has been years (decades, really) since the entertainment industry hung out at the Store, since the words “Letterman’s on” were heard in the alley or Sam Kinison bellowed at defenseless patrons late into the night.

Today, the Comedy Store is a functioning Sunset Strip relic, that black building you notice as you hunt for parking across the street at the House of Blues or the Mondrian’s Skybar.

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Mitzi Shore is still here too, still making out the lineup as in the days when the names were Saget and Shandling and Gallagher. But she does it from her den. She has borrowed money against her house and the club in recent years to keep the Comedy Store going. Various club comedians-runners come up to the mansion, but now their names are Duncan and LeMaire.

Fragile and reduced, with tremors in her hands, Shore — age unclear, perhaps 72 — lives stubbornly alone in a mansion above Sunset Boulevard that was owned by 1940s screen star Dorothy Lamour. The house is the other piece of prize real estate she got in the divorce from Sammy. Art Nouveau flourishes in the entry hall and dining room suggest its fading grandeur.

On a guided tour of the upstairs, Pauly Shore shows me his old room, his mom’s master bedroom. He flips switches in rooms where the lights don’t come on.

He is a 35-year-old ex-comedy star, trying to revive the fame that began with MTV’s “Totally Pauly” and continued through much of the 1990s thanks to a series of dumb and dumber movies, beginning with “Encino Man.”

Last year, according to Pauly and his older brother, Peter, Mitzi Shore fell at home and was knocked unconscious. It was around this time, they say, that they decided to intervene in the operation of the club.

Peter, 37, says he has been streamlining the business operation, while Pauly makes phone calls, wrangling big names, trying to get “a vibe” going again.

He has gotten Eddie Griffin to do a night, and Bill Maher, and the Smothers Brothers played a three-night engagement last month. A new general manager is being hired, the Shores say.

Pauly being Pauly, he is also trying to turn the experience to his advantage, pitching Hollywood on a reality show called “The Store” — a version of the MTV hit “The Osbournes” but starring Pauly as “Pauly,” dating three women and hanging out with celebrity friends while acting as “CEO” of the Comedy Store.

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Shore’s former heavy-metal hair is short now and creeping up his scalp; he lives in an attractive one-story house “up Nichols,” meaning at the top of Nichols Canyon.

He tools around L.A. in his Cadillac Escalade truck, looking for his career, betraying in conversation both a sweet side and the unexamined privilege with which he has lived most of his life.

Somewhere in there, beneath the show he is pitching and the Hollywood hyperbole he utters, is a powerful story: the relationship between a show business mother and the only one of her four kids who became that thing she loves — a comic.

“He’s a good kid, Pauly,” Mitzi said of her youngest son. “I just let him go. I let him die [onstage]. I didn’t cater to him. He did it all on his own, Pauly.”

“Maybe if I wouldn’t have made it or become successful, we maybe wouldn’t have been as close,” Pauly said one day. Is that a mother’s love? Who knows, but it is Mitzi Shore’s love.

At home with the Shores

Sunday in Mitzi Shore’s den. It is early April, Fox News screaming bulletins about the war in Iraq. Pauly has “just fed” his mother — shrimp in lobster sauce from Chin Chin. Peter arrives, with his wife, Vita, and their baby daughter, Lola. The saving of Pvt. Jessica Lynch from a Baghdad hospital is a hot story. Pauly wonders aloud, how long before Lynch poses in Playboy?

His mother is sitting in a lounger with a hand-held massager. The den has a full bar. It is where Mitzi and the comics hung into the morning — some to watch their first “Tonight Show” sets, others to drink and drug.

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In photographs about the house and in the offices of the Comedy Store, Mitzi Shore is an attractive brunet; she reminds you a little of Elaine May, with Jewish-mother good looks. The comedians made fun of her squeaky voice, her frizzy hair.

She has aged noticeably, a proud woman betrayed by her declining health, which she calls “a nervous condition.” She’s had surgery to relieve an aneurysm in her brain. Among the mass of medications in the next room is one marked “pills for hair.” If Pauly sells “The Store,” he figures his mother would co-star as a disembodied voice

“She crawls her way or stumbles or whatever to the fridge,” Pauly said. “She doesn’t want anyone there. I mean, last night I finally had a conversation with her, and she finally agreed last night, because she’s mentally fine, even though she’s Mitzi Shore — I mean Mitzi Shore’s a little nuts, everyone that knows her knows that — but mentally she’s actually sharp, when she’s on, she’s still that same person. So legally they can’t take her away.”

She was a housewife who became a power broker. She did it by playing “the den mother of some berserk Cub Scout pack,” as Letterman once said.

Mitzi Lee Saidel met Sammy Shore in 1950 at Pine Point Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Mitzi was 21 at the time, “sweet, Jewish, not pretty, but built nice, from Green Bay,” according to “The Warm-Up,” Sammy Shore’s autobiography. Mitzi was working for the resort’s owner, where Sammy was a social director and fledgling road comic (his claim to fame eventually would be that he opened for Elvis Presley).

She got pregnant with their oldest child, Scott, and thus began their less-than-fabulous union — Sammy Shore working the road and forever hunting down shiksa goddesses, Mitzi at home, the wife of a comic. Her father, she says, was a traveling salesman, often gone. Mitzi and Sammy had four children (Scott, today a real estate investor in San Diego; Sandy, who books entertainment at Indian casinos around Palm Springs; and Peter and Pauly).

By the time they divorced in 1974, however, it was the Comedy Store that became their contested child.

Mitzi and Sammy’s baby

It began in 1972, when Sammy put on a comedy show in a cocktail lounge at a nightclub that had formerly been home to the legendary club Ciro’s.

Mitzi named the place. To this day, Sammy Shore says he gave Mitzi the Comedy Store in the divorce agreement to lower his alimony payments. Sammy Shore is now remarried — to a woman, he boasts, who is a former Miss Alabama. At 76, he lives in a Marina del Rey condo, working out at Gold’s Gym. Atop his improbable head of curly hair he lately wears a hat that says: “The Man Who Made Elvis Laugh.”

Sammy Shore still works: He will open for comedian Jeff Garlin at the Comedy Store on July 11 and 12. But he and Mitzi don’t speak, ex-husband and ex-wife say.

Giving Mitzi the Comedy Store sealed Sammy’s fate as “the guy who gave away the Store.” But at the time, comedy clubs were hardly the commercialized enterprises they are today. Comics played Vegas showrooms and big-city nightclubs. What Mitzi Shore did, then, was to create the ultimate showplace for comics, with the Vegas-style Main Room for headliners, the Original Room for up-and-comers, and later the Belly Room, upstairs, for women.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. A new generation of stars was coming of age, and there was a seismic shift in the stand-up scene from New York to Los Angeles, prompted in large part by Johnny Carson’s decision to move “The Tonight Show” from New York to Burbank, in 1972. Suddenly, Los Angeles was the place to be, and the place to be seen in Los Angeles (practically the only comedy club) was the Comedy Store.

She called it an artists colony (she still does), a kind of frat house for aspiring comics, run by this permissive, eccentric woman.

So enticing was her stage that Shore did not pay her young comics to perform — she put them to work around her house or as doormen at the club, where Carson scouts, TV producers and celebrities might drop in.

By the late ‘70s, Shore had opened a Comedy Store West, in Westwood. She would later open a Comedy Store in La Jolla, with condos where the comics stayed, and one at the old Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.

On a given weekend in Los Angeles, it was possible that Letterman or Leno was working the Original Room, Pryor (rambling, in preparation for an album) or Jimmie Walker or George Carlin were onstage in the Main Room, while Garry Shandling, Bob Saget and Howie Mandel were working out in Westwood, where an unknown, Sam Kinison, was helping Mitzi run the room.

“Their inspirations and aspirations were at the Comedy Store, so she had control over everybody,” said comic John Witherspoon, who opened for Pryor regularly. It was a relationship based on mutual need. She needed them in order to be Mitzi Shore, and they needed her to become famous. At the club, she was a fixture in a back booth, or up in her office. Scott and Sandy were out of the house, but Peter and Pauly were kids. Recounting their childhoods, they describe a world in which comics filled in the places where parents might have been. Letterman took them to Little League; Gallagher picked them up from school, they say. Mitzi’s longer-term boyfriends-- Steve Landesburg for a time, later Argus Hamilton — played at surrogate fatherhood. When Shore decided she wanted the boys to go to Beverly Hills schools, she purchased a smaller home within the city’s limits and installed two of her comics — Steve Moore and Lois Bromfield — to live there as guardians, in case anyone official showed up, mother and sons say.

It all sounds rather far-fetched, a way for two children of show business privilege to rationalize what their family life lacked, growing up. An absentee father, a mother who most often could be found at the club — whose surrogate sons and nephews and lovers could come before her biological children.

“We were all accidents,” Pauly Shore said of he and his siblings, more than once.

Misty, musty memories

Jim Brogan, who emceed regularly at the Comedy Store in the 1980s, recalled looking at the lineup before going up for the very first time in the Original Room, in 1979. It looked like this: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Elayne Boosler, Richard Lewis and Jimmie Walker.

A few months ago, I went to the Comedy Store on a Saturday night, spending $10 to park down the block, behind a Pink Dot store. There were maybe 100 people in the Main Room — out-of-towners, most likely, for the comedians on the bill were hardly fresh faces. They included topical humorist Hamilton, whose relationship with both the Comedy Store and Mitzi Shore spans decades. He was followed by Jeff Altman, a comic from the Store’s golden years, and John Caponera, another veteran.

Later, in the Original Room, a half-dozen forgettable young acts were followed by Joe Rogan of “Fear Factor” fame. He did a polished 45 minutes, trying to channel Lenny Bruce on sex and women but coming off smug, all ego.

Their mother would never sell the club, her sons say. (Shore owns not only the Comedy Store but the land on which it sits, in addition to a home behind the club, where Peter, who is studying to be a psychologist, lives with his family.)

Selling the Comedy Store would be tantamount to canceling herself out, and besides, it’s not as if the place has undergone major renovation: The roof leaks, Peter says, and the offices and stairways have the musty aura of neglect (though the club was always dark and is said to be haunted).

“We’re trying to get the club to become self-sufficient,” Peter Shore said. “I’m a presence there, Pauly’s a presence there, so stuff can get done now.”

Public records show that, in recent years, the Comedy Store has had persistent problems with delinquency on tax and mortgage payments, with Dun & Bradstreet, which issues credit appraisals, giving the club a credit rating of “fair” in part because of “the open suits, liens or judgments in D&B’s file.”

Getting the club hot again, Pauly’s job, will be difficult. Some of his ideas are specific (having an alternative comedy night in the Belly Room), while others are farcical (turning the place into a comedy club/hotel, with front desk people who tell jokes).

The Original Room is open all week, but the 360-seat Main Room sits empty most nights. The entertainment industry — in addition to the top comics — have long since decamped to the Melrose Improv and Laugh Factory as hangouts.

Various factors conspired over the years to push Mitzi Shore and the Comedy Store off the map. In the 1980s, on the heels of a phenomenon she helped stoke, comedy clubs became nationwide franchises, enabling fledgling comedians to get valuable stage time without packing their bags for L.A. (e.g. Detroit comic Tim Allen). “Cosby” arrived in 1984, and the new hunger for sitcoms sucked up much of the talent pool. Shore lost her best comics to their careers and to the talent managers who usurped her influence in those careers. On TV, Roseanne hit, then Seinfeld, out of New York. The goal was no longer to work up to your first “Tonight Show” spot at Mitzi’s place. It was to do stand-up long enough to develop a gimmick and land a well-connected manager, who in turn could get you on TV or in the movies.

The 1990s continued the trend of commercialization. Cable television discovered stand-up as a cheap form of programming and suddenly gave audiences less reason to go to a club. By then, the business was already passing Shore’s “artist colony” notions by. Her chief competitor, the Improv’s Budd Friedman, had not only gotten “An Evening at the Improv” on television, he’d franchised his clubs across the country, out-branding the original brand, the Comedy Store.

What role Shore’s personality played in the decline of the Comedy Store is an old subject of debate among the comedians who knew her when. Some say comics would have shown more loyalty had she taken their success as less of a personal affront. Others contend the Store could have continued to grow had she played well with others — principally, the television producers who increasingly sniffed around comics and comedy clubs in the 1980s and ‘90s. HBO taped numerous young comedians’ specials at the Store, then took its business elsewhere.

What’s left is a stark picture: Jim Carrey gets $20 million to make a movie, and Mitzi Shore sits in her big house alone. Mitzi and her memories. Mitzi and the lineup.

A key event in 1979

You have to remember that she had Letterman emceeing several times a week, Pryor rehearsing his albums. She had Michael Keaton, Gabe Kaplan and Sandra Bernhard. She had Leno, newly arrived in L.A., take a cab from the airport and show up at the Store, where he slept on the back stairs for a few nights.

“You were either Mitzi’s son, nephew or lover,” Bob Saget said over lunch one day. Saget was one of the chosen ones.

“You’d call in on Monday or Tuesday for spots,” Saget said. “Mitzi was all. If you didn’t get a spot one week, or got [bad] ones, you wondered what you’d done” to upset Mitzi.

Was she a keen observer of talent or a club owner in the right place at the right time? Said Leno: “She should get a lot of credit. If something happens on your watch, you get the credit for it.”

Many place the beginning of the shift during a five-week period in 1979, when comics staged a work stoppage in front of the Comedy Store.

For all the breaks Shore made for her comics in the 1970s, for all the rents that she covered and dinners she gave, in those days she was not paying them (though neither was the Improv’s Friedman). Paying them would make them employees, would spoil the bohemian clubhouse atmosphere, she felt. This worked as long as the comics remained dreamy and green, but soon their attitude changed. They saw her paying name headliners to work the Main Room and wanted a similar share when they performed to packed houses. They saw her refusal to pay them in the Original Room as further proof of her nutty intransigence. What was $10 or $20 but a token, a gesture?

So they went on strike, picketing the Comedy Store like aggrieved auto workers.

The subject still gets Mitzi Shore going.

“I won the contest, but I made it that they won,” she said. “I paid ‘em.... That movie should be done. ‘Cause I was about like Ruth, being stoned to death. I didn’t deserve what they did to me.”

In fighting the strike, she believes, she was fighting for stand-up comedy as a “higher form of the arts,” the comedians “independent contractors.” Paying them would corrupt the process.

Not everyone left after the strike. But Shore and Friedman, the interloper, went to war. Comics, it was said, could work one club but not the other. A third club opened, the Laugh Factory, east of Mitzi on Sunset.

In the 1980s, a different kind of comedian came to define the Store — raunchier, darker acts like Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. The club could still get stars onstage — Eddie Murphy, out from New York, and Pryor, in addition to emerging females, including a young Whoopi Goldberg.

But the tone of the place changed, some say. In his book “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” comedian Marc Maron describes his cocaine-infused experience as a comic there in the ‘80s, with Kinison, who would die in a 1992 auto accident, the Muse of the place. Maron had arrived in L.A. after graduating from Boston University.

“These weren’t the young, shiny, upper-middle-class white kids I knew in college.... My new friends were the dignitaries of Hollywood’s underbelly: Satanists, porn stars, hustlers, pirates — actual pirates — wannabes of all kinds.”

Maron lived in a kind of comedian’s flophouse that Shore owned in the Hollywood Hills. Kinison commandeered out-of-control parties, his presence larger than life at Mitzi’s club as well.

Says one comedian who went back to the club in the 1980s after years away: “Kinison is there with his guns, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be there when this place gets raided.’ It used to be the greatest place in the world.”

The calls don’t come

The comedians who became famous don’t call, and so Mitzi Shore doesn’t call them either. Though Shandling sent her flowers recently.

“Just ‘cause he loves me,” Shore said. “I have flowers all over the house from him.... He’s so genteel.”

She says she does not watch Letterman “ ‘cause I don’t think he’s funny.” She last spoke to him after his quintuple bypass surgery three years ago. “It wasn’t a big conversation. He’s not that way. However, he did say one kind thing to me once. And that was when I visited him in New York.” Letterman, at the time, was still at NBC. “He brought me into his offices and introduced me to all the people that worked there with him, and said: ‘If it wasn’t for this lady, you would not have a job.’ That’s what he said. That made me feel good.”

Both Shandling and Letterman declined to be interviewed for this article. Leno got on the phone a few hours before taping a “Tonight Show” and offered praise: “I liked the fact that she had a club, that she’s a woman, [and] you’re in an extremely harsh business,” he said.

Shore seems to be under the impression that Pauly is getting them all to come back. “It’s really nice now that Pauly is bringing back these headliners,” she said. “ ‘Cause they all started at the Store, so they were kind enough to come back. They all started at the Store, including Chris Rock.”

Caring about his mother, it turns out, is a job for which Pauly Shore shows some facility. He takes her to the movies, out for a drive. He got in the middle of it recently when Roseanne wanted to tape an appearance at the Comedy Store for her new reality show and Mitzi had issues.

Unfortunately, no one is filming this, and Pauly Shore wants nothing more than to be filmed. “Totally Pauly” was over a decade ago — you might call him a godfather of shameless televised self-absorption. He was the Weasel — grungy, sex-crazed. He made six movies. He was a pox on comedy, but for a while there he was a good kind of pox, one who brought teenagers into the theater. He could have examined his comedic instincts, but the privileged Beverly Hills boy chose instead to examine his privilege.

Now, professionally chastened, newly therapized thanks to LifeSpring, an est-like self-help program, Pauly Shore schemes ways back into the magic kingdom. He has some ideas on his fridge: a remake of “Dog Day Afternoon,” for instance, but set in a Hooters. He made a movie, “You’ll Never Wiez in This Town Again,” starring as himself, as Pauly Shore who’s so reviled that he fakes his own death to revive his career. He’s taken it to festivals. So far, there are no buyers.

He does the road to make money, playing small colleges and clubs in the Midwest. And last week, Shore went to MTV and to E! Entertainment Television, pitching “The Store.” He was accompanied by a manager from Three Arts Entertainment, an agent from Endeavor, and Michael Bloom, his producer.

At E!, which has seen “Anna Nicole,” the reality series starring former model Anna Nicole Smith, flicker and die, Shore told the executives: “I would guarantee you a lot of familiar faces — A-list and D-list. I’m friends with a lot of actors.”

The show he pitched might have been called “Actually Pauly,” with family strife alongside the harem of hotties. He compared “The Store” to the movie “Barbershop,” saying, “Everyone relates to the family business.”

Even though E! had aired a special on the Comedy Store, the executives seemed dimly aware of the club’s history. But they expressed interest — in who had played there and who Mitzi Shore is, was. One of the executives said she’d once been a waitress at the Store. Briefly, a long time ago. Mitzi fired her after a week.

“My mom isn’t doing great,” Pauly told them. He went on pitching. He promised old footage of Pryor, total access when he attended the Midsummer Night’s Dream party at the Playboy Mansion.

“It’s like having ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ but with a legitimate host,” joked Bloom, the producer.

Said Pauly: “I want it to have layers.”

Vicki Gallay of The Times’ editorial library contributed to this story.


UPDATES:

3:32 p.m.: This article was updated to include the complete, original story. This article was originally published at noon June 22, 2003.


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