“Who doesn’t want a combination lint brush-shoe horn for Father’s Day? Woo-hoo! Makes me want to put some shoes on!” says comedian Randy Lubas sarcastically to a crowd rolling with laughter on the opening night of his new club, the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club.
Teaming up with another national headliner, Andres Fernandez, the duo purchased the nightclub — formerly Comedy Esquire — closing escrow only a day before the July 18 show.
Fernandez and Lubas have a total of 50 years experience in the field of comedy, and plan on keeping the club, best known for its 20 -plus year stint as Hornblower’s, a fixture in the community.
“The key thing is that we produce a PG-13 show, which is a large degree of our success,” Lubas says. “We intend on tripling the business of Comedy Esquire.”
Lubas has also owned and operated a comedy club in Valencia for the past 10 years and put together shows on Friday nights at Yankee Doodles in Simi Valley for the last four months. He has had a presence in Simi Valley for the last year and understands the area. Lubas has done a string of radio shows throughout the country and been featured on the syndicated Bob and Tom Show as well as the legendary Dr. Demento Show.
Fernandez has been working the circuit for two decades, and continues to go on the road building his career. He will be working at the Tropicana in Las Vegas at the end of the month. He was born and raised in New York and has formed friendships with such famous comedians as Ray Romano and Kevin James. He came to Los Angeles 10 years ago to work on a sitcom that was not picked up. But because of that opportunity, Fernandez fell in love with California, and has never left.
Lubas is confident their experience in the industry coupled with running his other club successfully will help build up the clientele and make it a hotspot in the harbor. He said the duos shared love for comedy, making people laugh and being successful at it puts them in a good position to keep the club on its legs.
“I promise you it will keep going,” Fernandez says. “We already got reservations coming in for this weekend.”
Fernandez, who performed at Hornblower’s when it was still in business, says he wasn’t sure if the new club had already garnered a good reputation from their opening weekend or if the radio promotions has people booking in advance, but he is glad they have at least made an impression on the residents of Ventura County.
But the tale of what happened to Comedy Esquire still seems be shrouded mystery. Even though the Web site remains up, listing Lubas and Fernandez as the headliners for the weekend of July 18, everyone has been pretty tightlipped about why it closed.
After the decline of Hornblower’s and the connection between the restaurant and the comedy club was blocked by a wall, nearly a year later, the owners for Comedy Esquire renovated the spot and had high hopes for the venue. But after a short stint of no more than a couple years, the club went out of business.
Lubas and Fernandez hope their connections in the business — including booking such acts in the next couple of months as actor-comedian Shawn Wayans and Three Blonde Moms — will keep their patrons coming back.
The Ventura Harbor Comedy Club official grand opening is scheduled for Aug. 8-10.
It is Saturday night and all the seats that had been set before the stage are full, even though several dozen chairs remained stacked in the back.
Two of the six members of the improv team, on guitar and harmonica, set the stage with an R&B act. The audience settles down as the music plays, the lights dim and the rest of the team hits the stage.
Enter four people to join their colleagues, plus the host and the point counter. The energy is high, the audience is excited.
“So I hear there is a birthday in the crowd,” the host announces. “Let’s all stand up and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Dave.”
The crowd stands with the improv team, hands over their hearts, and serenades the guest of honor. The audience giggles, not sure why their hands are over their hearts, but after the unusual introduction, the show begins.
The six team members are then split into two groups, and thus the show proceeds with a dozen or so acts, to be ranked by the audience between one and five, five being the highest. Of the dozen skits, about 10 ranked a four or a five as indicated by the roaring laughter.
“I love it,” says Dayle Dolginer, vacationing from West Los Angeles. “I think it is really creative and intelligent comedy. We were just walking by and remembered it was here. We are so happy to be here.”
Although the laughter seems uncontrollable, behind the scenes the iconic comedy club, which has been around for nearly 19 years, has been having financial difficulty.
Tom Mueller, founder and director of Ventura Improv Company (formerly Ventura Area Theater Sports) says although he has little overhead, since the club members participate voluntarily, and he doesn’t have to pay for royalties like other theaters, the club and the venue aren’t bringing in enough money.
“This is pretty bad,” Mueller says. “We are aware of it, but we’re just not sure what we can do about it.”
Mueller has owned the lease on the venue for more than a decade, but recently the amount of people who used to rent from him for special events dropped off, reducing the amount of income to keep the show around.
He also says his show has seen smaller audiences recently, averaging between 20 and 40 a night.
“We are the only improv [club] in the city of Ventura,” Mueller says. “I am worried for the first time.”
Mueller says he does not see the closure of Ventura Improv Company in the near future, but he needs to find alternative funding sources. He says he even tried a public marketing push, but nothing changed.
Ideally, he says, he would be OK if he could rent out the building a couple more nights to bring in the extra cash needed to keep his show around and that he would try for a grant, although his efforts were deemed futile the last time he applied.
Dolginer and other guests at the show say it would be a tragedy if the improv was no longer around.
Mueller says if anyone has any suggestions to contact him at the club.
When young comedian and entrepreneur Daryl Rummens asked Jesse Ching, long-time manager for the Sportsman, what he thought about turning the bar and restaurant into a comedy club on Friday and Saturday nights, Ching jumped onboard.
Rummens and Ching decided to block off a portion of the bar and the restaurant, thus spawning 805 Comedy.
Two years later, the show still rounds up about 40 to 50 people per night.
“It has definitely been an improvement in the long run,” Ching says. “It has helped with business. People come and listen, have a few appetizers and drinks. They are buying faster, serving alcohol during the comedy hour. Some people even come a little early and get a couple of drinks.”
Rummens, 26, organizes the show, contracts the talent and performs at the show. Although he has tried to do other shows, including most recently a show at Nicholby’s, which dwindled down from 45 guests to only five in a month and a half, the Sportsman venue has been deemed a success.
“Right now I am just focusing on the Camarillo venue,” Rummens says.