It was 1978 and the Great Disco Scare had descended on San Francisco. I was new in town, a little lost, working two awful jobs and living in the Haight, which was seedy and long past its glory days. It was kind of a gloomy time for me, and I was sorely in need of a laugh.
Then a beacon shone from afar, at the corner of Cole and Carl streets. Music. Laughter. Food and beer. And best of all, they were hiring waitresses. I traded my union job at a disco on the wharf for one at the Other making a fraction of the money. But it had its advantages: No Donna Summer. No Village People. No slippery food and beverage manager trying to cop a feel. Just a pair of gentle souls who lived and worked together and had created this cozy club where you could have a bite to eat and watch some amazing talent onstage.
Tips were always lousy at the Other but they hit a nadir on folk music nights. Kate Wolf was lovely and angelic, but to this day when I hear her ethereal voice, I still remember wholesome Birkenstocked, bearded dudes and their earth mother girlfriends nursing a shared two-dollar pot of tea all night long and leaving a quarter on the table.
Blues nights were fun, but my favorite by far were the comedy nights. Comedy was on the rise everywhere at the time. Saturday Night Live was in its third year and in L.A. relative unknowns like David Letterman were doing standup.
In San Francisco, comedy lived at the Purple Onion and the Other Café both of which hosted established performers but also provided supportive environments for nascent acts and experienced comedians looking to work out material on savvy audiences. The Other became something of a creative comedic vortex, thanks to Bob Ayres, whose warmth, love of comedy and enterprising spirit made it all possible.
It was fascinating and sometimes painful watching comics work their material on the intimate stage at The Other. They were close to the audience there was no escaping a bombing performance for either side. Sometimes just the slightest change in wording, timing or delivery would mean the difference between embarrassed silence and beer-spewing spontaneous laughter. The comics who ultimately succeeded were not always the most brilliant out of the gate, but rather the ones who worked their routines until they found that sweet spot and then kept hitting it.
The one I remember best was this skinny, dorky guy with a Prince Valiant haircut (straight, blond bangs and longish pageboy). He had a guitar, and his schtick was he’d strum it and sing some funny, folky pap when a joke bombed, which was fairly often. But that guitar moved him and audiences past those embarrassing moments and provided a bridge to his next bit. The first few times I saw him, I would never have guessed that Dana Carvey would someday be famous.
My favorite comedy/multimedia variety act was Jane Dornacker. She performed original music with her band Leila and the Snakes featuring Pearl E. Gates, and did various hysterical characters in sketches and film shorts. One real crowd pleaser was her spoof of Anita Bryant, who was a very controversial Florida orange juice spokesmodel and anti-gay bigot at the time.
Robin Williams was still widely unknown but was becoming a legend in comedy circles. He would turn up in San Francisco and do these incredible stream-of-consciousness improvisations that blew everyone’s mind. He was like a gifted jazz musician on a creative high. It was theater as much as comedy, and a truly amazing thing to witness. (I’m happy to report that he was always polite to his waitress and tipped well too.)
The Other Café was a haven for me at a time when I needed one. It made me forget for a while the sadness of my other job, working with troubled, often violent adolescent girls. I loved coming to the Other and getting everyone settled with food and drink and then standing in the back watching the show. It was a special time and place with a great group of people.
Here’s a toast to Bob, Steve, Chip, Debra and all the wonderful artists, entertainers, audiences and assorted other souls who came together at the Other Café: I wish you all blues only in your music, a happy reunion, good health and many, many more laughs.