By Chip Romer
In 1977, two college students living in the Haight-Ashbury purchased a small coffeehouse and poetry space in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood called The Other Café. Bob Ayres and Steve Zamek, who had already partnered in Haight Street’s Ice Cream Madness, acquired the business with a loan from Ayres’ parents in Los Angeles as their entrée into the nightclub business. In a short time, The Other, a former pharmacy located in the corner storefront of a three-story Victorian, was offering entertainment seven nights a week with an eclectic line-up of jazz, blues, bluegrass, poetry, folk, open mics and, on Wednesday nights, the fledgling return of an old San Francisco tradition: stand-up comedy. On any given week, performers might have included Michael Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Leila and the Snakes, Back in the Saddle, Kate Wolf, Utah Phillips and Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater, with R. Crumb dropping in for morning coffee and Rickie Lee Jones wandering in after hours to play the piano.
Ayres and Zamek, both refugees from the San Fernando Valley, had complementary tastes at extreme ends of the entertainment spectrum. Steve Zamek, a gentle, laidback outdoorsman, was most proud of the 100-seat club on nights when Kate Wolf, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips and Nina Gerber would gather to play folk music. Bob Ayres, a Jewish white boy with the afro of Angela Davis and a comedic entrepreneurial bent, was a practical joker with a deep soul-connection to the comedy nights; he was most thrilled when four aspiring stand-up comics were supplemented by the surprise drop-in of Robin Williams, who had just begun making a name for himself on “Mork and Mindy.” For the initial few years, this dynamic between the partners’ entertainment preferences kept the club comfortably filled. Over time, Ayres’ desire for the club to specialize in stand-up was economically favored by San Francisco’s burgeoning comedy scene. In 1980, Zamek went to study computer programming at Cal Poly and sold 45% of the business to club accountant Richard Snow; Zamek and Ayres gifted the remaining 5% to club manager Chip Romer. The Other Café proudly added a second bathroom and began offering stand-up comedy seven nights a week.
The physical space and location of the club informed the stage performances. In the politically-correct Haight Ashbury, dick jokes and take-my-wife-please jokes fell on deaf ears; The Other quickly earned a reputation among comics for smart, aware audiences who booed blue humor, connected with political references and who could ably follow a conceptual comic’s intricate imaginings far out onto any limb. The progressive audiences also readily supported The Other’s choice to become California’s first non-smoking nightclub. The club’s expansive plate-glass windows, uncurtained during shows, revealed a parade of Haight-Ashbury eccentrics who inspired comic improvisation. The effect was edgy and electric and heightened by natural improvisers such as Williams or Jay Leno or Kevin Meaney, who, armed with an extra-long mic cord, chased passersby down the sidewalk trying to interview them; or Paula Poundstone, who once successfully goaded a passing motorcyclist to drive his bike right into the club; or Jane Dornacker, who more than once stepped off the stage and ran out the door to hop on a city bus, leaving club managers and a perplexed audience wondering what would happen next.
For bookings, the club followed a weekly formula. Mondays, which had been open-mic nights hosted by singer and guitarist Adam Gottstein in the music era, continued the format, with 12-20 new and wannabe comics joined by established regulars trying out new material for five-minute slots. Promising young comics such as Meaney or Paula Poundstone or Jeremy Kramer or Barry Sobel would host the open mics for a stretch of several weeks, accumulating material and building a name for themselves as a bridge towards better-paying gigs. Mondays were the nights when new performers with the initial glint of charisma or humor developed into favorite performers like Poundstone or Dana Carvey, Mark Pitta or Warren Thomas. Others who debuted on the open mic stage—like Michael Pritchard, Bob Goldthwait and Whoopi Goldberg—rocketed immediately to headliner status.
Tuesday nights were reserved for off-the-beaten-path, uniquely Other Café-style fare, like New Material Night, where established comics were challenged to perform 5-10 minutes of never-been-heard-before material; their fellow comics and the club owners sat in the back with an air horn, gleefully quelling any infraction. Nights like this were when routines like Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” were born and developed. Monthly sequences of The Other Café Dating Game featured real-life contestants looking for love hosted by the wacky Jeremy Kramer, ably assisted by comely Jane Dornacker or spunky Linda Hill. Kevin Meaney starred in his own prescient “Cooking with Kevin” show, demonstrating little-know culinary tips for patrons—such as how a household iron can readily transform Wonder Bread into tortillas or the value of not using a lid in making popcorn: “It inhibits the corn,” advised Kevin. Celebrity roasts were an occasional Tuesday event, a dais of peers mercilessly skewering a fellow comic on stage because it was his birthday—or for no good reason whatsoever; CNN’s Larry King became a roastee. The Haight-Ashbury location was ideal for offbeat performers like “stand-up philosopher” Timothy Leary, his 60’s comrade Abbie Hoffman and perennial Presidential candidate Pat Paulsen. Tuesday Improv Nights starring Geoff Bolt, Linda Hill and Diane Amos attracted other improvisers including Robin Williams and players from San Francisco’s National Theater of the Deranged. The incipient rage for one-man shows was fanned when Tuesday nights made way for the likes of Josh Kornbluth and Geoff Hoyle.
Wednesday through Sunday nights followed a consistent formula each week: opening act, middle act, headliner, with headliner status as the crowning achievement in the upward mobility of local comedy. In the early years, The Other was proud to feature only local headliners: Bob Sarlatte, Mark Miller, Bill Rafferty, Jim Giovanni, Mitch Krug, Lorenzo, Michael Davis, A. Whitney Brown, Darryl Henriques, Rick and Ruby, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater and one-time Other Café favorite son, musical impressionist Mark McCollum. Over time, other locals graduated to join the ranks of headliners: Dana Carvey, Michael Pritchard, Jane Dornacker, Bobby Slayton, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, Bob Goldthwait, Kevin Pollak, Margaret Cho, Ellen Degeneres, Geoff Bolt, Rob Schneider, Warren Thomas, Barry Sobel, Leland Brown, Johnny Steele, Tom Kenny, Fran Solomita, Michael Meehan, Jake Johansen, Marga Gomez and Linda Hill. Brilliant comedy minds like Mark Miller, Alex Hershlag, Tom “Sponge Bob” Kenny and Fran Solomita used The Other Café stage as a springboard to creative success as writers and producers in Hollywood. As the club matured, national acts playing week-long runs included Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Dennis Miller, Mort Sahl, Rita Rudner, Elayne Boosler, Ric Overton, Marsha Warfield, Jimmy Walker, Pat Paulsen, “Saturday Night Live” stars Dana Carvey, A. Whitney Brown, Kevin Nealon and Nora Dunn, and novelty acts like Timothy Leary, David Letterman’s Larry “Bud” Melman, “Harold and Maude” star Bud Cort, and a kimonoed Japanese comedienne who spoke very little English.
Behind the scenes was a creative and fun-loving family of counterworkers and wait staff, many of whom moved up through the ranks. Counterpersons Chip Romer, Debra Sartell and Scott Gelfand became partners, bookers and managers. Sandwich maker Julie Searles left the cutting board to sing; dishwasher Paula Poundstone hustled from sink to comedy stage; and counterperson Mark Yardas advanced from counterperson to waiter to doorman to Hollywood editor. Many musicians paid their bills working at The Other, including New Breed band member Patrick Winningham and Cathy Cohn—who influenced the vibrant San Francisco music scene as the booking agent for Haight Street’s seminal dance club, The I Beam. The Other Café baseball team, started by Ayres in 1977—and still playing with six of its original players in 2010!—hit the club after every Wednesday-night game for laughs and pints before heading down to the I Beam to dance to the Police, New Order and Jane’s Addiction in their Other Café baseball uniforms.
The partners’ love of sketch comedy led to the creation of The Other Café Players, starring Geoff Bolt and Linda Hill, and to booking troupes such as Duck’s Breath, The Screaming Memes, Proops and McShane and Uncle Stinkey’s Dipsey Doodle Revue. Occasionally, the club would challenge a foursome of stand-ups to create and perform a week of sketch comedy; this culminated in a whole month of such performances that gave comics who excelled at playing characters a favorable outl
Other Productions was launched by Bob Ayres as a separate company in 1979 to produce shows in bigger Bay Area venuesand to manage local comedians. The first outside shows began at The Great American Music Hall, and starred musical impressionist and first management client Mark McCollum. In 1980, Other Café manager Chip Romer bought in to become a partner in Other Productions as the company took on management clients, including McCollum, Dana Carvey, Michael Pritchard, Jane Dornacker, Bob Sarlatte, Jeremy Kramer, Bobby Slayton and Kevin Meaney. Over the next several years, showcasing these San Francisco performers in L.A. led to network development deals for Carvey and Pritchard at NBC, sitcom pilots and an awakened awareness among Hollywood brass that San Francisco was indeed a hot source of creative comedy talent. Ayres and Romer invited network, studio and “Tonight Show” executives to talent showcases at The Other; these were evenings of heightened adrenaline for all the performers—except Jane Dornacker, who seemed to delight in sabotaging her chance at the big time by making merciless fun of “the big cheese” in the audience. At the same time, the production company produced shows at bigger Bay Area venues, with headliners including Dana Carvey, Bob Sarlatte, Bobby Slayton, Michael Pritchard, Jane Dornacker in a joint billing with Whoopi Goldberg and national acts like Leno, Henny Youngman, Howie Mandel, Gallagher, Brit Jasper Carrott, and pioneer lesbian comic Robin Tyler.
Other Productions annually presented the raucous, “politically correct” Miss Haight Ashbury Beauty Pageant, where contestants of every conceivable gender competed in evening gown, swimsuit and talent competitions (with such illumined talents as curing athlete’s foot, playing the kazoo through one’s nose and performing a warp-speed, three-minute version of “Gone with the Wind”). An annual Evening of Jewish Humor at Davies Symphony Hall was emceed by Larry King and featured such performers as Jerry Seinfeld, Henny Youngman, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Rita Rudner, Mort Sahl, Richard Lewis, Rickard Belzer, Steve Landesberg, Shelley Berman, Bobby Slayton and Elayne Boosler. The partners stretched the concept of comedy to produce a series of debates between infamous psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary and Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Annual New Year’s Eve shows at The Palace of Fine Arts brought in big names and a hilarious start to the New Year, which became the tradition of thousands.
Other Productions ventured into television production as well, starting with the homespun “Celebrity Round-up,” where host Jeremy Kramer and his sidekick Kevin Meaney mock-interviewed local acts such as bizarre open-mic performer from Vallejo, Jo Burkette, and The Condor Club’s famously busty Carol Doda. A pay-TV series directed by Lon McQuillin, hosted by Bobby Slayton and staring most of San Francisco’s name stand-ups of the era, “The Other Café’s Comedy Showcase,” won silver and gold awards in New York festivals. A foray into short filmmaking paired local comics and San Francisco commercial directors in an hour special hosted by Geoff Bolt and Bill Bonham called “Two Guys with Amusing Shorts.” Pitching the prescient idea of televised stand-up comedy to network executives in 1981, Ayres and Romer were told stand-up on television would never fly.
In 1984, the Other Café partners opened El Otro Café on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, bringing San Francisco stand-up to American tourists in the Mexican vacation capital; telltale reviews of the first show at the short-lived club labeled Bobby Slayton “Señor Pornografico.” In 1986, the partners opened a comedy-dance club in Santa Rosa called The Daily Planet and purchased Bradley’s, a struggling gay bar and restaurant across Cole Street from The Other Café, and reopened it after a quick remodel as The Other Other. In 1987, the club expanded into children’s entertainment with weekend Buddy Club matinees, which, under the guidance of former Other Café manager Scott Gelfand, continue today as the longest-running children’s shows in the Bay Area. This same year, Ayres, Romer and Snow incorporated their holdings into a single business called San Francisco’s Comedy Company. In 1989, the landlord of the famed Cole and Carl corner refused to renew the club’s lease, instead choosing to open a short-lived Chinese restaurant of his own at the location. In time, Ayres, Romer and Snow partnered with San Francisco toy magnates Robert and David Galoob, moved the business to a converted Emeryville warehouse and reopened as an ambitious 10,000 square foot, 250-seat comedy club and fine-dining restaurant and a 400-person state-of-the-art dance club called Politics. Elayne Boosler opened the new comedy room, which enjoyed initial popularity and introduced Martin Lawrence to the Bay Area. As too-early pioneers to what has since become a bustling commercial hub in Emeryville, the partners struggled with parking-lot gang conflicts and a recalcitrant police force unwilling to patrol the area to ensure customers’ safety. The club—and The Other Café era—closed just after New Year’s Eve, 1992.
Living still are widespread fond memories of a fifteen-year period of creative hilarity. The Other Café enjoyed—and helped power—the comedy renaissance that brought so many San Francisco performers into the national spotlight and introduced so many audiences to the joy of live comedy. Club employees, led by long-time booking agents Debra Sartell and Amy Glin and beloved managers Scott Gelfand, Dave Wolff and Gil Frishman, were—and still are—like a family: spread far and wide but forever connected in their hearts to a time and a place where laughter was the first order of business.
In recent reminiscing about the glory days of The Other, Ayres, Romer, Snow, Scott Gelfand and Debra Sartell have fondly remembered many of the staff, loyal customer, auditioners, comedians and other performers who make up the huge Other Café family. The following individuals smile at us out of the past in no particular order:
Adam Block, Adam Smithline, Adrienne, Allan Palmer, Allen Scotty, Amy Fairweather, Andre Hardy, Andrea Michaels, Ann Johnston, Ann Tofflemire, Annalisa, Audrey Howe, Barbara Geraci, Barbara Scott, Barry Gross, Ben Fong-Torres, Bernard Hendrickson, Bernie Averbuch, Beth Berkelhammer, Bill Carpini, Bill Romer, Blair Gershkow, Bob Fisher, Bob Kehn, Bob Lacey, Bologna Brothers, Brad Fay, Brad Garrett, Bruce Barrott, Bud E Love, Cathy Sarlatte, Cathy Waterman, Charlie, Chip, Conley, Christian Eddleman, CJ Bronson, Cobalt Blueberg, Dan Mer, Dana Gould, Danny Ransom, Danny Robinson, Daved Marsh, David Armstrong, David Kehn, David Zuckerman, Debbie Praeger, Dennis Mclean, Destiny, Diana Aurelius, Diane Feinstein, Diane Weinstein, Dick, Bright, Donald Winter, Dorothy Persons, Eric Flaherty, Fratelli Bologna, Fred Anderson, Frish Brandt, Gary Hanshire, Gary Lustig, Ginny McEnerney, Hal Savage, Hara Moon, Harmon Burstyn, Herb Caen, Isis, Jan, Louise, and Tracy Hughes, Jennifer Tofflemire, Jeremy Gotsch, Jim Boldman, Jim Cranna, Jo Burkett, Joe Colleti, Joel Selvin, Joline El-Hai, John DiDominico, John McGill, John Sposato, John Wasserman, Jonah Snow, Jonathan Katz, Josh Brody, Julie and Mike Becker, Julie Greenstein, Julie Searles, Kathryn Kimble, Kaylynn Ratshcke, Kozmic Ladee, Laura Diliberto, Lauren and Cindy Alwan, Linda Bolt, Linda Cordano, Lisa Ludwigsen, Lisbeth Scheid, Maria Nation, Mariana Forber, Susan Evans, Mark Tauber, Mark Yardas, Marty Higgins, Meg Gottstein, Michael Bliss, Michael Brand, Michael Krasny, Michael Redd, Mike Piete, Sharon Wolff, Patrick Winningham, Paul Bishop, Paul Cerami, Peter Stack, Phil Marks, Teresa Holcomb, Rafe Chase, Ray, Ray Hannah, Richard Zuckerman, River, Rob Becker, Robert Long & Ellen Gibson, Robin and Becca Leeper, Robin Bernstein, Roger Lake, Ron Leeson, Sandy Van, Sarge Holtzman, Scott Smith, Sonja, Stanley and Peggy Ayres, Steve Baker, Steve Hamilton, Stony Burke, Susie Ellis, Suzanne Scanlon, Tarey Dunn, Ted Cousens, Teresa Moeller, Tim Cuzzi, Tim Ross, Tomi Thomas, Tommi Africa, Valerie Williams, Vicki, Rawlings, Vicki Stone, Warren Thomas, Wayne Doba, Wendy Herrick, Debi Durst, and Yoni Mayeri.