In Praise of the Purple Onion

The most historic comedy club in America that exists today won’t in October. The building that contains the Purple Onion’s 60-year-old subterranean stage was recently sold and will be gutted; taken with the red booths and faux-brick walling will be the legacy of The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Phyllis Diller.  I have a personal history with the club that goes back almost twenty years now, and its passing is truly awful-  personally, to the comedy community, and San Francisco as a whole.

In 1994, the Onion was showcasing garage bands under the psychotic stewardship of a local victim described by the SF Weekly as “Crispin Glover after two weeks of intravenous double-lattes.”  The club where I was on staff, my beloved Holy City Zoo, had just closed down and a couple of comics and myself had formed a production troupe staging shows at alternative and DIY venues, and we pitched the return of comedy to The Onion. It did not go well. When the guy in charge of the room is drunk and heckling the show, sends rookie comics offstage in tears, and needs physical coercion to cough up the door split, that’s not good. But for a while I had the honor of saying I put on the first comedy show at the Onion in over a decade. It closed soon after- an entire trust-fund spent by a managerial lunatic on 3-chord surf music and kegs of PBR.

The space itself was taken over by the Ascione family, who operated Macaroni Sciue Sciue upstairs, and it was ignominiously used as a storage area. At the time I was living in North Beach, and would walk by the shadowy staircase and envision a time when I could once again put on shows there. Ten years after our first debacle, while arranging a photo shoot with Don Novello, I learned that Mario had restored the place and was planning a re-opening. Mario had great intentions, but little knowledge of our local comedy scene, so I offered to start off booking the club for him. Opening night of “Jim Short and Friends” will forever be a homecoming, a triumph, and now a bittersweet remembrance.

Jim became my partner and whenever he was in town, Jim Short & Friends were the likes of Greg Proops, Will Durst, Tom Rhodes, Arj Barker, Robert Hawkins, Greg Behrendt- national headliners playing a 99-seat basement club because of the love of the room.  There were other great shows, too- with Paul Krassner, W. Kamau Bell, Will Franken, Mike Birbiglia. All of them unique, honest, and brilliant comics.   It also allowed me to reconnect with the amazing young talent of which San Francisco always seems to have a bumper crop.

After a year or so, the birth of my daughter, and tons of great shows, I handed the reins of the Onion over to David Owen, a truly professional producer and co-founder of SF Sketchfest, who proceeded to up the ante by bringing in the likes of Judah Friedlander, Doug Stanhope, the return of Mort Sahl, and a DVD production for Zach Galifianakis.

Then in 2007, I partnered with Crackle/Sony Entertainment to film “Live at the Purple Onion,” a stand-up web series that allowed me to present Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and other personal favorites. And that’s the thing- I had the incredible privilege of always booking shows that I would have wanted to see. My shows ran on equal parts talent and goodwill, as the size of the place makes a big payday impossible. I didn’t need to worry if my acts had the right TV credits, social media clout, or mailing list. I didn’t have to care if we made good numbers with nachos. My shows were by candlelight, there was no drink minimum, and the comics dressed up.

The ongoing problem at this point was that the club had become a room-for-hire, with a hodge-podge of producers bringing in various showcases, theme shows, and comedy-college graduations. Quality could be amazing or unwatchable, and I started hearing complaints from people who had been coerced into going there to watch their friends’ first time on a real comedy club stage.  I love Mario- he’s honest and has a great heart- which is probably why working in show business was challenging for him. Plus he had the gift and the burden of having an intimate venue.

After years away, I had actually booked a show there for September 6th, when I heard the awful news that the building had been sold and the Onion would be no more. Then I asked for and was given the Purple Onion’s final show, which will be on Monday, September 24th.

This Thursday’s show is Bob Rubin, with Larry Bubbles Brown, Randy Hauser, and more. Tix are available via Eventbrite here: http://onenightwithbobrubin.eventbrite.com/

Plans for the last show are still underway, and tix will go on sale soon. We’re looking to send the place off in style, with a marathon of great comics as- what else?- Jim Short & Friends. If you want to be notified when tickets will be released to the public, write me at dan@dandion.com  .

I’ve heard variously that the building is going to be a steakhouse or a strip club, but for me, the most gorgeous prime rib or even the tastiest slab of T&A doesn’t compare to a night of hilarious, smart comedy on a stage steeped in history.

Toast to the club with Bob Rubin.

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    6 Responses to “In Praise of the Purple Onion”

  1. September 4, 2012 |
    Swany says:

    Yo Danny Boy, sorry to hear about the Onion, bummer. I lnow how much you love the joint.
    I’m due to work this Thursday, but Los and I would love to attend the last show. Please save us a couple of tickets that we can purchase.

    Thanks,
    Swany

  2. September 5, 2012 |
    Loren Kraut says:

    Great article! Thank you for sharing a different side to its history. The photos are wonderful.

    As a local comedian, I’m really going to miss the Purple Onion. I’m glad to have had the chance to play there.

  3. Well done, old man. A sad day indeed.

  4. Great article. I loved the pics and history. Doing shows there always made me feel like a part of history. The Purple Onion will be missed.

  5. September 5, 2012 |
    Tony Liano says:

    Nice piece, Dan.

    Great to hear Jim Short will be hosting the send off.

  6. Well I’m proud to be one of the black Comedians to work the Purple Onion sorry to hear of it’s closing I would have loved to return I’m glad to say I’m part of the history 09/01/2012 thanks to Jabari Davis

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