Where the laughs are

With the Improv shuttered, touring comedians discover the Hippodrome

November 24, 2005|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTER

The city's comedy fans could start getting more yuks on the west side.

With the Improv shuttered and no definite plans for another in the near future, the Hippodrome is looking to attract a steady stream of nationally touring comedians.

In the past two months, Sinbad, Eddie Griffin and the Bad Boys of Comedy - all major national acts - played the Hippodrome's main stage. The venue also has a smaller pavilion stage that could accommodate crowds slightly larger than those that filled the now-defunct Improv.

"That space is a little more ideal for shows that would have played the Improv," said Toby Blumenthal, the Hippodrome's booking manager. "That space we're tying to cultivate into more diverse programming - not just Broadway."

The Hippodrome has been trying to prove to agents and comedians that it's a viable outlet for regionally and nationally touring stand-up, Blumenthal said.

"These comedians, they are still unaware of the Hippodrome and of the M&T Bank Pavilion," he said. "There are agents out there that don't know that we exist yet, and that's been the struggle - letting them know we do have space that works for their acts."

Comedy has plenty of drawing power at the year-and-a-half-old theater. In late October, Mickey Cucchiella, a local comedian and owner of the Baltimore Comedy Factory, sold almost 2,000 tickets for his performance on the Hippodrome's main stage.

Cucchiella filmed the show and is shopping it as a possible cable TV special.

"It was unbelievable - the highlight of my career," he said.

Cucchiella said the Improv's closing did not affect his business one way or the other. The Improv catered to national comedians, whereas the Comedy Factory focuses primarily on local acts, he said.

Cucchiella said he's in talks to open Comedy Factories in other cities and use them as a circuit to help local talent break nationally.

"If it does develop where one, two, three, four, five of these guys blow up to be national headliners and other guys see the process these guys took, they'd want to play our venues as well," he said.

The Improv operates venues across the country in a similar fashion. Bob Gray, the Improv's director of operations, said the company is scouting sites for a new club near Arundel Mills but does not plan to open another club in the city. The Baltimore Improv opened in Power Plant Live in 2001 and unexpectedly closed in late August.

Now, the Improv routes comedians who would have played in the city to the company's clubs in Washington and Pittsburgh, Gray said.

Cucchiella said he hopes the Hippodrome will lure more comedy shows to the city and fill the void left by the Improv.

"I don't look at it as competing," he said. "I hate to see the fans in Baltimore have to drive to D.C. and Philadelphia to have to see the acts that they love."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

The Hippodrome is at 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 410-837-7400 or visit france-merrickpac.com. The Baltimore Comedy Factory is at 32 Light St. Call 410-547-7798 or visit baltimorecomedy.com.

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