Holy City Zoo
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The Holy City Zoo was located at 408 Clement Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in San Francisco's Richmond District. It was a tiny dark cavern that had a maximum occupancy of 78. The bar sold beer, wine and soft drinks. There was a small stage set against the back wall. A few stairs stage left led to a small balcony known as "The John Wilkes Booth." The office door was adjacent to the booth; the ceiling in the office was low, making it necessary for everyone over 5'2" to stoop while inside.
The club got its name from a sign the first owner, Robert Steger, picked up for free at a going-out-of-business sale at the local zoo in Holy City, California. He had stopped there to buy redwood tables and chairs for the club.
At that time, the Holy City Zoo was a folk music club. The first comedian to play the club on an open mike night was Jim Giovanni, an impressionist, circa 1971. There was no comedy scene at the time, and Giovanni stayed doing every comedy night for almost three years. Later, other comics looking for a venue found the Zoo and gradually crowded the folk music out.
In 1975, Steger sold the business to Peter Reines. At first the "Zoo" continued to offer folk music five nights a week and was closed on Sundays. Reines was approached by San Francisco musician/comedian Jose Simon, who suggested adding stand-up comedy as another form of entertainment. A number of comedians were holding shows in the basement of a church and wanted more of a nightclub setting. Sundays became "open mike" nights. It promptly became a very popular event. Gradually, comedy was expanded to seven nights a week. Under the promotional and emceeing skills of Tony DePaul, the Zoo gained national and international recognition. The club's first official comedy producer/club manager was John Cantu, who often slept on the stage after the club had closed for the evening.
Open-mike nights continually ran one or two nights a week throughout the club’s existence. Anyone could sign up for a five-minute set, thus affording stage time to future stars, countless acts now forgotten and no small number of the mentally unstable and socially misfit.
It continued as a full-time comedy club for nearly 20 years. The Zoo was a "clubhouse" of sorts for comedians; it was the destination for many after a gig to hang out, gossip, drink, kvetch about the business, and perhaps catch a glimpse of some big-time headliner working on new material (most notably, Robin Williams, "who used the club as his neighborhood rehearsal space"). Rob Schneider could often be spotted hovering outside the club waiting to go onstage because he was underage. Due to a changing neighborhood and the lack of a full liquor license, the club was never financially solvent, and changed ownership many times. Among the various people who owned or co-owned the Zoo were Steger, Reines, Cantu, Jason Cristoble, Tom Sawyer, talent manager Bob Fisher, comedian Jim Samuels, and, at the end, Gilda and George Forrester (parents of the Zoo's last manager, Tracy Forrester) and Will and Debi Durst (who retained the rights to the "Holy City Zoo" trademark),
The Zoo went out of business at least once in the 1980s, reopening briefly as the Ha-Ha-A-Go-Go (under Tom Sawyer). The Holy City Zoo finally closed for good in 1994. The final closing of the Zoo was a 24 hour "farewell marathon" hosted by Jeremy S. Kramer and ran from midnight August 29 to midnight August 30. The site was recently (2008) occupied by an Irish bar called The Dog's Bollix, but in October 2008 changed hands and is now operated under the name Dirty Trix Saloon.
On April 20, 2011, Bay Area comedy troupe Sylvan Productions began hosting a weekly Wednesday night stand up open mic, and regular Saturday feature showcases at Dirty Trix Saloon, bringing comedy back to the historical location.
Who was there, and where they are now
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The following is a partial list of comedians and other performers who either got their start or had performances at the Holy City Zoo:
- A. Whitney Brown
- Larry Bubbles Brown
- Buzz Belmondo (Lorenzo)
- Dana Carvey
- Margaret Cho
- Ellen DeGeneres
- Nora Dunn
- Will Durst
- Jim Earl (Lank and Earl)
- David Feldman
- Bobcat Goldthwait
- Dana Gould
- Jake Johannsen
- Laurie Kilmartin
- Kevin Meaney
- Kevin Bacon
- Marc Maron
- Patton Oswalt
- Kevin Pollak
- Brian Posehn
- Paula Poundstone
- Greg Proops
- Rob Schneider
- Bobby Slayton
- Barry Sobel
- Warren Thomas - Died September 2, 2005, age 46, in New York City.
- Robin Williams
- Kathy McKay, "Rebirth of S.F. Comedy at the Zoo", Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1978 (pay site).
- Sam Whiting, "It's Comedy Tonight at the Zoo. Spirit of legendary open-mike club returns." San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 1996.
- Article: Get-Ahead Tips for Speakers, Comedians, Humorists
- John Cantu - passionate voice for comics in S.F
- Sam Whiting, "Will Durst runs twice as fast in place", San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 2012.
- Peter Hartlaub, "SF comedy legends: From Bobcat to the Holy City Zoo", SFGate.com, October 13, 2011.
- The Deborah Durst, Will Durst, George Forrester and Gilda Forrester Partnership owns the U.S. trademark registration for HOLY CITY ZOO. U.S. Trademark reg. no. 1,948,950, January 16, 1996. Accessed December 6, 2012.
- Gordon Downs, "Dead Unicorns and Jerry Seinfeld: 15 Questions with Bobby Slayton", SanDiego.com, June 7, 2011. (Describing his first stand-up after moving to San Francisco: "It was the Holy City Zoo. That was a pretty legendary little club.")