“Everyone’s got a tequila story, and everyone’s got an Ice House story everywhere I go,” says Bob Fisher. “The tequila one involves an evening they want to forget, and an Ice House one is one they want to remember.”
Indeed, Fisher has heard plenty of stories over the past three decades, and he’s experienced plenty of them himself in the time since he bought the Ice House — which, at 50 years old, stands as America’s longest-operating comedy club — in 1978. Now, as he prepares to stage his biggest show ever Sunday night to celebrate the club’s golden anniversary, Fisher is buried knee-deep in his office, amid stacks of hundreds of old videotapes of the famous comics who have graced his stage.
Fisher will be taking over the 3,000-seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium for the one-night-only celebration, which will feature more than two dozen of America’s biggest comedy stars, including Jay Leno, George Wallace, Craig Robinson, Dana Carvey, Gabriel Iglesias, Brad Garrett and Paula Poundstone. And he’s hoping to kick all the fun off with an eight-minute documentary that will blow the audience away with footage that will solidify his club’s stature as one of the most iconic venues in American comedy.
“It’ll be the first thing they see when the curtain opens,” says Fisher. “We’re trying to get guys like Letterman to do video greetings saying ‘Congratulations,’ but we definitely have pictures of George Carlin without his beard, footage of the Smothers Brothers and Steve Martin way back before he had gray hair.”
Fisher isn’t one to hog all the glory for himself. The night will be a benefit after which all net proceeds will be donated to the Hillsides Home for Children orphanage, a charity that has been in his heart for the past 15 years, since the time he paid a visit and “found that the children ran up and hugged the man in charge and really had a caring sense of family with him, rather than the cold, impersonal kind of life you often fear hearing about in the foster system.”
He’s also more than willing to share the night with the other men who helped bring the club to life: his former business partner Jan Smith, and the Ice House’s original pair of owners, Willard Chilcott and Bob Stane. Speaking from his Santa Fe home, the 82-year-old Chilcott recalls that the Ice House opened not out of a desire to make people laugh, but rather to stake a claim in the then-thriving coffeehouse folk-music scene that took the nation by storm in the 1950s.
“San Francisco had the Purple Onion club, and New York City had countless places like The Bitter End,” said Chilcott, whose boisterous laugh and strong memory make him sound as hale as when he started the club. “Nothing was going on in the San Gabriel Valley or Pasadena, so I started looking to create something there to match the boom of coffeehouses on LA’s Westside.”
Chilcott was reluctant to sink a large sum into what was still a risky venture, so he opted to buy a burned-out frozen-food-locker plant down an alley in Pasadena at rock-bottom prices and handle the renovations himself. He built tiered seating platforms and lighting, and named the club the Ice House after the slang name his wife gave the venue during the six months he headed out in his spare time on nights and weekends to work on the joint.
Comedy didn’t even enter the equation for Chilcott until a couple years into the club’s existence. Folk
musicians often spiced up their sets with their own self-generated light banter and jokes, and Chilcott soon realized that he could fill part of a night’s schedule with one solo comedic performer cracking wise between musical acts rather than hiring duos, trios and foursomes across the night’s bill.
To find solid comics who could win over even musically minded audiences, Chilcott teamed up with a coffeehouse owner from San Diego named Bob Stane, who today books one of America’s top folk clubs, the Coffee House Backstage in Altadena. Stane also proved invaluable because Chilcott found that the night hours involved in running the Ice House were killing him. “I’m a day person and I had to sleep,” he said.
Stane quickly became the public face of the club, with Chilcott happily ensconced behind the scenes for the rest of his 18-year run as owner. As the club’s reputation — both as a haven for rabidly devoted audiences and as a model of acoustic excellence — grew, ever-bigger stars from both the comedy and music world came not only to perform but also to record albums there. In fact, Chilcott notes that the club has attempted to garner recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records as the site where more live recordings have been made than any other location on the planet.
“That period was the days when stars fell on the Ice House,” recalls Stane. “My middle acts were Jay Leno and David Letterman, Gallagher, Tom Waits and Steve Martin, all between folk acts. Lily Tomlin was working out there all the time. We had stars there who were working on shows constantly, and Gabe Kaplan started there. Gallagher started smashing his watermelons there, sometimes destroying the evening of people with light-colored clothes on.”
For his part, Chilcott remembers the night Bob Newhart recorded one of his best-selling albums at the club.
“I had a raucous laugh and that night that Newhart was recording, I got to laughing at the guy, it was great material and you can hear me laughing loud and clear on the album,” says Chilcott, inadvertently offering up a howl at the memory. “Stane and I treated these artists with respect. The other club owners thought they were doing these entertainers a favor by allowing them to record in their clubs. That’s bullshit. We wanted them, so Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Pat Paulsen came through there.”
But even the best of men can grow weary of the best of times, and Chilcott and Stane decided to bail out of the club business and sell the Ice House in 1978. Stane wanted to manage an apartment building he had just purchased, only returning to the club world with the Coffee Gallery Backstage a decade later, while Chilcott wanted to retire to the quieter world of Santa Fe.
Fisher had run a successful Orange County comedy club called the Laff Stop and was hoping to help an old high school buddy of his named Jan Smith crack the laugh market as well. Together they bought the Ice House and have seen the club boom, both in terms of surpassing their 4 millionth customer last year and in terms of discovering or boosting the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy.
“We kind of discovered Dana Carvey for the Southern California market,” says Smith. “He was known in San Francisco, but not down here. Jerry Seinfeld was another one we got on board with early on. And Bob Zany went from auditioning for my Sunday night showcases to becoming a national headliner.”
Smith moved on in 1983, selling his share of the club to Fisher, but he came back in the past couple of years to become the club’s talent booker. Looking back on the unpredictable twists and turns of his life as a purveyor of laughter, Fisher speaks with pride about the respect comedy fans have given the Ice House.
“Someone noted to me recently that you go to other clubs and people don’t seem to care how they dress, but they come here and there’s a reverence and people really dress up and come prepared to really pay attention and laugh,” says Fisher. “We’ve had moments in the last two or three years where it’s been slow, but we’re very lucky. I think there’s a correlation that even when times are tough, people want to laugh and have a drink.”
The Ice House Comedy Club 50th Anniversary Benefit at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium begins at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $33.40 to $116.30, including service fees, available at ticketmaster.com. The Civic Auditorium is at 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Call (800) 745-3000.