The Bay Area in the '80s was a hotbed for live stand-up, with a dozen all-comedy nightclubs, including five in San Francisco alone, the city helped launch the careers of legends like Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Dana Carvey.
Comedian Mark Pitta also got his start in San Francisco in the '80s, and for the past decade he's been carrying on the Bay Area comedy tradition as the host and producer of Mark Pitta & Friends Tuesday Night Comedy at Mill Valley's Throckmorton Theatre. Pitta says the idea sprung out of necessity; he was fired from his gig as morning host for KTVU and needed something to do. He chose Tuesday nights because it's a day when most comedians are in between gigs. Each week Pitta books a mix of young up-and-comers and established headliners, then serves as the "Dean Martin" of the show, warming up the audience and riffing in between acts on whatever's on his mind.
Pitta's co-producer is Lucy Mercer, the executive director and founder of the Throckmorton Theatre. She says she and Pitta make a point of never divulging the show's lineup in advance. "I felt that if you did get a name, everybody's going to sign up and the show's going to sell out," says Mercer. She wanted people to be open to the idea of the show as a whole, rather than to the idea of seeing a particular star. "We felt that if we delivered a really good show, then you would come back."
While they do offer wine and beer in the lobby, at the Throckmorton there's no drink minimum, no wait staff, no drunken hecklers and nothing to distract from the art. Whether it's a sketch, observational comedy, a magic act or improvised riffing between Pitta and the other comedians, each two-hour show creates intimacy between the audience and the performers.
Backstage, the comedians relish the opportunity to catch up with each other in a low-key setting far from the cutthroat vibe of Hollywood. Pitta says a lot of comics stop by the green room on Tuesdays even when they're not performing, just to hang out -- something that's especially appreciated by the young comedians, who get the chance to talk shop with the stars. "When I was starting out," says Pitta, "there were a lot of clubs in San Francisco that supported new comics." Now, he observes, "it's more of a business -- get the butts in the seats, get somebody who's on TV." He's happy that the Throckmorton has become a place that can nurture young talent.
Because Pitta has long-standing relationships with the same comedy legends he came up with in the '80s and '90s, many of them perform at the "Throck" whenever they can. Robin Williams and Dana Carvey, both Marin locals, often take the stage to try out new material before they appear on late-night talk shows or head out on tour. "The Feng Shui of this theater is very positive," says Carvey. "The room is shallow, so nobody is too far away." Carvey relies on the Throckmorton and its supportive crowds as part of his creative process, noting that he "can really write a lot of material quickly with this theater." Just six days after we taped his performance at the Throckmorton, national audiences of The Tonight Show were treated to some of the material Dana previewed in his Mill Valley appearance.
Now entering its tenth year, Mark Pitta & Friends Tuesday Night Comedy has an extremely devoted fan base. One couple, Angelo and Kimberly Salarpi, haven't missed a single Tuesday since they first tried it out nine years ago. They even credit the show with saving their marriage. "We gave up couples counseling and took up comedy instead," says Kimberly Kenley-Salarpi. When the theater mounted a recent fundraising campaign the Salarpis paid for a chair: "We put the plaque on the back that said 'laughter saved us.'"
The Throckmorton's historic building dates back a full century, when it got its start in 1914 as a vaudeville and silent movie house. According to Pitta, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel both performed there as part of the traveling British vaudeville troupe Fred Karno’s Company.
Over the decades the hall fell into neglect, deteriorating considerably until Lucy Mercer bought it in 1999 with a plan to restore it as a community theater. Since reopening in 2004, Mercer has slowly but steadily built a diverse, year-round calendar of live performance, attracting big stars like Bonnie Raitt and Woody Allen, and showcasing homegrown talent with a community chorus group, a youth theater program and free noon-time concerts.
Mercer likes to tell a story she read in an old newspaper article about the Mill Valley townsfolk coming down from their homes on unpaved roads with candles to see a show at the Throckmorton, then called the Hub Theatre. "And then they would trudge back to their homes with their candles," she marvels. "You know, everybody wants that gathering together. Everybody wants that experience in a dark theater and then you go back and live your lives."
In Mill Valley today, Lucy Mercer is providing the space for those community gatherings, and every Tuesday night Mark Pitta and his friends are filling it with laughter.