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COMEDY : A Room of Their Own : Thanks to impresario Mitzi Shore and the Belly Room, for a while back in 1978-79 female comedians had a small spot to work in together, a place where they could be bad, get better and launch careers

April 11, 1993|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer.

There's something forever tantalizing about standing in an empty room that's had a past. You can feel the voices, the moods, the forms of human entanglement that have all transpired there and are now sealed off in silence, or dispersed in the memories of strangers. But there's little you can actually know.

That's certainly the case with the Belly Room, a small upstairs performance space that seats about 50, located at the center of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, itself a somewhat labyrinthine complex.

In the fall of 1978, club owner Mitzi Shore decided to convert what was once a room for belly dancers ("and other things," she says cryptically) to a venue where only women would perform, and where some unquestionably gifted women (such as Sandra Bernhard) did, under a few memorable circumstances. There was, for example, the night when a female heckler in the audience, a few abusive breaths short of being dead drunk, was dragged out by a bouncer and answered comedian Lotus Weinstock's earnest ministrations by belting her in the chops. To which Weinstock replied, "Thank you for sharing your pain."

Or the night Judy Carter fell onstage and twisted her ankle so badly that she thought it was broken while everyone else thought she was working on some new fusion of comedy and performance art, and sat back to see how it would play out while she cried for help.

Opinions and recollections about the place, which stayed open the better part of a year, vary so much that it might as well be called the Rashomon Room. Was it a historic antechamber for the current prominence of women in stand-up, or was it a negligible space? To this day, few can say for certain whether it was an idea whose pioneering time had come, or whether it wasn't a very good idea at all.

"It was a marginal venue that marginalized women," says writer-performer Emily Levine, creative consultant and head writer for TV's "Designing Women."

"It wasn't to my taste," says Joanne Astrow, a performer then and an artists' personal manager now. "I wasn't comfortable in that situation. For me, it was a gut sense of forced feeling that it'd be good for women. It was duplicitous."

"It was segregation," adds comedian Lois Bromfield.

Speaking for the affirmative side, Robin Tyler, who is an activist for the gay and lesbian movement, observes: "The Belly Room was good for a woman's point of view. We didn't have to do self-deprecating material. We really grew in that room."

"It set the precedent that women could be funny around each other," says Diane Nichols, who remains popular on the club circuit. "Before the Belly Room came along, club owners were reluctant to book us, thinking we'd be too competitive."

"It was a place where I could bring my ideals and craft," Weinstock says. "You did not have to compete to be successful. We were very giving."

Typically, there are performers who worked the room who think both alternatives are true.

"I met a fine group of women and shared a lot of good feelings," Astrow says. "And the room did highlight the fact that there were still very few women in comedy at the time."

If Levine takes a dim view of the way audiences were shuttled up en masse between Main Room shows, and similarly hustled back downstairs to catch the headliner, she reflects, "There were people there who created a spirit. It was a place where you could feel safe to experiment and talk to an audience."

"I was able to develop," Bromfield says. "I was under the illusion in the first five years (of my career) that being intelligent and opinionated would pay off. But at my age (37), as I look back, it's almost a blessing that I didn't get accepted into the little boys' club that went into television. If I'd ever gotten a sitcom, I could never have gotten to this stage in my material where my own point of view is recognizable."

One thing is certain. When Mitzi Shore says that "there's a lot of history in how stand-up evolved," the Belly Room occupies a small but crucial chapter. "I tell people, 'If you wanna work the road, work the road. If you wanna be a star, come to Hollywood.' "

Stand-up comedy in the mid-to-late '70s, when Jay Leno and David Letterman were gaining a toe-hold on their careers, was a relatively wide-open scene, fueled by the youthful energies of "Saturday Night Live" and fine-tuned to the decade's hapless tone of irony (this was the era of Watergate, OPEC and the Iran hostage crisis). There was still room for disparate voices, and by decade's end the commercial hunt was on as booking agents, talent coordinators, producers and managers started elbowing their way onto the relatively sparse club scene to hear them.

It was not a great decade for women in stand-up. If six minutes on the "Tonight Show" represented the entrance to comedy Valhalla, host Johnny Carson's general disinclination to finding women funny was a matter of public record.

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