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Echo of laughter

As her sons try to revive her fabled club, has Mitzi Shore become the Norma Desmond of comedy?

June 22, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Pauly Shore emerged from his childhood home. It was a Sunday afternoon, the time of the week when a good son goes to see his aging mother.

"I just fed her," he said.

Inside, in her den, was Mitzi Shore. Mitzi Shore, who was friends with Lenny Bruce's mother. Mitzi Shore, who married a comedian (Sammy Shore) and divorced a comedian but not before giving birth to a comedian (Pauly). Mitzi Shore, who says a comedian (Shecky Greene) helped her secure a business loan when she got the Comedy Store in the divorce from Sammy.

Mitzi Shore, whose whole life has been comedians: having affairs with them, mothering them, partying with them, housing them, feeding them, giving them breaks, not paying them, alienating them, never speaking to them again. Richard Pryor and Robin Williams spent late nights in her den, Letterman baby-sat her kids. Leno slept on the back stairs at her club, where Jim Carrey would later be one of her doormen.

The Comedy Store -- it has defined Mitzi Shore's self-image and continues to. She was off in the wings, all-powerful, during a remarkably fertile time for stand-up comedy -- the 1970s and early '80s -- when many of today's comedy stars showed up in L.A. to go onstage at the only place that mattered.

But it has been years (decades, really) since the entertainment industry hung out the Store, since the words "Letterman's on" were heard in the alley or Sam Kinison bellowed at defenseless patrons late into the night.

Today, the Comedy Store is a functioning Sunset Strip relic, that black building you notice as you hunt for parking across the street at the House of Blues or the Mondrian's Skybar.

Mitzi Shore is still here too, still making out the lineup as in the days when the names were Saget and Shandling and Gallagher. But she does it from her den. She has borrowed money against her house and the club in recent years to keep the Comedy Store going. Various club comedians-runners come up to the mansion, but now their names are Duncan and LeMaire.

Fragile and reduced, with tremors in her hands, Shore -- age unclear, perhaps 72 -- lives stubbornly alone in a mansion above Sunset Boulevard that was owned by 1940s screen star Dorothy Lamour. The house is the other piece of prize real estate she got in the divorce from Sammy. Art Nouveau flourishes in the entry hall and dining room suggest its fading grandeur.

On a guided tour of the upstairs, Pauly Shore shows me his old room, his mom's master bedroom. He flips switches in rooms where the lights don't come on.

He is a 35-year-old ex-comedy star, trying to revive the fame that began with MTV's "Totally Pauly" and continued through much of the 1990s thanks to a series of dumb and dumber movies, beginning with "Encino Man."

Last year, according to Pauly and his older brother Peter, Mitzi Shore fell at home and was knocked unconscious. It was around this time, they say, that they decided to intervene in the operation of the club.

Peter, 37, says he has been streamlining the business operation, while Pauly makes phone calls, wrangling big names, trying to get "a vibe" going again.

He has gotten Eddie Griffin to do a night, and Bill Maher, and the Smothers Brothers played a three-night engagement last month. A new general manager is being hired, the Shores say.

Pauly being Pauly, he is also trying to turn the experience to his advantage, pitching Hollywood on a reality show called "The Store" -- a version of the MTV hit "The Osbournes" but starring Pauly as "Pauly," dating three women and hanging out with celebrity friends while acting as "CEO" of the Comedy Store.

Shore's former heavy-metal hair is short now and creeping up his scalp; he lives in an attractive one-story house "up Nichols," meaning at the top of Nichols Canyon.

He tools around L.A. in his Cadillac Escalade truck, looking for his career, betraying in conversation both a sweet side and the unexamined privilege with which he has lived most of his life.

Somewhere in there, beneath the show he is pitching and the Hollywood hyperbole he utters, is a powerful story: the relationship between a show business mother and the only one of her four kids who became that thing she loves -- a comic.

"He's a good kid, Pauly," Mitzi said of her youngest son. "I just let him go. I let him die [onstage]. I didn't cater to him. He did it all on his own, Pauly."

"Maybe if I wouldn't have made it or become successful, we maybe wouldn't have been as close," Pauly said one day. Is that a mother's love? Who knows, but it is Mitzi Shore's love.

At home with the Shores

Sunday in Mitzi Shore's den. It is early April, Fox News screaming bulletins about the war in Iraq. Pauly has "just fed" his mother -- shrimp in lobster sauce from Chin Chin. Peter arrives, with his wife, Vita, and their baby daughter, Lola. The saving of Pvt. Jessica Lynch from a Baghdad hospital is a hot story. Pauly wonders aloud, how long before Lynch poses in Playboy?

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