- Evie Townend
Women in the Arts: Mitzi Shore
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
In this series, we're taking a look at women who have made waves in the arts - from painters and performers, to journalists and activists - chosen by ANE writers.
In our second edition, Evie uncovers the story of Mitzi Shore.
Who is Mitzi Shore?
Mitzi Shore is known as the Queen of Comedy. Born in Wisconsin in July 1930, under the name Lillian Saidel, she studied art before marrying the American actor and comedian Sammy Shore in 1950.
In 1972, the couple bought a dilapidated club on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood where Sammy performed stand-up each night. They called it The Comedy Store. At the time, it was typical for comedians to perform alongside singers or circus acts, rather than a club dedicated solely to comedy. It didn’t take long for the clubs’ novelty to turn heads and catch a crowd. However, with no admission fee and just 80 cents a drink, it was hardly a profitable business.
What was she most celebrated for?
When Sammy went away to perform, Mitzi’s entrepreneurial prowess and remarkable vision took hold. She transformed the club’s exterior with a striking facelift of black paint and an accumulative montage of comedians’ signatures plastered on the walls. From cleaning the toilets to organising the lineup, she instilled order amongst the club’s charming chaos and laid the foundations for a comedy revolution.
When Mitzi and Sammy divorced in 1974, Mitzi acquired full reigns of The Comedy Store. From her booth every night, she watched all the acts, scouting talent with a sharp and decisive instinct. Within moments, she’d know whether someone had what it takes to earn a regular slot on The Comedy Store’s lineup. If not, she’d send them on their way with blunt direction. Above her desk, lay a witty plaque reading ‘It is a Sin to Encourage Mediocre Talent’.
When she smelt promise in someone, she nurtured it. Her finesse for finding talent paved the way for long-standing careers in comedy, including the astonishing: Robin Williams, Bobby Lee, David Letterman, Joe Rogan and many more. Performers lived at her house, Crest Hill, behind the club and would pay their way through manual jobs at the club’s bar or car park in between slots.
Without the matriarchal mentorship and familial community she fostered, the landscape of comedians would be devoid of many of the characters that have established it to date. Beyond a talent coordinator, Mitzi was the heart and soul of The Comedy Store.
What is her legacy?
Mitzi envisaged The Comedy Store as a ‘gym’ where comedians could ‘workout’ their material. This experimental freedom created a style that was unlike any other, setting no bounds to humour. While many people wouldn’t feel at home there, it was exactly that reason why other people loved it. Anything was possible in her contagious embrace of the weird, different and unique.
Beyond shaping the comedy industry itself, Mitzi also created a legacy of inclusivity and diversity. As The Comedy Store expanded from one room to multiple stages, Mitzi opened The Belly Room in 1978. With a 50-seat capacity, this was a platform intended for female comedians to have a room of their own. In what was very much a ‘boys’ club’, this opportunity was incredibly rare and saw performances by Sandra Bernhard, Judy Carter and Whoopi Goldberg.
While The Belly Room divided opinions (were women simply being marginalised to a pokey back room?), comedian Lotus Weinstock explains that it was free from the competitiveness that otherwise defined female comedians’ interactions. It encouraged women to find their feet, create a different approach, with a different rhythm, and own the jazzy, strip-club atmosphere it became known for. Mitzi continued to cross boundaries by creating specialty nights for Latino and LGBT performers. No matter who you were, if you had talent, Mitzi gave you the opportunity to blossom in the spotlight.
Mitzi in the face of adversity
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. 1979 saw comedians go on strike to protest her no-pay policy. What appeared fairly jovial grew into a bitter six-weeks of tension, including the suicide of Steve Lubetkin and Jay Leno pretending to be hit by a car at the picket fence, making Mitzi liable for his injuries. After an emotionally shattering few months, gripping national news, Mitzi relented to paying performers in the Main Room 50% of the door earnings and 25% per seat in the Original Room and at Westwood. This changed history for performers since club owners, country-wide, could no longer get away with not paying comedians while profiting lucratively from their work.
Despite this period, Mitzi is celebrated for an undying commitment to the artistry of comedy and her extraordinary strength of character. While she put the fear of God in comedians for slacking, she tenderly supported comedian after comedian through drug abuse, being a mother to more than just her four children.
Her death in April 2018 saw The Comedy Store close for only the second time, following 9/11, in its 46-year-existence. Overwhelming tributes were given by countless comedians who gratefully owe their livelihoods to her vision. Jim Carrey describes her as ‘opening the door to my dreams’ while Kathy Griffin celebrates how ‘she was a woman in a male dominated business who pulled no punches’. The heavy hearts of too many to name are testament to the pioneering space she cultivated and a true legacy that, through The Comedy Store, will withstand the test of time.
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Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean