When I was 8 my parents gave me Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to read. So I grew up thinking there are only two kinds of men in this world—dwarfs and Prince Charming. And the odds are seven to one against the prince.
So goes a typical joke at L.A.’s newest comics’ showcase, the Belly Room. It is upstairs from the Comedy Store—where the likes of Gabe Kaplan and Robin Williams got started and still go to shake down material. The Belly Room has the same proprietor as the Comedy Store, Mitzi Shore, but one difference: Only comediennes perform there. Mitzi founded the women’s room because the odds against female comics are tougher, she says, than on Snow White finding her prince. In the stand-up comic business, figures Mitzi, men outnumber women 30 to 1. And she ought to know. Jimmie (Good Times) Walker, another alum, calls Shore “the patron saint of comedy. I carry a statue of her on my dashboard.”
When Shore opened the Belly Room seven months ago, there weren’t many stand-up comediennes driving around, like Walker, in a blue Mercedes convertible. “Only a few women like Joan Rivers and Totie Fields have made it, and they were doing men’s comedy,” observes Mitzi. “They were tough, brittle and a little blue. Most women are softer, more feminine in their humor.”
Except for the name (chosen offhandedly because it was a belly dancers’ lounge three decades ago when the complex was the famous Ciro’s), Shore has given the Belly Room a lot of attention. It is decorated with fresh flowers “like a living room where the girls can really work with the audience,” she explains. “Now we have women letting out gutsy feelings about husbands and lovers and fathers.”
The Belly Room’s emcee and cheerleader for the performers is Lotus Weinstock, Lenny Bruce’s last lover. “Develop your sense of humor instead of your breasts,” she advises. “It won’t sag as much after childbirth.” Night after night they try. For example, Ann Kellogg, a 27-year-old ex-dance teacher, announces that she has the perfect retort for an obnoxious suitor with the “your-place-or-mine?” approach. “I say, ‘Both. You go to yours and I’ll go to mine.’ ”
The 40ish Shore is seldom funny, though her throaty appreciative cackle fills the room. “I was a quiet, skinny girl,” she says of growing up near Green Bay, Wis., the daughter of a traveling salesman. After two years at the University of Wisconsin, she met comic Sammy Shore. Their married life became a steady grind of one-night stand-ups and openings for Elvis, among others. (After his shows, Presley would read from his Bible to the Shores.)
The couple founded the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip in 1972. When Sammy’s career began to suffer because of all the administrative work, they split professionally and maritally. He returned to Vegas, where he still appears, and she took over the business, which was then booking singers, magicians and worse. “I made it only for comedians,” she says. “Everyone said I was nuts, but my heart went out to them.” The nightclub thrived. She opened Westwood and La Jolla branches.
Shore lives in a house once owned by Dorothy Lamour and drives a silver Jaguar, but puts “all the money back in the business.” Her oldest kids, Scott, 22, and Sandi, 20, are out on their own. Peter and Pauly, ages 13 and 11, skateboard around the Comedy Store after school.
No one has made it from the Belly Room to the big time yet, but Emily Levine, a 28-year-old Harvard graduate who dreamed up the Snow White-Prince Charming routine, is a story editor of the new ABC hit Angle. Shore argues that “there’s a place for these women in the business. Some as writers maybe, but they all have talent. I have hopes.”