David Rodriguez first climbed onto stage six years ago at Hodi’s Half Note, a Fort Collins music venue that happened to hold open-mic comedy nights.
“After that, it was off to the races,” said the lanky, bearded 35-year-old, who went on to run showcases, book national comics at Fort Collins’ Aggie Theatre, and otherwise help turn the home of Colorado State University into a comedy scene of its own.
“I’ve always tried to champion it as a place you can stay,” said Rodriguez, who has brought names such as Hannibal Buress, Maria Bamford and Nick Swardson to Fort Collins. “People say, ‘You have to move to Denver if you want to do comedy full-time!’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s 60 miles away. It’s not necessary.’ ”
What is necessary, however, is having a reliable place for comedians to perform in Fort Collins — a place of their own that isn’t just a rented-out bar, or a stage that will be filled with musicians the next day. The city hasn’t had a standalone comedy club in three decades, according to The Coloradoan.
That’s why Rodriguez began raising money last year for The Comedy Fort, a permanent, Fort Collins-based comedy club in the style of Denver’s nationally renowned Comedy Works in Lower Downtown. Through crowdfunding and private investors, he assembled $200,000 and began looking for buildings with basements “to model after Comedy Works as much as possible.”
But even before the pandemic, Rodriguez ran into barriers. Basements require access for the handicapped, and Rodriguez couldn’t afford the full-sized passenger elevators the city mandated he build. So he turned back to Hodi’s, the 167 N. College Ave. venue that for 13 years welcomed a variety of performing artists — including Rodriguez and his first-ever comedy set.
“We looked at it when I heard it was becoming available to buy, but ended up not taking that route at first,” Rodriguez said. “Then the owner (Dan Mladenik) said, ‘This is just sitting empty and I’d love for it to go to somebody who will do something in the arts.’ ”
Hodi’s closed permanently in July, owing to the pandemic but also to Mladenik stepping away to join Bellvue-based Mishwaka Amphitheatre’s board of directors. Suddenly, renting the 5,000-square-foot space seemed like a great option.
“We came to terms on a really friendly and flexible lease that allowed me to still have some money left over for renovation and paying people,” Rodriguez said. “We plan to open early next year, so now I’ve got a few months to gather up all of the handiest comics in town.”
Opening a comedy club, or any stage-based entertainment venue, during this pandemic seems more than risky. But Rodriguez’s optimism about crowds returning to indoor venues early next year is shared by others in the Front Range comedy community.
“I’m confident we’ll make it. I can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Nick Armstrong, co-owner of Denver’s Rise Comedy. “Even now we can do some indoor classes, but the restrictions where performers have to be 25 feet away from an audience are impossible for a small club like ours right now.”
Armstrong, a Los Angeles-based actor and improviser, bought Rise in January 2019 when it was still called Voodoo Comedy Playhouse. Despite reliably hosting classes and performances from local and national comics since opening in the Ballpark neighborhood in 2011, the Voodoo name had been sullied by sexual misconduct allegations against Voodoo’s former majority owner, Stephen Wilder, and certain staff members in 2017.
But it wasn’t until the pandemic arrived that Armstrong and business partner Josh Nicols, Rise’s artistic director, got serious about rebranding the club. They had already moved their classes online, providing valuable revenue to help pay their $10,000-per-month rent at 1260 22nd St., and re-written all of their training materials for would-be comics to fit the new virtual environment.
Armstrong and his partners had also held a public meeting after taking over the venue to address Voodoo’s past troubles, listen to concerns, and lay out a transparent plan to make performers and audiences feel safe and welcome, Armstrong said.
“We aren’t afraid to listen, get educated and make changes to be the best home for fans and students of comedy,” Nicols said in a press statement.
But with well-known, national comedy theaters such as iO Chicago and Upright Citizens Brigade closing as a result of pandemic restrictions — and others like Denver’s Bovine Metropolis Theater pivoting to online — Armstrong decided it was time for a bigger change. On Aug. 18, Voodoo officially became Rise.
“We’ve had to reinvent the business, and the name change was in the plans all along. But the good thing is that we’re improvisers, so that’s kind of where we live,” said Armstrong, who formerly played Voodoo as part of his national touring and has appeared on shows such as “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Unfortunately we’ve had to lay off our staff, but we’ve tried to take care of them for as long as we can,” he added. “And we don’t have $8,000 for a light-up sign that says ‘Rise Comedy’ right now, so the building still says ‘Voodoo Comedy Playhouse.’ “
However, Rise is producing live shows at Stem Cider Denver, Zeppelin Station and Station 26 Brewery in the meantime to get the word out. (Visit risecomedy.com for the forthcoming dates.)
Comics and bookers hope that when coronavirus restrictions lift, the pent-up demand for live entertainment — and comedy in particular — will be so great that they won’t be able to keep up. The work Rodriguez is doing on The Comedy Fort right now, for example, will pay off tenfold in the future, from forging relationships with liquor vendors to building a new stage, he said.
“In the end, I have selfish motives,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “I want to be able to produce shows in a room where I don’t have to fold up the chairs afterward. I’m making stage time for myself, but in a way that benefits everybody. I’m positive we’ll still be around when the doors are finally allowed to open.”
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