Before the doors opened for the last show at Los Feliz’s Steve Allen Theater, actress Kate Micucci told a story about the early days to a group of performers and staff assembled outside. She related how a burlesque performer had taken the stage and proceeded through a licentious magic trick with a light bulb, seemingly powering it on and off with her internal combustion and nothing else. Micucci recalled a wave of annoyance crashing over the theater’s founding artistic director, Amit Itelman. “I told her not to do that anymore,” Itelman says. While the Steve Allen Theater and its resident nonprofit Trepany House were never about prudishness, Itelman folded a nuanced kindness into the farcical shows he oversaw. Magical genital calisthenics were better suited for other venues down Hollywood Boulevard.
Soon, the Steve Allen Theater will be razed and replaced by condos. So on Friday, Nov. 3, the theater threw a last hurrah. The final show, called The Last Night of the Steve Allen Theater, featured more than 20 performers. They re-created snippets from past shows, toasted Itelman and sang ribald songs in dedication to years of amusement. Perhaps the most renowned participants were Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall. Toward the beginning of the night they took over the stage. “Where else,” McCulloch pronounced in that dynamically too-loud voice, “could you see an entire marching band onstage,” he paused, “at 3 a.m.” The house broke up. Some had seen that very sight. Don’t forget Itelman, he reminded the audience, “a kind man with a bedroom for a beard.”
The Steve Allen opened in 2004 with Hollywood Hellhouse, a bizarro horror show demonizing Hollywood created by a conservative preacher. Comedian Maggie Rowe turned the script on its ear with Transparent’s Jill Soloway, and directed the actors. Itelman focused on the tech, directing the hauntings, stockpiling the blood. The show was crammed with talent — Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Andy Richter and Bill Maher all took part. A review landed in The New York Times.
From there, the theater quickly established itself as a workshop-friendly stage, a 99-seat living room ready for antic, absurdist comedy as well as music. Itelman pushed for smart, battled against pretense and willingly settled for silliness. “Jim Underdown opened the CFI Hollywood building in 2003,” Itelman says of the theater’s genesis. “He called me and asked me to take on the theater and create a point of view.” Opening the stage to musicians, stage shows, comedians and neighborhood locals widened the appeal, organically creating a community particular to the theater. Having a large parking lot didn’t hurt, either.
Reputation spread by word-of-mouth. Hollywood Hellhouse not only graced the pages of the NYT, it was the theater’s first pick of the week for L.A. Weekly.
A bronze, oversize bust of Steve Allen greeted you at the entrance to the theater, while the pale yellow paint scheme made it feel more like your grandma’s basement than a comedy stage. Maybe because of that odd hominess, Itelman’s stage became a place where people with varying degrees of celebrity could fine-tune their acts.
Itelman traces his comedic roots to the HBO Workspace 20 years ago, along with a quick but dynamic appearance in the "Festivus" episode of Seinfeld. Ron Lynch, the host of the theater’s longest-running feature, The Tomorrow Show, has credits dating to the early '90s. At the Steve Allen, both men would summarily pluck newbies from the midnight to 4 a.m. Tomorrow sets and fix them up with primetime slots they would then direct.
24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub walked audiences through her back pages in two separate monologues. The Kids in the Hall kicked off their return in 2010 on the Steve Allen’s planks. Bob Odenkirk and Cross held Mr. Show reunions and workshopped new material there. At the tail end, up-and-comer Jesse Elias (writer on The Eric Andre Show) did a string of mentally stimulating shows that pledged allegiance to dandelions aided by a talking robotic head he purchased online. Itelman kept things clever and zany but also comfortably familiar.
Both Charlyne Yi and Micucci landed television gigs soon after appearing at the Steve Allen. Micucci credits her career to the theater. “A friend was doing a poetry reading in Silver Lake and asked if I would do my ukulele songs there,” she says in a phone interview from New Orleans before returning for the theater’s final night. “I said, ‘I don’t really play my songs out. But I guess I’ll do it.’ Craig Anton and his wife walked by and he said, “I think your stuff would be great at the show I do at the Steve Allen Theater." I thought, OK, I'll do that. That night, Amit saw me playing for the first time and he said, ‘You should have your own show here.' Then he came up the title Playin' With Micucci and that was that. I got my start on that stage.”
Odenkirk performed at the theater nearly 50 times. Over the phone, he describes Itelman as “the greatest kind of P.T. Barnum that alternative comedy could hope for.” In an email, Steve Allen house manager Aaron Kee described his boss as “extremely talented, super nice — some would say too nice.” Micucci noted something else: “Amit really knew how to program the theater. It was very consistent. I don't know if it was intentional branding but it all seemed to work together.”
While the theater obtained several one-off cabaret licenses in order to sell beer and wine, that happened with varied regularity. Itelman’s theater wasn’t a comedy club. It wasn’t completely forgiving. If you sucked, you’d know it. But it wasn’t a house of heckle, either. A performer could bomb and not have to wipe away the tears. More likely, Lynch, Itelman or one of the other acts would help you smooth out the bumps. The Steve Allen was an incubator. It made you love it because it taught you how funny things could be. As Hellhouse’s Maggie Rowe puts it, “The best part of the Steve Allen was the innovation. The worst part is that it will no longer be around.”
The Tomorrow Show started out as a three-headed beast, anchored by Anton (now teaching theater in Savannah, Georgia), Brendon Small (Metalocalypse) and Lynch. They let the show explode into a sometimes caterwauling free-for-all. Eventually Smalls and Anton left. Lynch remained till the end. “I mean, I've only been tired maybe 10 times or so in 13 years of doing the show,” he says in a phone interview the week before theater’s last stand.
Janet Klein, a throwback songstress with a honeyed voice and an unimpeachable delivery, played the Steve Allen through all of its eras. She remembered fake blood spurting during Hollywood Hellhouse: “I think 13 years later there are still traces of that show on the ceiling. That first show left me with a number of impressions. One was, wow, this theater director has a lot of wild energy.” The stage was, she said, a second home to her and her band for the past 13 years. Before her last go-round, Klein called the closing “a treasured light on the L.A. map extinguished."
Kee follows that thread. “A little piece of the arts community is dying. Does that mean that a smaller venue will rise up and take its place? Or maybe it will discourage talented people from starting their own venue for fear of it being torn down in a similar fashion? Either way, the birth and death of the Steve Allen Theater is a significant event in the history of Los Angeles performance art.”
Itelman himself doesn’t want to focus on definitions of what the theater was or what the future holds. “It was never easy for me to define its uniqueness. Performers developed their voices here. Audience members were entertained. We made a lot of people smile,” he says of the experience, adding, “I guess I won’t really know what the end means till I am on the other side.”
For Lynch, the closing is like a wound he needs to recover from, “It isn’t good in any way except that it gives me a little free time. That’s the only good thing about it but it's just bad and evil. We had people that came every week. They were hanging out on the porch afterwards until like 3 o'clock in the morning. It's going to put a hole in people.”
During rehearsal Friday night, the assembled cast walked through a hodgepodge of blocking. Itelman and longtime tech director Steve Pope plotted cues while comedian Steve Agee took photographs. Theater staff corralled acts and outlined the schedule. Dave Foley drank a canned beer. Then the doors opened and the audience shuffled in.
John Reynolds came out first and played some hot jazz on a resonator guitar while whistling along with himself. Reynolds would be a mainstay of the night, a musical note between acts that gave the final bow its structure.
A film crew with a roving Steadicam operator captured the night. Some people sang. Others danced. Twin Peaks’ Kimmy Robertson did both. Billy the Mime ridiculed Harvey Weinstein. Kate Micucci’s farewell song was beautifully sweet but also pushed the crowd into an emotional well.
But the night was most electric when Davey Johnson walked out into the audience, clad in an old nightshirt and beaming out into the stratosphere of absurdist humor. Performances like Johnson’s magnetic meltdown were the reason why people came night after night, year after year. Audiences shed their worries and luxuriated in laughter. Itelman and Lynch found people ready to lay their silliest notions out for everyone to see. So, Friday night, when Mark Fite shot an appalled look toward the crowd, while the preceding puppet act swept up beans from the stage he was trying to mount, the room ate it up. These last acts all attempted some kind of summing up, and whether or not they were successful wasn't the point. They all were fun. They all memorialized a stage that most people agree is going away too soon.
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Lynch, who took the stage around 11 p.m., was the night’s penultimate act. He melded one of his Tomorrow routines into a farewell that was sharp, funny and grievous all at once. When he waved and said goodbye to the theater out loud, people in the audience began to cry.
Then it was the finale. Itelman came out in a debonair suit, draped with an acoustic guitar. Someone shouted from the back of the house, “We love you, Amit.” Itelman didn’t say anything. The room went quiet as Itelman strummed and sang a self-penned ode. “The moon shone so bright/ that I began to write/a song to let you know that I love you.” That was it. Itelman called the other performers up to the stage. People took selfies, gulped beer. Everyone hugged. But that was it. By the next day, Itelman was packing up his office for good. The building’s internet had been switched off. The condos were coming.
A couple of days later, performer Jesse Elias sent a postscript through social media. “Steve Allen was my adoptive comedy home. The people at the theater and The Tomorrow Show made me feel like I belonged there. The theater felt like it belonged to a bygone Rocky Horror era when cool people gathered at midnight to enjoy kitschy campy cult Halloweeny things. Now time has caught up and the theater must clear out for people who like glass bowls filled with rocks waiting in line for food fall asleep watching Hulu at 10 p.m. things.”