Mitzi Shore, the hard-driving proprietor and mother hen of The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip who lorded over the white-hot center of the stand-up universe of the late 1970s and '80s, died Wednesday after a battle with Parkinson's disease. She was 87.
Shore gave such young comics as Robin Williams, David Letterman and Jay Leno a chance to thrive onstage before a live audience and be discovered.
"It is with great sadness and very heavy hearts that we report the passing of Mitzi Shore, the legendary Godmother of the world famous Comedy Store," the club said in a statement. "Mitzi was an extraordinary businesswoman and decades ahead of her time who cultivated and celebrated the artistry of stand-up comedy. She was also a loving mother, not only to her own four children, but to the myriad of comedians who adored her. She leaves behind an indelible mark and legacy and has helped change the face of comedy."
"My heart lays heavy," her son, comedian Pauly Shore, tweeted.
Mitzi took over the club in 1974 as part of a divorce settlement with her husband, comic Sammy Shore, who had founded the business with comedian-writer Rudy De Luca. Two years later, she took out a loan to buy the building, which had been the site of the glamorous nightspot Ciro's (once owned by the late Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson). Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling and Roseanne Barr also cut their comedy teeth there.
She came up with The Comedy Store name after De Luca talked her husband out of calling it The Sammy Shore Room. The club opened on April 10, 1972, right around the time that Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show had moved from New York to Burbank.
It proved to be great timing. Comics from around the country flocked to Los Angeles, dreaming of hitting it big after attracting the attention of Tonight Show talent bookers in search of those who could deliver a funny, rapid-fire six-minute set.
The constellation of stand-ups who honed their craft amid intense competition at The Comedy Store also includes Tom Dreesen, George Miller, Byron Allen, Jeff Altman, Jimmy Walker, Louie Anderson, Barry Levinson, Bob Saget, Billy Crystal, Gallagher, Freddie Prinze, Marsha Warfield, Sam Kinison, Howie Mandel, Andrew Dice Clay, Chelsea Handler, Mark Maron, Joe Rogan, Whitney Cummings, Carlos Mencia and Maz Jobrani. There are way too many to mention.
"We're like a school or a boxers' gym," Shore told the Los Angeles Times in a 1994 interview. "We're here to help people develop their skills and to get them seen by supportive comedy crowds, as well as by TV and movie people."
Pryor, who hadn't done stand-up in a couple of years, returned to the West Hollywood club to develop material for his 1978 tour, which spawned the mega-selling double-album, Wanted: Live in Concert. In the early 1990s, stricken with multiple sclerosis, he performed onstage from his wheelchair.
Shortly after he began killing it at The Comedy Store, Williams became an "overnight" sensation as the wacky star of the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy.
"Mitzi was a maternal influence," Letterman, who was a weekend TV weatherman in Indianapolis before driving out to L.A. in 1975, said in Richard Zoglin's 2008 book, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. "She had this place where we could all come and be silly and make mistakes and have fun and go home with a waitress. I left a job for what I thought could be nothing and then found this life and friends and home and creative order. And without Mitzi, I don't know what I would have done."
Letterman baby-sat her kids and took them to Little League games; Carrey served as a doorman. She dated Steve Landesberg. Maron, who lived with Clay in a house Shore owned in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, once described the club as "a demonic home away from home for a lot of people."
A native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Mitzi Saidel was a college student and working as a secretary at the Pine Point Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, when she met her future husband, who was the vacation spot's social director and a fledgling comic. She became his assistant.
In the mid-1960s, the Shores moved to L.A. after Sammy landed a gig opening for singer Trini Lopez on the Sunset Strip. (Later, he famously would serve as the opening act for Elvis Presley from 1969-72.)
The Comedy Store was popular but not profitable during its first few years. De Luca had stepped away to write for The Carol Burnett Show, and when Sammy left for weeks to perform in Las Vegas, Mitzi took over and "made it a real business," Sammy once recalled. "She built it to what it is today."
He added in the Zoglin book: "The booths had been moved around, there were plants in the men's and ladies' room. It had a woman's touch. I came back and it was a different place."
"Mitzi revolutionized comedy," Dreesen said in Yael Kohen's 2012 book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. "[Sammy] would let Redd Foxx come in and do 45 minutes or an hour, and then another guy would come in and do an hour. When she took over the club, she gave each one a 15-minute set, she did two shows, and all of a sudden we had what we in show business call continuity. It was a good evening. It was smart programming, and so the audience wanted to stay more."
In the divorce settlement, Sammy surrendered control of The Comedy Store in return for a $600 a month reduction in alimony payments, according to Zoglin.
Comics would line the sidewalks for hours outside the club, looking to audition for Mitzi, who had the final say on who would perform. For years, she was the only game in town; caring or cutthroat, she could make you or break you.
Louis C.K. had to audition for Shore even though he had been performing for two decades.
"She's sitting at this table directly across from me," he told Letterman on CBS' The Late Show in January 2015. "I said hello and started a joke and the light [the signal to get off the stage] immediately went on. I said that can't be it, so I kept going, and then I see Mitzi [waving at him] to get off. My manager called me later and Mitzi told her, 'I hated him, he was terrible.'"
When Budd Friedman, owner of the Improv comedy club in New York, came west to open a branch on Melrose Avenue in 1975 — just a mile from The Comedy Store — Shore banned any comic who would perform at her rival's place. (Leno did anyway, and Shore caved.)
In 1979, comedians went on strike to protest comedy clubs' policy of not paying performers. (The owners felt that the exposure the comics were getting was payment enough.) Shore turned against them, too. One was a comic who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hotel next door. He left a note that read: "My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at The Comedy Store."
Shore put aside a separate upstairs room, The Belly Room, at the club in 1978 to showcase female comics, and she opened other Comedy Stores in such locations as Westwood; Universal City; La Jolla, California; Las Vegas; and Honolulu.
In February 2014, Shore sold her home in the Hollywood Hills — owned by actress-singer Dorothy Lamour before her — for $5 million.
Survivors include sons Pauly, Peter and Scott and a daughter, Sandi.
Ryan Parker contributed to this report.