By Valerie J. Nelson / Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — In the 1970s, David Letterman baby-sat her children and Jay Leno slept on the back stairs of her Sunset Strip club, where Jim Carrey later tended the door.
Mitzi Shore was “the den mother of some berserk Cub Scout pack,” as Letterman once said — one that brimmed with a breathtaking array of now-famous comics who broke through because she tapped them to perform.
Shore, who was regarded as the godmother of comedy in Los Angeles and whose Comedy Store was one of the most important showcases for stand-up in the country, died Wednesday after battling Parkinson’s disease, according to a statement from the Comedy Store. She was 87.
“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. We will all miss her dearly,” the statement said.
Shore had been in hospice care for some time. Her son, actor Pauly Shore, had been helping care for her and tweeting updates about her final days.
For at least a dozen years, she was “all-powerful, during a remarkably fertile time for stand-up comedy — the 1970s and early ’80s — when many of today’s comedy stars showed up in L.A. to go onstage at the only place that mattered,” Paul Brownfield, who covered comedy for The Times, wrote in 2003.
The first comedian to officially share her life was her husband, Sammy Shore, who founded the Comedy Store in 1972 with fellow comic Rudy DeLuca. When the Shores divorced two years later, Sammy gave her the club as a way of lowering his alimony payments.
A mother of four, Mitzi Shore in essence gained a fifth child — the Comedy Store that she had named. When she took over, it was more of a variety room than a comedy club, but she transformed it into a three-room showcase for stand-up.
“Comics felt very belittled in those days — they always had to work with a singer,” Shore recalled in 1993 in The Times. “I wanted it to be all comics. No jugglers and magicians. I wanted to give them respectability.”
Her timing was excellent. In 1972, Johnny Carson had moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to Los Angeles, helping to make L.A. the place for young comedians who strove to appear on his show, and the Comedy Store was “the place to be seen,” Brownfield wrote in 2003.
Eventually, she opened three branches, in Westwood, in La Jolla and at the old Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.
Shore saw herself as an “impresario,” she told The Times in 1979, and few would have disagreed.
The networks’ prime-time schedule in the late 1970s “read like a roster of young comics whose careers she’d fostered,” according to the 2009 book “I’m Dying Up Here,” which documents what author William Knoedelseder calls “the golden age” of Los Angeles comedy.
The list of careers Shore influenced included those of Letterman and Leno as well as Jimmie Walker, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Bob Saget, Richard Lewis, Garry Shandling, Elayne Boosler and dozens of other readily identifiable names.
Richard Pryor used the club almost exclusively to prepare for his 1974 breakthrough album, and the money made from his shows helped Shore rapidly expand her comedy empire, Knoedelseder wrote.
The Comedy Store was an “artists colony,” a workshop for experimenting that wouldn’t work if the comedians were paid, she often said.
For years, the comics acquiesced because a spot on her stage meant exposure to industry insiders looking for the next breakout star. But by 1979, the comedians were openly upset that she paid the commercial headliners who packed the club’s Vegas-style Main Room.
The up-and-comers staged a walkout, picketing the Sunset Strip location. More than five weeks later, Shore settled, agreeing to pay most comics $25 per set.
“I loved each and every one of them,” Shore told The Times during the strike “but they misunderstood. My fairy tale is over.”
She was almost prescient. The strike left scars that never truly healed.
Some activists never again worked her stage and others complained that she penalized strikers by refusing to book them. A booking war also broke out between Shore and Bud Friedman, who had opened the competing Improv a mile away.
The passage of time brought more competition, including from cable television, which found stand-up to be a cheap form of programming, giving audiences one less reason to go out.
The Comedy Store also burned less brightly because Shore was unwilling to extend the club’s brand into TV and media ventures that could help build a younger audience, industry observers told The Times in 2009.
But the first comedy picket line in 1979 did have a positive and lasting effect. News coverage of the strike raised the profile of the fast-growing profession, helping “to fuel the nationwide comedy club boom of the 1980s,” according to the 2008 book “Comedy at the Edge.”
She was born Mitzi Lee Saidel on July 25, 1930, in Michigan. The daughter of a traveling salesman, she grew up near Green Bay, Wisconsin.
At the University of Wisconsin, she studied art but left to marry Sammy after meeting him in 1950 at a summer resort where they both worked. She toured with Sammy, who would later open for Elvis Presley.
The Shores moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and bought a mansion above Sunset Boulevard built by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. Mitzi got the house in the divorce.
Only her youngest son, Pauly, became a comedian; in the early 1990s he had his own show on MTV.
“I didn’t encourage Pauly,” his mother told The Times in 1994. “I made it tough for him. He had to work hard all around town before he got a break” at her club.
As their mother’s health declined, Pauly and his older brother Peter took on more responsibilities at the Comedy Store. Pauly helped review and book talent while Peter oversaw finances. But the brothers began to quarrel over club matters.
In 2009, Pauly filed a lawsuit against his brother that charged Peter was exerting “undue influence” over their mother. The suit did not mention details about Mitzi’s will or plans for succession.
Tommy Morris, the club’s longtime talent coordinator and operations manager, told The Times in late 2009 that Pauly and Peter stood to inherit the Comedy Store. They survive her, as does another son, Scott, and a daughter, Sandy.
Over the decades, Shore had developed a reputation as the comedy world’s eccentric mother hen, “equal parts talent scout, employer, lifestyle enabler, landlord and performance critic,” The Times said in December.
Comedians made fun of her squeaky voice and frizzy hair, and her dark, rococo office lit only by Tiffany lamps. In that office, Shore kept a sign that read, “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent.”
Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.
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