Fans, comedians try to save the Laff House
A longtime South Street staple that once served as a launching platform for comedians like Kevin Hart and Michael Blackson closed its doors for good on July 3, leaving Philadelphia's urban comedy fans searching for a new place for laughs.
"I always enjoyed going to the Laff House. At one point I was going down there like every week because there was always something to do and you just never knew who you were gonna get," comedy fan Patty Candell said.
Candell, 56, who has been going to the Laff House for the past two years, said it’ll be hard to find a new place to fill the void.
"I really hope they can get something new because other venues that I’ve been to just aren’t conducive to comedy. I’m not even sure what I’ll do now. I’ll just have to look around on Facebook and see which comics have fliers out for their shows. I’m gonna miss it."
Comedian Vernon Keith Ruffin, better known as Keith from up da block, had the bittersweet honor of being the last comedian to headline at the club, a goal he's been working towards for nearly eight years.
"I've been involved with the Laff House for about seven or eight years hosting shows, doing showcases there, editing their audio promotions, radio commercials and videos. I finally got to headline and do my own show there, which was actually a sold out show. The experience was very bittersweet because the club was closing," Ruffin said.
"It's also sad because my name is the last on the marquee. It says: Laff House closing, Keith from up the block and many more. Just seeing that made me think I have to do something."
Ruffin, along with several other local comedians including TuRae Gordon and Lawrence Killebrew have since launched the Save The Laff House campaign, a fundraising effort to provide a new venue for urban comedians in Philadelphia. Ruffin says the plan is not necessarily to reopen at the club's current location on South Street, but to raise enough money to lease a temporary venue until a new, permanent space can be built or purchased.
"17 years is a long time to have a black owned business on South Street in Philadelphia. But this new plan calls for a new and better way to create opportunities in a place that can hopefully keep inner-city urban comedy alive for another 10-15 years or more," Ruffin said.
"Our minimal goal is $100,000. With 100,000 we could possibly lease a new building for a while and help fund events that strengthen our culture, and still keep opportunities alive for black comedians in the city. But what we really need is $1 million so we can build a whole new place with, hopefully, two showrooms and a classroom."
The fundraiser is being hosted on crowdfunding web site indiegogo.com. According to the site, if the $100,000 goal is not reached by Sept. 3, all of the monies received will go back to the people who donated. But that's something the club owner's daughter Noel Millwood hopes they won't have to do.
"We want to get a new location and start the whole thing over, hopefully within the next 60 days. I think it will happen. I have hope; I believe in our effort, I think we can do it,” Millwood said.
Closing a chapter
Noel Millwood took over managing the club six months ago when her father's ability to handle the day-to-day business waned due to the loss of his wife Mona Wilkerson. Mona died of ovarian cancer early last year. Many described her as the heart of the club.
"When she passed, in my opinion, that building became almost a shell of what it used to be," Ruffin said.
"When Mona got sick my father just could not deal with the Laff House. Mona handled all of the business aspects of the Laff House as far as paying bills and everything, she was always there. So, after she got sick with terminal cancer, he started investing a lot of money and time into his wife and a lot of different ways to try to save her. After she passed, he kind of just lost it," Noel Millwood said.
"All of the memories and the time that they'd spent in the Laff House, he needed to leave that location. He couldn't survive being down there every day with their pictures all over the walls, and memories everywhere."
Rod Millwood made the announcement of the closing just a few days before he actually shut the doors for good. Rod Millwood said relations with some of his employees went sour when went online and complained because he couldn’t afford to provide health insurance for them. But Milwood maintains that he did everything he could to make the club a great workplace.
Anger over the closing allegedly escalated the night after the final show, when Millwood says some comedians and employees trashed the club.
"It broke my heart to see what they did to that place, they just went through tearing stuff off the walls. It hurts to see the things they’re saying about me too. I think people need to be aware of just how much we fought to make that place a haven for urban comedy," Rod Millwood said.
"When my wife passed, I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Without her, I couldn’t do it. And that’s why I closed. I had to bury my wife. I had to let it go and realize she’s gone and she’s never coming back. So closing the club gave me that option to say, okay, it’s over."
The club’s closing came as a sudden surprise to many of the fans that frequented there.
Cheryl Schwartz, 65, self-proclaimed comedian advocate says the closing of the Laff House creates a void in the city’s comedy scene.
"I just found out about the closing of the Laff House. It was sudden and it really hit me hard. The Laff House was a very, very big shelter for these comedians to come and perform; whether they were just getting started by performing open mic nights or if they were established comedians, they would go to the Laff House. When people came to visit from other cities, they would go to the Laff House to see good comedy there. I can’t imagine what the city will be without it," she said.
"It was the only place where you could see urban comedy every day that they were open. It wasn’t one day there’d be music, another day there’d be jazz, the next day there’d be spoken word; it was all comedy, all day, every day. Now, we just don’t have that anymore," Schwartz said.
Local comedian Lawrence Killebrew has been affiliated with the Laff House for nearly 11 years. While he’ll miss having a place like home to go to for comedy, Killebrew urged comedians to use the club’s closing as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones.
"Some will say this is a bad thing, but it’s a chance for comedians to really branch out and to try new things. I think the Laff House, being the staple that it was, it kind of put a hindrance on some comics because people would always just say well I’m going down to the Laff House but they don’t understand that its other opportunities out here," Killebrew said.
Ruffin says he's in the process of bringing together local comedians for input on how to make the Save the Laff House campaign a success. If they can't pull it off a rescue, he will still feel good about the effort.
"If we fail, if we don't reach our goal, at least I've made noise and maybe somebody will create a new home and opportunity for black comedy," Ruffin said.
So far, the campaign has raised $509. There are 56 days left before the campaign expires.
Rod Millwood says he has separate plans to revive the Laff House.
"I’m not saying I’ll never open another Laff House or I will never open up another club in the city of Philadelphia. There will be another Laff House. The Laff House is not dead and gone. But when I do open up another Laff House, it’s going to be a totally different ball game."