By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Bruce Ayers remembers the blizzard of 1993 for reasons different than most.
The Super Storm dumped 13 inches of snow on Birmingham and Ayers had just signed a 10-year lease for the StarDome Comedy Club’s location on Green Springs Highway. The shopping center where it was situated would have its named changed to the Comedy Club Plaza.
“Carrot Top was our headliner. We were sold out for the weekend and then it started snowing on Friday morning, and by 2 p.m. they closed I-65 and we had to close,” Ayers recalled. “So we decided to go to home and have a party. We all went to my house [in Hoover] and just enjoyed ourselves. The next morning I get a phone call from the Homewood Fire Department: ‘Bruce, we’ve got bad news and we’ve got really bad news. Your club is on fire and we can’t get there.’”
Ayers decided to walk from Hoover to the StarDome Comedy Club in Homewood. A local news truck went to his house to get him, taking over four hours for the trip.
“I get there and it was flat, there was nothing left,” Ayers remembered. “It was awful, we lost everything, and the only thing that made it was the cigarette machine.”
Ayers, 67, owner of the StarDome Comedy Club, has featured a number of comedians at his club who have included Kevin Hart, Mike Epps, Mo’Nique, Tracy Morgan, Sommore, Bob Saget, Chris Tucker, Adele Givens, Chris Rock, Sinbad, and D.L. Hughley.
“Watching their careers develop is so cool,” Ayers said.
After visiting a comedy club in Atlanta, The Punchline, Ayers got the idea to have a comedy show at his then-club, Singles. He booked J. Anthony Brown. “He was absolutely hilarious,” Ayers said. “I remember some of the jokes from his first show. When you see your first comedian live it really sticks with you.”
Brown continues to perform at the StarDome as recently as this month.
After the success of the comedy shows, Ayers went to his partners and suggested said they open a comedy club.
“At that time we had basically no money, and somehow me and three other guys managed to scrape together $15,000,” Ayers said. “And there used to be a motel by Red Mountain Express, where TCBY is called the Tara House Motel, and upstairs they knocked down the walls on three of the rooms and made a banquet hall that would seat 200 people.”
By October of 1983, Ayers and his partners opened the StarDome.
“It was difficult because then people had never heard of a comedy club,” Ayers said. “The only comedians you heard of were really big, like on the Tonight Show or the Ed Sullivan Show.”
After the fire in March 1993, he and his partners looked for a new place. They purchased a former dinner theatre on Data Drive in Hoover in September 1993, the Comedy Club’s current location. He still has mementoes from the building that burned including souvenir shirts from Carrot Top, an old article about a club Ayers previously owned, and a photo of the old Comedy Club.
Ayers began in sales. He worked with a friend who owned a club in Birmingham and became a part owner. After a trip to Atlanta to book a band to perform at their club, Singles, Ayers visited a comedy club while there: The Punchline. Ayers came back to Birmingham in April 1983, with the idea to put together a comedy show.
“The guy who was the opening act, was (actor) Don DiPetta’s dad,” Ayers said. “I went to those guys (at Punchline) and they helped me book a lot of our acts.”
Ayers got his big break with an unknown comedian.
“The guy who was booking the club for me said ‘you have to pick this guy up, he’s your feature act – you have an opening act first, then a feature and a headliner – and he’s traveling around the country and carrying everything with him trying to work.’
“So we booked him and he comes in and right before he went on stage I go up to the guy and tell him ‘Andy Virciglio is in the audience, he and his dad own Piggly Wiggly, would you wish him a happy birthday?’ So he goes up there and says ‘Is there a Mr. Piggly and Mrs. Wiggly?’ and he goes for 30 minutes off the top of his head and people loved it. He customized the show for the audience.”
That comedian was Sinbad. Over the next year, Sinbad was booked twelve times at the StarDome.
“At that time, of all of the comedy clubs in the country, I was probably the first to run on urban radio,” Ayers said. “I took Sinbad down to WENN Radio and he just tore it up. He became our star.”
Urban radio soon became Ayers’ target.
“That’s my audience,” Ayers said. “It was 1983 and I have black and white couples sitting together and they don’t know each other. I’ve been doing that for 35 years and there hasn’t been a problem. I think we have one of the strongest urban audiences in the country.”
Another comedian discovered at the StarDome was Steve Harvey, who got tips from Sinbad.
“Steve was doing great, and then the Kings of Comedy comes on, and he got into radio and just went through the roof,” Ayers said. “It’s awesome to see how they’ve just become so successful.”
Ayers looks out for local talent as well.
“Around 1989, this local guy goes up on stage during open mic night. You go up there and you do five minutes’ worth of material, and to be honest 99 percent of the people who go up their first time aren’t that good, but every once in a while, someone comes up and you see the magic,” Ayers said. “His whole act was about his grandmother in church; it was Rickey Smiley.”
Ayers said he advised Smiley not to change his act for people.
“He started getting on the dirty side, and I said ‘Rickey you don’t need that,’ and he said ‘well, all the other guys are like that,’ and I told him he didn’t need to do that.” Ayers said. “He finally listened, because he doesn’t need it. He is his own type of comedian and he does well with what he has.”
Smiley became an opening act for Steve Harvey.
“Rickey shows up in a track suit, and opens the show like that,” Ayers said. “Steve goes ‘if you’re going to open for me, you better dress properly.’ Rickey goes flying home in between shows and puts a suit on. Him and Steve became close friends that night. In all these years, Steve has been kind of a mentor to Rickey. It was like he was paying it forward from what Sinbad taught him.”
Not everyone becomes a star.
“In the ’80s there were people who you thought would do really well, but something in their life would change and they would get out of comedy,” Ayers said. “We had a guy name Mark McCollum who won Star Search and he was really good for a couple of years, but he wanted to do something else.”
There are many acts that are just as funny as some big-named headliners who haven’t had the opportunity they deserve yet, he said.
“There’s a guy named JJ. He was Cedric the Entertainer’s opening act. He will make you cry laughing, but somehow people haven’t noticed him yet,” Ayers said. “We have those people all the time, and they just might not get there but they are just as funny as everyone else.”
Ayers said the comedians are part of his family when they perform at The StarDome.
“This is a family business, and our staff is like family, so when our acts come here they feel comfortable,” he said.
After years working with some of the country’s most talented funnymen, Ayers said he still hasn’t picked up any comedic skills.
“I’m the producer,” he said. “I book the acts, I make sure the lights are right and everything is running smoothly; I want the experience of coming here to be great for everyone.”