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Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle reopens after pandemic shutdown
It's been a long seven-plus months in quarantine for Mark Ridley.
"I've never had such a long honey-do list as I have during the pandemic," the owner of Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, the metro area's premiere club, quips by phone from his home in western Michigan.
The shutdown comes to an end this week, however. For the first time since March 15, the Comedy Castle will open its doors staring Thursday, Nov. 5, with performances by Nick Griffin and others, plus a regular slate of comics coming in each Thursday through Sunday.
The times ensure that things will be different, however. Adhering to state health department mandates, the Comedy Castle will only seat 20 percent of its capacity — about 80 people — all socially distanced throughout the room. Sanitation and safety will be top priorities, and Ridley says the venue's staff has been working overtime to put all those measures in place.
"It takes more people to do more things in a shorter period of time, with less people in the club," Ridley explains. "I'll have two people full-time wiping and cleaning tables, rest rooms, doors. We'll have somebody else outside to make sure people line up 6 feet apart, someone at the door taking temperatures. We'll have hand sanitizer everywhere." Food will still be provided by the Royal Oak Brewery, using QR codes instead of physical menus for orders.
"We have to do all these things," Ridley says. "You want people to be safe, first of all, and you want them to feel like this is a safe place to come."
Precautions have also been taken for the performer areas, including keeping the (generally) three acts in separate areas of the club each night. Saturday comedy classes will resume as well with their own protocols, including social distancing and separate microphones for everybody.
Ridley was able to maintain the Comedy Castle while it was dark via government loans and grants offered when the pandemic hit. He also started a "Conversations with Comedy Castle Comedians" series on YouTube to raise money for the nonprofit TipYourWaitstaff.com. And he's a member of the National Independent Venue Association, an organization lobbying Congress to include include relief funds specifically for live entertainment operations in any new aid and stimulus packages.
Nevertheless, economics are also tricky in the new era, reflected in slightly higher ticket prices (starting at $20 for most of the shows).
"I want to bring Jon Lovitz, back in, Preacher Lawson, but if I can't guarantee them a 400-seat room ... I don't know," Ridley says. "And if they do, what will the ticket price have to be?"
Neverthless, he's finding that touring comedians want to work — with exceptions such as Kathleen Madigan, who's holding off for now — and their managers and agents are being "extremely cooperative" in trying to make shows viable. John Heffron's early show on Nov. 14, in fact, is already sold out.
"Obviously I can't pay as much as I normally pay. Nobody can," Ridley acknowledges. "Everybody wants to get back to work, so we're all working together with that in mind." The Comedy Castle is currently booked into March, he says, but Ridley is taking little for granted right now.
"I'm happy we're going again, but I have some trepidation," he says. "(The virus) is spiking again, so who knows when orders will come down that we've got to shut down again? That's a real possibility. The reality is until there's a vaccine or a cure, we won't be 100 percent. And then you have to have the economy recover and people having disposable income again.
"It's a perfect storm, really. We just have to do the best we can and hope we can hold on until we get back to normal — whatever that will be."
Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle re-opens Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 5-7, with performances by Nick Griffin at 310 S. Troy St., Royal Oak; 248-542-9900, comedycastle.com.
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