Over the past 25 years, Colleen Barshop has helped provide San Antonio with loads of laughs. Over the past several days, she hasn’t been alone in shedding a few tears.
The longtime owner of the Improv Comedy Club in the Shops at Rivercenter, once known as the Rivercenter Comedy Club, closed the doors to her stage and a lot of memories Sunday following the final show.
When she answered the phone this week and realized the voice on the other end belonged to a reporter wanting to talk about her decision to exit the role she has filled for more than two decades, she said, “You’re going to make me cry again. I’ve been crying since Sunday.”
Barshop is approaching her 65th birthday and said she has been thinking about retiring for several years, as has her co-owner husband, Bruce. She never really lost the passion for helping people laugh that led her to open the club in 1993 but she was ready to put those 7 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m. shifts behind her, she said.
She will never again have to answer the phone and hear “what time does the midnight show begin?” Unless, of course, one of her comedian pals calls her up and asks just for giggles.
She wants to travel and will still have a foot in the comedic door as a consultant and 50 percent owner of the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club on the North Side. She sold a stake in that club to Tom Castillo, who owns the Improv in Arlington and Houston.
“I’ve had a great run here,” Barshop said. “The city of San Antonio has been very supportive of me. I’ve been very blessed by that and we’ve been able to bring in a lot of great comedy. I’ve seen local comics do well.
“When I had a big event, I could call in my former employees and they would come in and help me. You know how rare that is? Especially in a bar situation. I’m so grateful for all that stuff.”
The Barshop name is well-known in San Antonio and throughout Texas. Bruce Barshop’s father, Sam Barshop, founded La Quinta Inns with his brother Philip and served as chairman of the board, president and CEO. The longtime leader in San Antonio’s Jewish community died in 2013.
Sam Barshop also spent much of his life working to improve higher education in the state as a member of numerous boards and leadership groups for universities and colleges including the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His time in that role ended right around the time his son and daughter-in-law were opening their comedy club.
Its closing leaves a void in the entertainment scene downtown. The only other stand-up comedy venue is Jokesters 22 Pub ‘N Grub in Southtown at 713 S. Alamo St. But Jokesters is less than one-third the size of the 350-seat club the Barshops are closing.
Colleen Barshop said it has become significantly harder to be successful with a comedy club after a quarter-century because of how downtown San Antonio has developed and mostly because of the Internet, where comedy is so readily available.
She said there is much stiffer competition for entertainment dollars downtown these days than there was when she opened the club with Drew Carey as the inaugural headliner. The club has welcomed many of the most well-known comics in the world, including Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Ron White, and Carlos Mencia, among others.
Jay LaFarr, a comedian who has called San Antonio home since 2003 after moving here from New York, estimated he performed at the club more than 1,000 times over the years.
Gabriel Iglesias gave LaFarr a guest spot on one of his shows at the club years ago. That night, as Iglesias began to run low on merchandise to sell to fans, he asked LaFarr to go to his hotel room and retrieve more.
LaFarr said he was happy to help but forgot to give Iglesias his hotel room key back when he returned. LaFarr said Iglesias for some reason had to get another hotel room but forgave LaFarr and invited him back for a second show the next night.
“After I was done, he went on and did like seven minutes about what a (jerk) I was for losing the key to his room,” LaFarr said. “That, for me, was one of my favorite moments. That and just meeting so many talented, amazing performers, some of whom have passed on.”
LaFarr said he got his start at the Rivercenter and always considered it his home club even as he was able to eventually travel around the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to perform. He was stunned to hear of its closing.
“It’s kind of weird thing,” LaFarr said. “It brings your mortality into your mind because you’re like, ‘Things are finite,’ and something that you love that much can just be gone with almost no notice. It’s strange.”
Chris Duel almost literally made the club his home in the mid-1990s. He worked as one of two regular emcees throughout the year, and during the day he worked for the Barshops, running errands and doing just about any club business that needed to be done.
When he suffered ruptured discs in his back and needed surgery, the Barshops added him as a full-time employee and provided medical insurance so he could afford the surgery. Duel called it “a miracle” because at the time it was becoming more and more difficult just to walk.
Later, the club held a benefit with many of the other local comedians performing to help raise money for Duel, who is now host of a sports talk show on KTKR-AM The Ticket on weekday afternoons and the San Antonio Spurs studio host on WOAI-AM. Duel said he will always be grateful to the Barshops and the San Antonio comedy family who helped him through that time.
“I met so many great comics, not just local comics but national comics,” Duel said. “It created a comedy outlet in this city that never existed before. There were other little hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs here and there that would appear for a couple of years in San Antonio and disappear in a little strip mall or something. This place was as good a club as you would find in America.”
Danny Ingle is a San Antonio native who attended John Jay High School nearly 40 years ago. He didn’t get his start in comedy until he was nearly 40 and has enjoyed hundreds of nights on the Rivercenter stage in addition to years spent performing his act on the road and on cruise ships.
He said he is hopeful another club will open downtown because the city’s entertainment scene is diminished without it. He said the Rivercenter club provided tourists a comedy option and provided local comedians a chance to try their material on people from many other parts of the world.
“That was the cool thing about being downtown and performing at that club, because if you performed at that club, one of the things I would tell younger comics is you could perform all over the country,” he said. “We had so many tourists.”
Barshop kept a baby board in her office. It had more than a dozen photos of the babies born to parents who worked for her over the years, including one of girl who eventually worked in her club’s box office. Barshop said that told her they were treating people right.
“It’s been a fun business,” she said. “You see these comics grow up and do things. It’s great.”