The Ice House turns 59 this year. But on Sunday, when the club celebrates its birthday and helps raise money for Hillsides, a Pasadena-based mental health and foster care organization for children, it will also be marking the end of an era with the passing of the keys to the club from longtime owner Bob Fisher to new owner Johnny Buss.
The 75-year-old Fisher will be at the Hillsides event. In fact, part of the terms of the sale was that all of the employees would be rehired and “the name would be continued,” Fisher explained.
“I’ll be remaining on as a consultant for the next year or two,” to help guide new owner Buss, who is also co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Fisher explained.
After 41 years, Fisher has many memories, including seeing comedians at the beginning of their careers “when they were an opening act,” with some going on to make it big, like George Lopez and Jerry Seinfeld. Another great memory, “is when an audience really laughs,” he said. “It is like the waves of an ocean.”
Buss, 63, said he and his father, the late LA Lakers owner Jerry Buss, had talked about starting a comedy variety club for decades. The elder Buss had tried it at his resorts in Palm Springs and Mammoth Lake, but, Buss explained, “The venues weren’t set up like a theater, or any kind of night club,” and they “really never would have worked the way they should have.”
The change in ownership at the Ice House could bode well for Hillsides. Chief Advancement Officer Carrie Espinosa has been working there for 22 years, and has also been working with the Ice House all that time. Hillsides has five core programs serving at-risk children and their families. The proceeds of the Ice House anniversary fundraiser go toward a variety of outings and activities, including a Christmas Eve party with a traditional dinner, along with a visit from Santa, a summer carnival and movie days.
Espinosa said Hillsides has recognized Fisher for what she called his “extraordinary contributions” by creating a fund in his name, presenting him with a lifetime achievement award in 2011, and naming a stage in their auditorium in his honor in 2005.
Willard Chilcott opened the club on Sept. 23, 1960 as a music venue. Fisher was part of a group that purchased the club in 1978, turning it into a comedy club. In 1981 he became sole owner. The first comedian to appear on stage was deadpan Pat Paulsen. Since then many major comedians have appeared on stage, among them Robin Williams, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Bill Maher, David Letterman, Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart and the Smothers Brothers. It was on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (1967-69) that Paulsen became famous for his satirical runs for president from 1968 through the 1990s. Many comedians recorded live albums at the club on North Mentor Avenue.
Physician comedian Ken Jeong (“Community,” “The Hangover” and “The Masked Singer”) recorded his 2019 Netflix special there, “You Complete Me, Ho,” last year.
Jeong, along with Paul Rodriguez (MTV’s “Mis Videos Locos”), KNBC’s weatherman and standup comedian Fritz Coleman and Drew Lynch, “America’s Got Talent” second place finisher (Season 10 in 2015), will be part of the all-star anniversary show that begins at 7 p.m. but includes a pre-show reception and silent auction from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and a live auction following the show.
Growing up, Buss was a fan of silent movies, naming his second child in honor of Charlie Chaplin, and coming to appreciate the work of such greats as Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield and Red Skelton. “They were absolute heroes of mine,” he said. While he admits, “I did take a comedy class,” he never had aspirations to do standup because, “I never thought I could do comedy.” However, he does well at public speaking, mainly because he’s been doing that since he was a teenager.
“I’ll begin hosting some shows,” he said.
He does know that he wants this to be a family business, something that he hopes his children, now 7 and 9, will grow into.
Although Buss took over in November, Fisher still owns the building, while Buss said he owns the business. Other details about the sale were not immediately available.
“We are negotiating for the building,” Buss said.
While Buss intends to “uphold the historic value of the Ice House,” he also has plans to “give it a nice shot in the arm.”
As he noted, “I think I can bring in more people and just about sell out every night.”
As a part owner of the Lakers, Buss is also negotiating for the Ice House to be the official comedy club of the team. That matter will be up to the NBA league office in New York. But either way, Buss expects there will be a strong Lakers presence at the club, as well as a few celebrities he knows dropping by.
What will Fisher be doing in retirement?
“I’m currently looking for a wealthy woman who’s interested in a short, balding, overweight senior citizen,” he joked. More seriously, he said, “I’m not worried. I’m pretty creative. I’ll find things that interest me.”
You might find things that interest you at the auctions being held at Sunday’s birthday party and fundraiser. Espinosa noted that the silent auction will include family-friendly gift baskets and dinners at Pasadena favorites, like Marston’s Restaurant. The live auction will include passes to the Magic Castle, along with a brunch and tickets to “The Book of Mormon” at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The Ice House Comedy Club 59th Anniversary Show is on Sunday, Dec. 8, in the main room at 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $75. Must be 21. For more information, call (626) 577-1894 or visit IceHouseComedy.com.