Live comedy returns to area as Reactors opens in Glen Mills
By J. Chambless
Chris Coccia (left) was the headliner for the opening show of the Reactors Comedy Club last weekend in Glen Mills. The club manager is John Ager (seated).
By John Chambless
Chris Carroll and John Ager were
expecting a few people over last weekend at their new comedy club,
but they weren't sure how many. Could be dozens, could be hundreds,
but the aim is the same: Bring top-quality comedy back to the
Brandywine Valley, week after week.
Chris is the wife of comedian Jim Carroll, and she flatly says she prefers to stay out of the spotlight and handle things behind the scenes. They've been at this long enough to have seen lean times lead to a boom and return to lean times, but they've kept going. They've been running a successful comedy club in Allentown for years, and they figured the time is right to expand.
So does John Ager, a professional comedian who was invited back by the Carrolls from his steady gig in Reno to manage the new Reactors Comedy Club, which opened on Oct. 7 at the landmark Wyndham Garden Hotel at the intersection of routes 202 and 1. The lower level at the hotel has a nice-size meeting room for about 90 people, and an auditorium next door that seats 175, Ager said, so if things go well, Reactors will take over the big room right away. Or they could take it over in the coming weeks. In any case, there are two top comedians booked each weekend at the club through the end of the year.
“We're going to play it by ear,” Ager said. “We don't know who's coming the first weekend. I'm not only the manager, I'm the emcee, so I get up and do around 10 minutes to warm up the crowd. We'll bring up the featured act and he'll do about 30 minutes, then we have a 15-minute intermission. I get back up, warm up the crowd again, and the headliner does 45 minutes to an hour.”
Ager has been working with the Carrolls for about 25 years, long enough to have seen the boom in comedy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when new clubs seemed to open every weekend. The Delaware Valley was a magnet for comedians for several years, until oversaturation diluted the talent pool and club owners were struggling to find enough acts to fill the available slots.
One of the region's most acclaimed and consistent comedians, Chris Coccia, was the headliner for the opening weekend at Reactors, and he said during an interview at the hotel early last week that he couldn't wait to welcome a new club to town.
He's a veteran of the boom and a survivor of the bust, and he's still working regularly as a professional standup. He recalled when “there was comedy everywhere, and people said, 'Well, I don't have to go tonight. I can go some other time. It'll always be there.' There were so many clubs that a lot of guys who shouldn't have been headliners were moving up. There were so many empty slots to fill. The other thing was that the audience started getting older, getting married, buying a house, having kids. So they couldn't come out and see a show anymore.”
The number of clubs nationwide shrank considerably, but there have always been places for a comedian to work. The emphasis now is on filling a niche where there's no live comedy at all – such as the Chester County/Delaware County corridor along Route 1. The location is within 15 minutes of Wilmington and half an hour of the Philly suburbs, with free parking and high visibility.
“It's great to see this kind of club come back,” Coccia said. “This is how you develop a comedy fan. This is a place to see a show, and you don't have to fight to get into the city. It's a great location.”
Coccia pointed to booming West Chester and Kennett Square, as well as the commercial development along Route 1 and 202, as proof that “there's money here, and there are people who want to go out and do stuff. This is a great area, and it's exactly the audience you want.”
The emphasis at Reactors will be on comedy that anyone can appreciate – some adult innuendo, perhaps, but no shocking acts. “There might be an off-color word here and there, but it's very clean humor. We aim for the 18-plus age group,” Ager said.
Coccia is a veteran and he's used to adjusting his act when he sees who's in the audience. “As a comic, coming into a room like this, you adjust. If I look out and there's two tables full of red-hat ladies, I'll adjust. That's your job. You're not going to throw your act out the window, but you adjust. The other thing is that, as the comedy crowd got older, it doesn't mean they stopped loving comedy. It just means it's harder to stay out late. If you see a show here and you live in West Chester or Wilmington, you're home by 11 at the latest. That's why a club like this is the greatest.
“Knock on wood,” he said, pulling up a tablecloth to see what the table was made of, “this will take off. There are people asking for this.”
Ager said he's a fan of classic comedians as well as local standups Jimmy Carroll, Chris Rich, and Mike Stankiewicz. “A lot of them are coming here,” he said. “We're booked through the end of the year. I watch a lot of people on Comedy Central, and they're not as funny as some people think they are – in my opinion. There are a lot of comedians who haven't been on a national stage who are just as good, if not better.”
Coccia added, “With comedians who put the miles in, you can see the difference. I kind of blame places like Comedy Central a bit, but who's not going to take stardom? They say, 'Hey, we're going to give you a comedy special,' and who's not going to take that? Are they ready for it? Probably not. Those guys are not necessarily ready for going into a town in the middle of the country and working to an audience that isn't on the same wavelength they are.
“Looking at the lineup that's coming here, these guys have worked with everything,” Coccia added. “They've worked amazing gigs and places like, 'Why are we in a basement?' Those are the gigs where you just have to figure out how to make it work, and at least get out of there with some bit of pride left. You learn from that and get better.”
Chris Carroll said she got in touch with the management at the hotel in late August, and the club lineup came together quickly. It helps that comedy doesn't require much more than a microphone and a spotlight, but it's her decades of experience in every unseen aspect of running a club that will pay off for audiences and the comedians who work at Reactors.
“My husband worked here 15 years ago when it was a Ramada,” Carroll said. “It's a great area. You can pull from West Chester, Kennett Square, Media. It's a great hub. We are running with it. This is the best time to open a comedy club, because summer's slow. Everybody goes away. In fall, people start looking for things to do. It's a perfect time to open. So hopefully everybody will come out and have a great time.”
Reactors Comedy Club is in the lower level of the Wyndham Garden Hotel (1110 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills). Shows are every Friday and Saturday night. Doors open at 8 p.m., and the show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 610-358-1700 or visit www.reactorscomedyclub.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.