PORTLAND – The Comedy Connection will not reopen on Custom House Wharf, where it has operated for the last 19 years, while the future of the adjacent Porthole restaurant remains uncertain.
The Comedy Connection, the Porthole and the Harbour’s Edge banquet hall were shut down by the city last month after a health inspection revealed a rat infestation, among other code violations. All three businesses were affected because they share a kitchen and a liquor license.
The restaurant corrected code violations that put customers’ health at risk and opened several days later. A major renovation was planned for this winter to address the building’s structural problems.
But Oliver Keithly, who owns the three businesses, said Monday that he decided not to reopen the 156-seat comedy club because of all the work it would take to get a new liquor license and make the building comply with codes.
The renovation plan is complicated by the fact that Keithly leases the building from Kenneth MacGowan, who owns Custom House Wharf.
Keithly said the two have not come to terms for financing the renovation and he has told MacGowan that he plans to leave at the end of this month unless a deal is reached. All three businesses are now closed.
MacGowan met with city officials last week to discuss general issues associated with the pier, but no renovation plan was submitted, said City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.
Although he wouldn’t discuss details, Keithley said negotiations are under way on the future of the Porthole, which was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.”
MacGowan, however, said the business is closed for good and Keithly will be out by the end of the month.
A tenant has been found to replace the Harbour’s Edge, but MacGowan would not say who it is.
Keithly, 48, said stand-up comedy has always been more of a passion for him than restaurants. He fell in love with comedy when he was 17 and won two tickets to a show in Philadelphia.
He got a job at a comedy club in Philadelphia before taking a job managing the Comedy Connection in Boston. He worked there from 1984 to 1993, when he moved to Maine to start the Comedy Connection here.
Nationally, smaller comedy clubs are closing down, Keithly said, because they can’t draw big names. People generally won’t pay a $15 cover charge to see an unknown comedian.
While 500- to 800-seat clubs continue to do well, Keithly said, he is looking for an intimate location. “It has to be the right spot and have the right feel.”
The Comedy Connection provided a valuable platform for Bob Marley, a comedian from Maine who became nationally known but continued to perform at the club.
“What a bummer,” Marley said Monday of the club’s closure. “What a great mutual spot for the performer and the audience.”
Marley started performing at the club shortly after it opened. It was the first club where he headlined regularly. Two years ago, Marley got into Guinness World Records by performing for 30 hours straight at the Comedy Connection.
Even though he plays 300 to 400 shows a year in large theaters across the nation, Marley said he always looked forward to returning to the Comedy Connection, a place with low ceilings, an audience packed in like sardines and an open door whenever he wanted to perform.
“Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide — that’s what I loved about it,” he said. “Without that place, there’s no way I would be where I’m at now.”
Marley, who said his father worked at the club for 10 years, said Keithly doesn’t get enough credit for creating a top-notch comedy club in Portland — a place where aspiring comedians could cut their teeth and test their material.
“When you’re finding your voice, you really need a club,” he said. “It’s my favorite club ever.”
Over the years, Keithly said, he has seen the healing powers of comedy, for someone who was having a bad day or going through a major life struggle. “People are just transformed from when they come in to when they leave,” he said.
It’s an experience he doesn’t want to leave behind.
Despite the financial challenge of running a small comedy club, Keithly is confident that the Comedy Connection will find a new home in Portland.
“Portland embraced the Comedy Connection on Day 1,” he said. “Portland will embrace a quality product. They’ll support it whether it shows up two months from now or two years from now.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: