A recent Friday morning broadcast of Chuy Gomez’ KMEL show featured stand-up comedian Earthquake, there to promote his Father’s Day weekend run at the new Tommy T’s club in Oakland. He was the first in a lineup of “urban” comics slated to perform at the sprawling Jack London Square venue, formerly known as just Kimball’s Carnival. He marked the occasion with a snide joke about the ubiquity of the phrase “formerly known as.” So many Oakland clubs have spotty finances, Earthquake assured, that it behooves new owners to tack up a sign for every shutdown and reopening: “Formerly Known as … ‘That Other Brother’s Club.'”
If you’ve been following the Oakland club death watch — recent casualties include Simone’s Cabaret, Cabel’s Reef, and Mingles Martini & Champagne Lounge — you’ll realize he’s hardly joking. The dearth of restaurants and businesses in Jack London Square make it a particularly precarious place to launch an entertainment venture, and recent stabs at urban comedy — including Bernard’s Funny Fridays and Club Anton’s short-lived “Tickle Me Tuesdays” — flirted briefly with success, then flopped.
But ebullient franchise operator Tommy T, who launched his first club in San Leandro in the late ’70s and reopened Tommy T’s Comedy Club & Steakhouse last year in Pleasanton, seems inured to such harbingers of doom. In fact, he says he’s been wanting to open an Oakland chapter for six months already, given the large potential audience, and lack of competition — despite the rise and fall of weekly showcases and open mics over the years, it has never had anything like Cobb’s or the Punch Line in San Francisco. “I liked the location,” he insists. “The size of the room was really good, and they gave me Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.”
He and the owners of Kimball’s came up with a plan that would have Tommy T “full-walling” the four-hundred-capacity room. That meant he’d book the shows, take the door, hire a door staff, and pay the comics, while the owners oversaw the rest of the club — a sports bar roughly half a square block in size — and pocketed the returns from food and beverages.
Once they sealed the deal, Tommy T painted the room, fixed the lighting, added 25 booths with spanking-new tables and chairs, and installed a tricked-out sound system. The first two shows didn’t sell out, he says — Earthquake and subsequent comic Eddie Griffin filled the place to about half capacity on their best-selling nights — but Tommy remains cautiously optimistic. “The club has a whole lotta plus things,” he says. “It’s got the size, the location, the parking, and it’s got the great station, KBLX, behind it.” (He’s bought radio time for comics to do promotional interviews on KBLX’ Morning Drive. ) And even if the first two shows didn’t sell out, Mr. T adds, “We had excellent responses.”