During most comedy shows, patrons sit cafe-style on the Raue stage.

Laugh it Up at Raue Center’s Comedy Cafe

When it comes to big-name comedians and a yet-to-be-discovered stand-up artists, this Crystal Lake theater knows how to exercise its funny bone.

During most comedy shows, patrons sit cafe-style on the Raue stage.
During most comedy shows, patrons sit cafe-style on the Raue stage.

If you’re looking for a good laugh, you’re sure to find one at Lucy’s Comedy Cafe, hosted at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., in Crystal Lake.

The regular comedy series features top local, regional and national comedy acts touring the country. It’s performed on the main stage of the Raue, where patrons sit at cafe-style seating adjacent to the comedian. The stage has seating for about 160, but when notable headliners such as Lily Tomlin and Paula Poundstone visit, the entire 750-seat theater is used.

Lucy’s Comedy Cafe pays tribute to Lucile Raue, the venue’s namesake, who lived and worked most of her life in a four-square-block area in downtown Crystal Lake. Raue’s generous gift supported a 2001 renovation of downtown Crystal Lake’s movie palace. The comedy show opened eight years ago as a way to attract younger audiences to the downtown theater at a reasonable price.

“It started at the height of the recession,” says Richard Kuranda, artistic director. “We were looking for an opportunity to have people come together socially – something that was reasonable. Plus, it was easier selling 160 tickets than 700 at the time.

“We hosted a couple of focus groups, and the three things people wanted were independent films, a dance club and comedy,” he adds. “We tried all three. The films didn’t take off. We tried a dance party, and that didn’t work out, either. Comedy was the only thing that stuck.”

Pat McGann is a Chicago comedian who’s performed at the Raue several times since Lucy’s Cafe opened. McGann, a salesman-turned-comedian, appeared twice on “The David Letterman Show,” wrote and directed a comedy show called “Wild Pitches” for the charity arm of the Chicago White Sox and also developed a TV show on Chicago’s WTTW called “The Chicago Stand-Up Project,” in which he taught local celebrities – such as a football player, pastor, TV anchor and jewelry designer – the finer points of comedy before they hit the stage.

“The Raue is one of the best one-night gigs in the Midwest,” McGann says. “There aren’t many good one-nighters out there, which are a really big segment for comedians. It’s a nice venue that has a real cabaret feel to it. It’s not the back room of a bar. It’s a historic, beautiful theater and really classy. It’s a breath of fresh air. It feels like show business.”

It didn’t take long for word about the infectious laughter at Lucy’s Cafe to spread among local residents. Initially, 80 to 90 percent of audiences came from a 10-mile radius, Kuranda says. These days, crowds come not only from Crystal Lake but also from Glencoe, Barrington and other suburbs.

Another trend has developed: what was once a predominately 20-something couples crowd has grown to include people from their 30s to 60s.

And it’s not just couples, anymore. Groups celebrating birthdays and retirement parties turn out in droves. Sixty percent of audiences are female. Six performances sold out last year.

“It’s more than caught on – we’ve had to turn people away,” says Kuranda. “Of course, some comics have their own following, which has helped. But when we did our initial focus groups, it was moms and dads who needed a night out. Now it’s so much more. What we’ve done is built a dialogue with fans of comedy. We’ve cultivated a relationship with an audience that appreciates the art form. Standup comedy is a craft. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into each act, and I think the audience recognizes it for what it is – a good time.”

Raue officials mine for acts anywhere they can. Kuranda, for example, occasionally travels out of state to observe up-and-coming comedians, while others simply call the Raue asking to perform in front of a live audience. Recent acts include high school and college graduates, a Wrigley Field beer vendor and a couple of retirees who work part-time at a Chicago-area Zanies Comedy Club. Performers at Lucy’s Cafe get anywhere from a few minutes to 45 minutes on stage; headliners perform for as long as two to three hours.

“We have no constraints – we just try to find comics who have something to say,” Kuranda says. “Sometimes it doesn’t click. But they’re always up there trying. Persistence and tenacity embody the standup comic.”

There are endless stories of comedians who’ve come through Crystal Lake. The late George Carlin appeared at Raue several years ago, but his show proved too profane for some patrons, who walked out. Bob Saget cleaned up his show after he noticed the audience wasn’t his typical following of college students.

“We were taking a risk, but the audience loved him,” says Kuranda. Dwayne Kennedy, Rocky LaPorte, Patti Vasquez and John DaCosse are other frequent performers with some name recognition. WGN radio host Steve Cochran has also performed a special New Year’s Eve show at the Raue.

“What separates our comedy from other venues is the intimacy,” says Kuranda. “You’re not going to get an experience like this anywhere else. And for the comedians, it’s grown into kinship. There’s a brotherhood among them. We’ve had comics meet here and end up working together. It’s really special.”

Perhaps the most memorable entertainer was the late Joan Rivers. Not only did she perform for nearly three hours, but she spent time giving advice to Raue officials on how to run a comedy club and agreed to take part in a public service announcement promoting the venue.

“Joan was in control the entire time,” says Kuranda. “She was so polished and had an uncanny ability to connect with the audience. When it works, it’s amazing.”

McGann says comedians now look forward to playing the Raue. “We’re treated well. It has a nice green room and the audience is well-trained,” he says. “They know that shows start on time, they know not to talk or look at their cellphones during the show. That’s all comedians want. And to get paid, of course.”

Comedy has helped, in part, to increase overall Raue activity. Programming has jumped from 150 dates a year to more than 300. Combine that with the many shops and dining options nearby, and most agree that downtown Crystal Lake is the place to be on weekends.

“That’s what Lucy’s Comedy Cafe has done for us,” says Kuranda. “What started out as cheap entertainment has grown into benchmark programming. There’s always something going on.”

Two years ago, the Raue started its own improv group, a form of live theater in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment. On the third Thursday of every month, a small group of local actors performs in the lobby of the Raue, in front of audiences of 40 or more. Residents like Crystal Lake’s Slim the Barber take part in sketch, short and long-form comedy.

“Laughter is contagious,” says McGann. “It becomes an addiction. It’s an escape. During a comedy show, you’re with other people, and your endorphins get going. It’s good to laugh.”

Upcoming Lucy’s Comedy Cafe dates include Aug. 28, Nov. 20, Jan. 8, March 4, April 8 and May 20. For tickets, call the box office at (815) 356-9212 or visit rauecenter.org. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 the day of the show.