Finding comedy during crisis: Panida Theater provides hope through pandemic

by ALY DE ANGELUS
Staff Writer | July 28, 2020 1:00 AM

The Panida Theater smelt like fresh buttered popcorn with a hint of booze and a dash of sweat. It was a hot summer day and 61 audience members shuffled into the theater late July 18.

Comedians Richie Minervini and Kristi McHugh were rehearsing backstage when they stopped to relish in the hum of voices.

“We were backstage and I said, ‘Kristi, can you hear it?,’” Minervini said. “Sometimes you’ve got to start from zero, but we already had a headstart tonight. They were already in the mood.”

Rows were tapped off to encourage social distance and many attendees wore masks at the event. But, somehow the city of Sandpoint seemed more united than usual.

“People were commenting in the lobby, ‘This was so nice, to be able to feel like we were doing something normal for a change,’” said Patricia Walker, executive director of Panida Theater.

Since March, COVID-19 has shortchanged theaters nationwide. Without volunteers, customers, productions and events, theaters have been suffering a harsh fate — bankruptcy.

Noticing a trend, Walker decided to dedicate the third annual “Comedy for a Cause” event entirely to the Panida Theater. She and her entire staff have been laid off due to the pandemic.

“I am laid off but I am still working, as are a lot of other people, so we are pulling events off,” Walker said. “We are just not showing movies because we couldn’t get enough people in to cover the revenue loss.”

Last year, revenue and donations totaled $20,730 per month. “Now I have about $1,012 each month to pay the bills,” Walker told the Daily Bee.

In July, a campaign was launched to raise a little over $41,000 for operational costs and to bring workers back to the theater.

Walker is determined to keep Sandpoint’s historic theater alive, no matter the cost.

“It’s like the heartbeat of our community,” she said. “Being the caretaker of that heartbeat, which I take very seriously, it’s hard when it’s struggling.”

Built as a vaudeville and movie house by F.C. Weskil in 1927, the Panida Theater has served this small North Idaho community for generations. Through recessions, wars and everything in-between, the marquee light has always symbolized hope and resilience.

“People would come to the theater as a relief,” Walker said. “Our challenge has been to regenerate that feeling as much as possible.”

Hungry For a Laugh

Payment or not, Minervini flew from Florida to perform for an audience. He invited Kristi McHugh, a Los Angeles comedian to accompany him.

“People come up to me and say, ‘In a 750 seat room there were 61 people there,’” Minervini said. “Well, you are not working for the people that didn’t show up. You work for the 61 people who were there and they were really happy to be there.”

Fostering community morale has been a challenge with social distancing protocol, but Minervini and McHugh were able to fill the theater with laughter and electricity.

“They enjoyed themselves and they rolled the dice,” he said. “They didn’t know who Kristi or Richie was, but they were like, ‘Alright, save the theater.’”

The King of Comedy

For 35 years, Richard Minervini has been a class-act comedian on cruise ships, in movies and TV shows.

In 1978, Minervini signed a 20-year lease on the back-end of his real estate career and turned the restaurant into The East Side Comedy Club, a Long Island sanctuary for unknown comics. His opening night lineup included Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.

“Eddie had like eight minutes, Jerry Seinfeld was the star, he had like 13 minutes, Paul Reiser I gave $5 to begrudgingly because he sucked,” Minervini said laughing. “And the next week, it just took off.”

Minervini owned The East Side Comedy Club for years and many comedians such as Rosie O’Donnell, Jay Leno, Kevin James and Ray Romano started their stand-up careers there.

He said his love for comedy began with one wholesome and valiant pursuit — making his father laugh.

Although Minervini’s father is a former NYPD officer and U.S. Marine, he had a soft spot for Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast on Thursday nights.

“I was sitting next to my dad and he would laugh,” Minervini said. “It was the only time. He had six kids, it was a cop salary, serious work, but he would laugh. I wanted to make him laugh.”

At first, Minervini’s father was not supportive. However, after eight years in the profession, his 1987 gig on Star Search finally earned him praise from his father.

“He goes into the office and they go, ‘Hey Rich, is that your kid Richie Minervini on TV? He was fantastic,’” Minervini said. “My father had never come out to see me in eight years. I was terrible, I sucked, he’d say ‘You know you are embarrassing the family, why don’t you change your last name?’ And after that he got it. Somehow he just joined in.”

Minervini performed last year in Sandpoint after staying with his sister, Ginna Maus, during knee surgery recovery. Maus said she is most impressed by her brother’s ability to weave local history into his acts.

The night before his show he was given a tour of A&P Bar & Grill. Off-the-cuff, he transformed his experience into a joke onstage.

“Travis is there from the A&P Bar and I was like, ‘You know, this place was a brothel where you paid 25 cents and met a woman,” Minervini said. “Now of course, it’s not a brothel. You have to just go and buy them a drink.”

Among other jokes of the evening involved buying points for Weight Watchers on Craigslist and receiving a mask mandate from his wife — a Matthew McConaughey mask — to wear to bed.

Minervini is known to many as the “King of Comedy,” and Sandpoint made sure to provide the royal treatment. He spent a week in the historic Schweitzer Castle.

Minervini loved the castle, but the knights in shining armor don’t exactly bode well at night.

Lady of Comedy Law

Just over 15 years ago, Kristi McHugh was thrown off course by Hollywood’s leading lady, Tippi Hedren, who was shooting a film in Omaha, Nebraska. McHugh had already received an acceptance letter to law school and was schlepping drinks at a hotel to pay for tuition when Hedren arrived in town.

“She was just lovely,” McHugh said. “She said come to my room, she was brushing her hair and I am like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Hedren said she was about to do another film in Moab, Utah, and offered McHugh to stay at her house in Los Angeles until she headed off to law school.

“I am like, ‘OK. I guess I will,’” McHugh said. “I had $600 in my pocket, and I was like that’s going to take care of me for a year. I had a little red Grand Am and I rolled out to L.A.”

McHugh drove across the country and followed Hedren’s directions to the T. She exited U.S. Route 101 and passed Capital Records on her right when she was instructed to stop and look up — she was sitting right in front of the Hollywood Sign.

For one month McHugh lived L.A.-style. She met Ted Knight, Matt Sorum and Frazier Smith, at her first stand up comedy gig.

“I am taking this acting class and the guy said, ‘Kristi you are the funniest girl here, will you please come with me and do a show?,’” McHugh said. “And I was like, ‘I am not a comedian’ and he was like, ‘Please, just three minutes,’ so I go.”

Rich Lewis and Frazier Smith were trying to rough out some new material for their second performance in the main room when they witnessed McHugh’s first comedy performance.

“They are in the back and I do my three-minute thing,” McHugh said. “Rich Lewis comes up to me and Frazer Smith was like, ‘Don’t stop, whatever you are doing.’ I never stopped.”

Three years later, McHugh was walked up to the American Airlines counter in the Burbank Airport to purchase a ticket for Sacramento.

“Who is there working? The dude who was in my acting class,” she said. “He goes, ‘What are you doing?’ and I go, ‘You. You started this, I am doing a gig in Sacramento.’ and he goes, ‘I work for American Airlines, I never made it’ and he bumped me up to first class.”

Since then McHugh has been on Spike TV, TBS, Comedy Central and performed with Rich Little, Dana Carvey, Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey and Jon Lovitz.

At the July 18 comedy event McHugh had the audience in the The Panida Theater laughing uncontrollably. She sufficiently shocked the crowd with her shocking experiences, politically incorrect jokes and her talent for playing the harmonica. One of her jokes explained the concept of “carbon dating” — dating an older man. She suggested a friendly game of hide and seek the walker to keep the relationship fresh and fun.

Although law school isn’t out of the question for her, McHugh said she doesn’t see herself leaving comedy anytime soon.

“I know so many women who reinvented themselves when they were 60, when they were 70 or 83,” she said. “I can always do that. But right now, I love it.”

Comedy for a Cause

The Panida Theater is empty again, but for a brief moment community members felt a sense of normalcy.

Comedy is one of the major entertainment industries to suffer financially due to COVID-19. Writers, dancers, musicians, entertainers and more have been labeled “non-essential” in an effort to promote health and safety protocol during the pandemic.

However, artists are also being called upon to help rejuvenate individuals and communities that are facing chronic grief and despair.

McHugh recalled the impact comedy has made for her audience, particularly with her appearance on “Spin City” a few years back.

“The guy came up to me at Laugh Factory and he said, ‘That show got me through my sickness,’” McHugh said. “He was laid up. Of course it’s not my show, but still.”

When Minervini’s high school sweetheart broke up with him, he remembered how comedy helped him through heartbreak. The night of the breakup he cried all night until his big brother walked into his bedroom and handed him a vinyl of George Carlin. When Minervini played that record he felt like everything was going to be OK.

“Tonight I was bragging and then it hit me. Non-essential?” Minervini said. “I mean I do so much to make people laugh and during these times, and now, ‘You, sir, are not needed.’”

Through trying times, Minervini has managed to get closer to his daughters than ever before. He has really enjoyed the extra time with his family.

“They’d say I’d be on the phone and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s my agent from the ship. That’s the guy who does movies. I have got to go,’” Minervini said. “And now I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s my brother,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you have to go?’ And I will say, ‘No I am talking to you guys.’”

Both Minervini and McHugh have been looking to perform at gigs, no matter the wages.

The Panida Theater is surviving but continues to seek donations and free services from the community.

“There’s always projects,” Walker said. “One on the top of my head is outside of the building. I typically have a person that handles all of the weeds and takes care of that. That’s something somebody could go do for free, just a little extra effort. There is always extra cleaning.”

To donate to Panida Theater visit https://www.panida.org/support.

Aly De Angelus can be reached by email at adeangelus@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @AlyDailyBee.