Old Jokes for Old Folks

For the comics who play South Florida's condo circuit, knockin' 'em dead is a disturbingly distinct possibility

The thought of cranky oldsters causes Robert Lee to sigh and roll his eyes. On a sunny Wednesday morning, Lee settles a slight surfeit of waistline into a chair and winks as he picks up the phone at his Coral Springs booking agency, Big Beat Productions. "If you want to know about my problems, just listen to this," says the bearded 29-year-old, dialing a number and activating the speaker phone. After an exchange of greetings with Ben Zerlin, entertainment director for a Lauderdale Lakes condominium development called Hawaiian Gardens Phase III, Lee explains that a singer he had booked to perform at the condo the following Sunday won't be able to make it because of a heart attack. Zerlin, who like most entertainment directors is a condominium resident volunteering his time, replies with silence. "Hello?" Lee says inquiringly. "Hello? Did you hear me?"

"I heard you," Zerlin growls. "What am I going to do? These people were really looking forward to this. I've already done the advertising and everything."

"I know, I know," says Lee, looking up at the ceiling and chuckling slightly. "But what can I tell you? He had a heart attack! I mean, I can't make the guy come if he had a heart attack!" After Zerlin repeats his complaints and Lee repeats his promise to track down a good substitute, the agent finally manages to conclude the call. "You see what I mean?" he cries in exasperation. "The guy has a heart attack and they just don't care! Like it's my fault!"

Fortunately for Lee, it's a singer he's seeking a replacement for and not a comedian. Singers are still easy to find in South Florida. Standup comedians willing to face the condo crowds have become as rare as undeveloped beachfront. Lee knows; along with a couple of other Broward-based agencies, he books the dozen or so employable comics in the area. Many of the old-timers A Lou Mason, Sonny Sands, Eddie Schaffer, and Tubby Boots A have died. Of those who remain among the living, some are trotting out acts so stale that Lee no longer takes their calls. It's a perpetual battle, he explains. The condo crowds want to see older comedians serving up straight Borscht Belt fare: ethnic humor with off-color stories (but no profanity), impersonations, and one-liners. "We've tried to send younger comedians into the condos and retirement communities." At this Lee sighs once again. "But they don't really go over. The audiences can't relate."

It's really too bad, the agent adds, because the condo entertainment biz is exceedingly healthy. According to Lee, Big Beat Productions has doubled its gross every two years since 1985, the year he and his brother Richard went into business together. And if outward appearances are any indication, Big Beat isn't doing badly at all. The carpeted offices are slick in design, as is Lee, who favors gold chains for neckwear, Movado for his wrist. Green is the color of choice for his leased 1993 BMW 525 (his brother's is red). For Big Beat, which these days books about 500 acts, Lee handles what he calls the "50-plus age group," dealing mainly with condo entertainment directors who work for prestige rather than pay. He estimates that in South Florida there are about 250 condominiums that book acts once or twice a month. In addition, during the season performers are booked every week at a few dozen affluent retirement homes and at two upscale spas, the Sun in Hollywood and the Lido in Miami Beach.

For a one-night weekend gig, local comedians like Man and Gale earn anywhere from $200 to $350, depending on their reputations (the pay might be a little less during the week). Others, who like Tina Robin come down for the season, earn more A up to $500 per performance if they're considered topnotch. Lee says his average cut ranges from fifteen to twenty percent. On any given weekend from October to late March, he says, he's booking about 70 performances.

What makes things difficult for the booking agents are demographic changes in South Florida. When Lee and his brother blasted off Big Beat, bookings in Dade County were down because the elderly population was shifting northward, especially from Miami Beach. Hallandale became the center of condo-entertainment country, with Lee catering to 40 or 45 facilities comprising a largely Jewish clientele. But over the past few years, he says, Hallandale's ethnic makeup has changed, to the point where it is becoming dominated by French Canadians. ("How do you tell a joke to a French Canadian?" Lee cracks. "I don't know.") Now his Hallandale venues are down to about fifteen or twenty in number. Soon, he muses, the generation nostalgic for the Forties and Fifties will be subsumed by those who yearn for memories of the early Sixties. "As long as we have condos, we'll have entertainment," Lee concludes, his mental cash register awhir with the financial potential of his trade. "You've just got to be willing to put up with all the crap."

Hy Kipnis has contended with plenty of crap over the course of his long career and tonight he's hoping to avoid another shovelful. The audience of about 200 gathered in the small ballroom of the Lido Spa on Miami Beach's Belle Isle looks all right. "But there's no telling how many of these people have seeeeeen me before," Kipnis kvetches with the same drawn-out intonation he'll use in parts of his act.

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