Haunted Midnights Debut: Review

Last night, the Comedy Store offered up the debut of a new attraction for Halloween 2010: Haunted Midnights, a combination of video, live performance, and a nocturnal tour of the premises. This is not a standard Halloween attraction, with a maze and  monsters. The pitch is that the Comedy Store is one of the most authentically haunted locations in Los Angeles, at least in part due to its association, decades ago, with some high-profile organized crime figures, who may have rubbed out the occasional victim on the premises; the evening promises seances, paranormal research, haunted tales, and proof. Skeptics will not be surprised to learn that you do not receive the last item, nor is there a seance. Nevertheless, Haunted Midnights turns out to be a fun and fascinating piece of late-night entertainment that (if all goes well) promises to become a traditional Halloween event for years to come.

With is dark decor and red neon lighting, the interior of the Comedy Store offers the perfect setting for Halloween entertainment. As you enter, spooky music and maniacal laughter sift through hidden speakers, establishing the ominous atmosphere of a location steeped in spirits of decades past. However, once the show starts, humor inevitably filters into the presentation: the host and the tour guide expressed a jovial skepticism toward the supernatural, making it clear that the goal was to give the audience a good time, not to convince them of the existence of ghosts.

Two videos were screened. The first was an episode of the old television show UNSOLVED MYSTERIES, hosted by Robert Stack, focusing on supposedly supernatural occurrences in the Comedy Store. With a couple of real staff members giving notably unconvincing performances in "dramatic recreations" - which were enhanced with some hokey special effects, the episode turned out to be a campy delight.

The second video consisted of footage of a paranormal investigation of the premises, about ten years ago, in which various psychics made vague pronouncements about cold spots and areas heavily infused with psychic energy. The leader of the expedition - so we were told - was the inspiration for the movie GHOSTBUSTERS. I kept waiting for him to say "PKE valences are off the charts!" Unfortunately, he did not.

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Magician Georges-Robert

With the back story filled in, we then heard some first-hand accounts of unexplained phenomenon, such as shadows moving across a room where nobody was walking. There was also an entertaining magic show by Georges-Robert, a regular at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. In line with the rest of the evening, Georges-Robert did not try to prove the existence of the Comedy Store's alleged ghosts (who include a hit-man nicknamed Gus and a mysterious Lady in White). Instead, he performed some magical illusions, whose miraculous effects he attributed to spirits.  One or two of the routines would have been more appropriate to a smaller venue: during the Automatic Writing bit (once considered a way to communicate with spirits), you had to take his word that he had written down the correct answers before hearing them from the audience, unless you you had a front row seat that allowed you to read the chalkboard he held up at the climax. Other routines, like the the floating table -performed with an audience member on stage - were more impressive, not just as illusions but as good theatre. Sure, we assume there's some trick - but how does he pull it off mere inches from someone presumably close enough to see through the trickery?

The evening finished up with the backstage walk through the Comedy Store's haunted hot spots. Although billed as a "super scary flashlight" tour, this turned out to be a very well lit trek into basement and several other rooms seen in the videos. No ghosts appeared, but our tour guide was carrying a "ghost meter" that occasionally flashed, indicating unseen paranormal energy. I kept waiting for him to say "PKE valences are off the charts!" Unfortunately, he did not.

Though far from frightening, the tour is worthwhile, just for a chance to get a peak behind the scenes of a venue where so many great comedians have appeared (Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, etc). Some kinks definitely need to be worked out. The tour, which went through in groups of twenty-five, is overcrowded in some of the tight spaces; people get pushed to the back and are not able to see the topic of discussion. In some rooms, visitors must exit by the same door they entered, forcing an awkward u-turn as the first people in line try to squeeze out and allow the next ones in to get a glimpse of the haunt spot.

Although the spirits failed to materialize, the debut of Haunted Midnights provided a late-night worth of fine entertainment. Skeptics should not be put off by suspicion that this is some kind of paranormal con-game. The tone is more one of history and tradition, essentially: these are the things we've heard and seen in the Comedy Store; we don't necessary believe in ghosts, but they make for a fun evening. With a little work, the tour could be refined into something quite spooky, especially if the lights were turned down. Hopefully, Haunted Midnights will do well enough this October to return next year, with bigger and better frights.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that the Comedy Store staff were aware of the opening night shortcomings, and they seem eager to make improvements; our guide apologized for any problems, noting this was a first time he had ever given the tour, and we suspect that the subsequent shows will show marked improvement.

Haunted Midnights runs Friday at midnights in October at The Comedy Store, 8433 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069. Admission is $10; there are 50% discount coupons at the Comedy Store bar next door. There is a two-drink minimum.