The Purple Onion, an intimate comedy nightclub in North Beach that had been around for almost 60 years, shuttered its doors on Monday, Sept. 24, but not without going out with a chorus of laughter and applause. A bevy of comedians hit the Purple Onion's stage one last time to pay homage to one of S.F.'s famed comedy landmarks. One such performer was Marga Gomez, who said, "The Purple Onion wasn't just a San Francisco comedy landmark it was an incubator for the rebellious and quirky comic spirit beyond our city. Fortunately we have a new wave of venues and independent producers in the Bay Area who continue to plant little purple onion seeds all over the Bay Area."
Since the 1950s, the Purple Onion has hosted legendary performers like Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, Richard Pryor, Zach Galifianakis, and even poet Maya Angelou, as well as musicians like the Smothers Brothers, Kingston Trio, and Lenny Bruce.
Jill Bourque, who has produced hundreds of shows there since 2006 said, "It was the perfect venue for comedy," because of its size and the intimacy one felt as both a performer and audience member. "It's sad because it's a historic landmark, you know, and it's sad that a piece of San Francisco comedy history is just going away." Bourque notes that the comedy scene is shifting, with more people experiencing comedy through digital mediums like podcasts, CDs, YouTube clips, etc., and are frequenting brick and mortar clubs less.
While performers are certainly mourning the loss of the Purple Onion, Gomez, who presents the weekly showcase Comedy Boedga, is nevertheless optimistic: "In local comedy now it's really about who's out there and what we're saying more than where we are saying it. In that respect I think the Bay Area comedy scene is in great shape. We thrive in adversity."
Joe Klocek, another comedy fixture who performed at the Onion's closing night, said, "Whats truly sad isn't the closing of another San Francisco iconic location for art and entertainment, what's truly sad to me is that in a city of artists, networkers, and people who pride themselves on living in the future with a respect for the past, we can't find a way to keep a small sized club open for quality and creative stand-up. That is the real loss. As clubs get bigger they can only book the big names to fill those expensive seats up while talented and incredible local comics fight to get audience members into their venues for unique shows."
The club, which won SF Weekly's Best Comedy Club award in 2007 was known not just for comedy, but for its eclectic programming "with standups being joined by bizarro cabaret and musical acts. From hosting comedians like Will Durst and Will Franken at SF Sketchfest to staging 'Hammond Organ Night' and 1950s Italian music groups, the Onion sees the world through a gloriously purple haze."
The building that housed the Onion, as well as Caffe Macaroni upstairs, was sold, and while owner Mario Ascione plans to relocate the restaurant, he told SF Gate that there are no plans for the nightclub. "This is a room that you cannot move anywhere else," he says. "This is a special room."