As dusk turns into night, jokes inspire laughs at Capitol City Theater, Salem’s only comedy club. The club hosts a combination of improv comedy and open mics. Before Capitol City Theater was founded in 2011, Salem comedians usually performed at dive bars or had to make the trip to Portland’s vibrant comedy scene. The venue has become a mecca for the local comedy scene.
“When I started, everyone at open mics were just a bar crowd, which bred a certain type of comedy. But as soon as you bring a comedy club into the mix, it legitimizes comedy as an actual craft,” said Zach Chappell, a local Salem comedian who often performs at Capitol City Theater.
Capitol City Theater is located in downtown Salem in a building that used to be called The Crystal Garden. The building used to be Salem’s premiere dancehall and even hosted Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Its glamorous past is behind it now, but laughter still fills the halls.
The theater was founded in 2010 by Chip Conrad. According to current co-owner Julie Shadlow, “The old owner wanted a place to do improv and found a place to start doing it at The Reed Opera House. He had been managing at The Northern Lights and went over and started at The Reed Opera House,” as Shadlow explained, Conrad eventually became disillusioned with owning a comedy club. “He got pretty burnt out. I had only worked there for a year and only met him a couple of times. I think family needs had to start coming first,” said Shadlow.
The club moved to The Crystal Garden in May 2013. The setting is a dimly lit basement venue. Tables face the limelight lit stage. The overhead speakers exclusively play music from local Salem artists and a projector blares local advertisements before the show begins.
During the open mic nights, any prospective comedian can sign up and perform on stage. Some comedians use the nights to practice jokes while it seems like others are using the audience and stage as a kind of public therapy. Even if all the jokes don’t land, claps will always end every set.
“I like the scene way better here than in Portland when I lived up here. It’s really tight-knit in the scene and we have really good friends in the scene and that’s not something that I really experienced in Portland,” said Geoff Parks, a Salem comedian. “I’ve said a bunch that Portland has a thousand comedians and fifty of them are people you’d want to be around. Here there’s like thirty comics and twenty of them you’d want to be around,” said Parks.
Salem’s comedy scene continues to grow and Capitol City Theater seems to be the guiding light. Comedians will continue to flock at dive bars or go to Portland’s prominent comedy scene, but Salem comedy becomes and more of a constant fixture in our downtown culture.