Mom And Pop Comedy Shop Makes a Home in Cleveland Heights
Big Dog Theater in Coventry hopes for success in the former Centrum Theater
Big Dog Theater is operated like a mom-and-pop establishment.
Owner Don Mitri sat with his legs dangling over the side of the black stage, and pounded on it twice with his hands while explaining that he painted it and other features in the historic space.
Mitri opened the comedy venue in the former Centrum Theater in February. He runs the website, promotes the club on Facebook and Twitter, takes all calls and books the shows.
And Mitri and his wife, Jennifer, collect tickets Friday and Saturday nights.
Mitri, of Mayfield, said he fell in love with the 260-seat space on Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry.
“We were looking for a place that wasn’t saturated (with other comedy venues),” Mitri said. “It’s an intimate space. It’s like stepping back in time in this place.
Big Dog has stand-up and improv comedy shows on Friday and Saturday nights, and a pool of about 12 instructors teach beginner and intermediate classes in unscripted comedy performance once a week. The classes are two and a half to three hours long and run for two months. The next session starts at the end of April.
Big Dog is still a puppy, and Mitri’s goal is to eventually offer comedy gigs Wednesday through Saturday, and partner with Fracas restaurant, which shares the former Centrum space with the comedy venue, to offer dinner packages. He already has an agreement with City & East — audience members can grab a drink at the hookah bar, which is across from the theater in the Centrum building, and bring it to the show.
“The challenge is going to be keeping the momentum and building the audience base,” Mitri said, stretching out his legs in front of him and leaning back on his hands on the stage where comedians perform. “I’m excited to see how many people we can get into these seats.”
Big Dog Theater was born out of an improv school Mitri started with Jeff Blanchard, Mitchell Fields and Marc Moritz in 2004, the Cleveland Improv Institute, housed behind Playhouse Square in the Hermit Club. But Mitri wanted his own performance space, and started looking for a new home.
After he confirmed the move to Cleveland Heights, he wanted a new name. He had no idea what to call it, and asked his wife, Jennifer, for suggestions.
"I'm talking to my wife about it, and the dog (Libby) bangs into me, and I said, 'Easy, big dog,'" Mitri recalled of his conversation last summer. "And she said, 'Big Dog Theater.'"
It's no surprise that Mitri said improv is his favorite comedy form.
He offers short-form improv, which is game-oriented and encourages audience interaction, similar to Whose Line Is it Anyway? at Big Dog. The house short form group is Thunderlips & the Submissives. But Mitri has a passion for long form, where a group of comedians create unscripted one-acts inspired from a word provided by the audience. The house group is Good Dinner Party.
Ticket prices for Big Dog’s shows normally do not exceed $10, and he offers some Friday shows for $5. And Mitri wants to keep it that way.
“We’re making a conscious effort to keep costs down,” Mitri said. “We know people are tight with money, so all shows will be $10 and under unless we can’t help it.”
Mitri lit up and said of all the upcoming comedy gigs, he was most excited for the BabyMakers show at 8 tonight. Colleen Doyle and Dana Quercioli, Second City Cleveland alums who now live in Chicago, will perform their two-person improv comedy show.
He said he hoped to get a big crowd for this special show, as improv is usually performed with a larger group. But he’ll be patient and wait for success.
“It’s not going to happen overnight.”