Denver comedians are shedding tears and guzzling beers as their favorite venue, El Charrito, prepares to close down for good on Sunday, December 23. In the weeks since the sad announcement came that the jokester community's most beloved watering hole was shuttering its doors, the local comedy scene has endeavored to soak up every remaining minute of "Five Star Dive Bar" ambience. One of the Comedy RoomRoom's signature showcases even hosted a joyous comedy wedding recently, the union of a pair of wonderful weirdos formed over the warbly sound waves of a persistently malfunctioning microphone.
Pat de la Torre opened the bar at 2100 Larimer Street in 1962; son-in-law Matt Orrin (a former math teacher) reopened it in 2009, initially focusing on the Ballpark neighborhood's abundance of post-game revelers. But Orrin quickly realized that the business needed to be "more than just a bar," he recalls, concluding that he couldn't compete as just a bar. "We needed to be a venue. It definitely wasn’t profitable right away, but over the long term, I think it was the right choice."
Orrin kicked off that campaign with a standup open mic hosted by Nick Gossert. "El Charrito changed my life. It was the first place I tried my hand at running and promoting a show," Gossert remembers. "There would be no Lucha Libre & Laughs without Matt. Without El Charrito, the important things in my life and the successes I’ve enjoyed over the last several years simply would not have happened.
After Gossert's troubled tenure on the main stage (ideal for music, but far from it for the spoken word), fellow comic Timmi Lasley suggested relocating the comedic proceedings to a room that had been functioning as a storage area. The space had to undergo several revamps before reaching its full potential, but the initially sparsely attended open mic eventually paved the way for some of this city's favorite locally produced comedy shows, with the RoomRoom open mic consistently attracting so many new comics that signups often numbered in the sixties.
Thanks to the persistence of local comedians and Orrin's agreeably laissez-faire attitude, El Charrito evolved into a second home for the Denver comedy community, a Cheers-like refuge where everybody didn't merely know your name, they knew your customary drink order and opening joke. "El Charrito was more than just a comedy venue," muses former open mic host Preston Tompkins. "It was a home for our community. We went there to celebrate together and we went there to mourn together. There will never be another place like it. And that's okay, because the memories I have from there are going to stay with me forever."
Open mic hosting duties rotated from Gossert, Lasley and Tompkins to Allison Rose, who was co-signed by each bar employee in collective decision that "Allison would be the best replacement host." Rose, who initially started out toiling among the mostly unseen El Charrito kitchen staff, charmed the staff and audience members alike over the course of her year-long stewardship of Denver comedy's most populous open mic.
"Seeing a new generation of comics shine and bomb over the last year has been an irreplaceable experience. I've grown as a comic, host and human being," muses Rose, who consecrated her vows with fellow comedian Zeke Herrera at the soon-to-be-shuttered drinkery.
Gossert, too, got married at El Charrito. "It's where my wife and I first started seeing each other, and Matt was best man at our wedding," he says.
Aside from hosting life-changing vows within its grungy walls, El Charrito and the Comedy RoomRoom created a vital crucible for local creatives. This was a haven where comedians could explore the limits of their collective imaginations. Straightforward standup showcases seldom attracted crowds, yet experimental outings like Story Time, Nerd Roast and We Still Like You — to name but a few — consistently packed the humble house. The RoomRoom evolved into a proving ground that complemented the bar's robust entertainment calendar.
"The key is trying new stuff," Orrin says, weighing in on more than just the bar's considerable comedic contributions. "We’ve done burlesque, we’ve done karaoke and karaoke with a live band, we’ve done comedy mics and shows, we even did a science presentation for a grad-school class, like students scientists doing a TED Talk. And it was great."
But with property values (not to mention property taxes) rising, Orrin ultimately had to call it quits. "Honestly, it’s a really old building with lots of band-aids on top of years of neglect. I don’t have the resources to fix up the whole building, so I’d just be spinning my wheels for nothing," he explains. "I’ve pumped a lot of money into maintenance, but the bar just can’t sustain the whole building."
Denver comedy nerds may (rightfully) decry the forces of gentrification that helped doom their gathering place, but Orrin says he had no choice. "A lot of people may think I’m cashing out, but that’s not it at all," he contends. "I am cutting losses."
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My personal introduction to El Charrito was an ignominious one. When I started doing standup in March 2012, the bar hosted one of only four weekly comedy open mics in Denver — a stark contrast to today, when comics can choose from four different mics nearly every evening. Unsurprisingly, I bombed, and I would continue to bomb throughout my first year (and also again last week). Nevertheless, the place had cheap booze, hearty food that was perfect for filling a drunken belly, and stage time, so I became a regular right away.
Years later, just as the Comedy RoomRoom was beginning to hit its stride, fellow local comedian Caitie Hannan and I took a trip to New Orleans and performed on a comedy drinking game show with a simple but ingenious format. After quickly agreeing that a few minor tweaks would make the show ideal fodder for Denver, we asked hosts/producers Geoffrey Gauchet and Isaac Kozell if we could franchise their brainchild. They graciously agreed, and Designated Drunkard was born. While our humble show may live on at another venue, no other place in the city could have fostered such a half-baked, secondhand idea into a monthly institution. Without El Charrito, it's safe to say that the whole concept would have washed down the memory hole, along with a round of sazeracs.
With the closing of El Charrito, Denver is losing a classic bar that gave this boomtown a sense of what things were like before craft beer and baseball arrived. But the local comedy community is losing much more. We're losing the scuzzy yet sacred vault of our most cherished memories. The place that encouraged our most harebrained whims. The place where we finally got funny. The place where we fell in love.
Everyone who's either told or laughed at a joke within the cozy confines of the Comedy RoomRoom at el Charrito will always swell with gratitude — and hunger for chicharrones — when they reflect on the halcyon days of this special place.