The lights at the Main Street building that used to house the Improv Inferno have been dim since October.
That’s when the comedy group began operating out of the Live at PJ’s venue on First Street. Curtains will close on an Inferno show for the last time on April 14, when founder Dan Izzo’s six-month agreement at PJ’s is up.
Inferno cast member John Hartman, a University alum, said he is disappointed about the closing but he understands why Izzo decided to shut down the group.
After Izzo moved Improve Inferno from its original location on Main Street last October after a rent dispute with the landlord, Mike Hannah, the owner of PJ’s offered Izzo a deal to run the show from his club. He accepted on a trial basis.
But the show wasn’t the same when it reopened at PJ’s several blocks west of the original location, said David Widmayer, a member of the University improv group Witt’s End. “There wasn’t that same kind of family feel,” Widmayer said.
Before the move, everyone who worked at the club was an Inferno staffer, from the bouncers to the bartenders.
“It was a rough transition to go from a space where 24 hours a day, seven days a week we had absolute control over everything,” Izzo said.
On Main Street, the Inferno maintained a clubhouse atmosphere where patrons, including many regulars, could drop by anytime.
“When we lost the clubhouse and moved, we lost a lot of the stuff that made it cool,” Izzo said.
Attendance at shows dropped significantly when the show moved to the new venue and Widmayer estimated that the usual audience went from nearly 70 people per show to between 15 and 30 people.
“People’s hearts were broken when we lost the Main Street space, but people are still going to be pretty hurt and disappointed by this,” Izzo said.
Hartman has been involved with the Inferno since it was founded in 2004, first as a performer with Witt’s End and later as a permanent cast member performing four or five nights a week.
“It’s going to be like a huge hole – I have almost revolved the past two years of my life around that place,” Hartman said. “If that place hadn’t come along I would be doing something completely different with my life.”
Hartman practiced improv in middle school but entered college thinking that he would become a classical trumpet player. But when a friend in Bursley Hall dragged him to auditions, he made the cast. He was hooked.
Hartman is moving to Chicago to pursue improv and acting this fall.
The Inferno also changed the life of cast member Chris DiAngelo, who moved to Ann Arbor to be closer to the club. He also met his girlfriend, a fellow cast member, at the Inferno.
In July, the Inferno held the first Michigan Improv and Laugh Festival. The festival sold out every night for a week and drew improv troupes from as far as Georgia and North Carolina.
The first festival that the club held was a 24-hour fundraiser for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. DiAngelo performed for 29 hours at the fundraiser.
“This is a really cool form of comedy and art that doesn’t have to relegated to basements and off-nights at comedy clubs,” Izzo said. “It can stand on its own.”
For now, though, the future of improv in Ann Arbor remains unclear.
Izzo said he would eventually like to establish another club in Ann Arbor but wants to wait for the right time and place.
“The improv scene was here before we got here,” he said. “And the scene will continue with us not being here.”