Everywhere you look, you're surrounded by a texture resembling the base of a cypress tree. Overhead, backlit, hardened streams of amber light your path. You've been transported to a jungle world, the land of the Ewoks, maybe. No, you're inside the Lost River Cafe, the restaurant half of Spellbinders Variety Theatre. That this fantastic, surreal world is reminiscent of a Star Wars movie is no coincidence. Most of what bombards the eye is the work of Mario Chiodo, the man who created many of those otherworldly Star Wars characters, not to mention the beasts and wizards of the upcoming Planet of the Apes and Harry Potter movies. This is the flash of Spellbinders' reincarnation in the typo-titled Marq*E Entertainment Complex, the realization of owner Lynn Karnes's dreams. It's everything she wished the original Spellbinders at Westheimer near Beltway 8 to be.
The new location serves as the original's antithesis. The old venue was smallish, tucked away in a poorly maintained strip mall; it had no kitchen, required the better part of an hour for seating, and had insufficient ventilation. What it did have was an effective niche. Although Karnes didn't showcase huge names or up-and-comers, she did book comedians with credibility, even if some of those credits were getting dusty. During the '80s and early '90s, before the old Spellbinders shuttered in September 1998, she built a reputation partly by shying away from homegrown acts who might make the club seem amateurish, as if it were capable of booking only local blokes. "Most of our performers will have TV or cable credits," Karnes admits. "I believe that using local talent tends to weaken the strength of the lineup." Karnes held firm to her policy even as the Houston comedy scene experienced a phenomenal boom, most noticeably in the form of the Comic Outlaws.
What has some local comedians stewing is a widespread belief that Houston is in serious need of a second A room. For years, the Laff Stop has been the dominant force, essentially leaving the fates of area talent in the hands of one club. The rebirth of Spellbinders, they hoped, would give them another venue to open for big-name acts and gain wider exposure. But a look at the upcoming lineup confirms that Karnes is holding fast to her old policy despite the change of venue, or maybe even because of it. This week those scheduled to play inside the "Las Vegas-style showroom" include musical act Paul Venier and comedians Steve Byrne (through August 5) and Jeff Jena, and ventriloquist Pete Michaels (August 7 through August 12), all with extensive TV and cable credits.
But the business of comedy is not funny. Clubs like Spellbinders make money by bringing in audiences, not necessarily local acts. Lynn Karnes may not set one foot on her own stage, but her ass is on the line as much as any comedian who steps into a Spellbinders spotlight. A funnyman may lose only an audience; Karnes could lose her business if she doesn't attract quality talent, with or without the right zip code and résumé.