Vancouver comedians unite to save Kino Cafe from pandemic death

·3 min read

Stand-up comedians in Vancouver are coming together to support one of the city's arts venues at risk of closure because of restrictions in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

On Saturday night, comedian Erica Sigurdson is hosting "A Kino Christmas" to raise money for the Kino Cafe on Cambie street — a hub of flamenco for 25 years, offering live dance and music four nights per week. It also has been home to Vancouver's longest-standing comedy night, as well as myriad more performing arts events.

Sigardson says the Kino's owner, Steve Allen, has always been a supporter of comedians in Vancouver.

"It's something that we can do and just try to raise some money and help him get through this very lean time," Sigurdson said.

Seven comics will be performing live from their living rooms via Zoom for the event. Another comedian has started a GoFundMe campaign that has already raised more than $8,000 of its $50,000 goal.

'It's pretty bleak right now'

COVID-19 has not been kind to the Kino, which was already under threat of demolition like so many of the buildings along the Cambie corridor.

Allen says had it not been for the fundraisers, he would have had to close this month.

"And that's not something I would have been very proud of," he said.

Maryse Zeidler/CBC
Maryse Zeidler/CBC

The restaurant sat empty for 4½ months during the first wave of restrictions beginning in March. Allen reopened in mid-June at reduced capacity, from 80 seats to about 30. When provincial health orders prohibited singing and dancing in bars and restaurants, he switched to offering comedy most nights.

Now, all live performances that could attract an audience have been prohibited as well.

"You can still come to the Kino and have a pizza," he said. "But it's pretty bleak right now in that it's mainly just regulars."

A cultural institution

Allen says he's been averaging about seven customers a night. Meanwhile, it costs him up to $4,500 in bills just to keep the lights on — and that doesn't include rent, which he hasn't paid in months.

If the fundraising campaign is successful, he says, it should be able to carry him through until the end of June or July.

Allen, a former stand-up comic and actor who still occasionally works in film, says he bought the Kino six years ago because he felt it was important to keep it going as a cultural institution in the city.

Maryse Zeidler/CBC
Maryse Zeidler/CBC

It's one of the few, possibly only, flamenco venues in Canada and has also been the home of comedy on Tuesday nights for nearly 15 years.

Allen has also supported the arts by allowing film students to use the venue for free during the day and has offered it as an venue for fundraisers and other events.

'The OG of comedy in Vancouver'

Suzy Rawsome, who runs the comedy nights at the Caveman Cafe in downtown Vancouver, says the Kino has been one of the city's most important institutions as other venues have come and gone over the years.

"The Kino is one of those places that's like the OG of comedy in Vancouver," Rawsome said. "I feel really bad for him to have to deal with impending closure when he's taking all this on, basically just for the love of the arts."

Maryse Zeidler/CBC
Maryse Zeidler/CBC

Allen says he understands why the restrictions have been put in place, and he's not angry about them, but he wishes the city could do more to help venues like his. He says he has reached out to city hall a few times but hasn't heard anything back.

"That's the part that bothers me the most, that the actual city doesn't really care about cultural events," he said.

Allen says he has applied for federal COVID-19 support for the Kino. He's still waiting to hear about his application.