It’s six hours until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and Rob Steen stands in the foyer of the Manchester Radisson Hotel ballroom, a field general armed with a cell phone. That night, his North Shore Comedy organization is behind 71 different events throughout the Northeast and as far west as Chicago, with 17 in New Hampshire alone.
It’s all in a night’s work for the energetic comic entrepreneur, who promoted his first big events while barely out of his teens. Steen’s familiarity with the stage helps him as a promoter. This night, Steen will lead off a show featuring Robbie Printz and Stacy Kendro, and instead of the dance floor, they work on a small stage at the opposite end of the room.
“It’s a lot more conducive to a good time than having us in front of a DJ booth,” he said during a recent phone interview. “I’m a comedian first and a booker second; I know how to put a show on and perform in it.” He works the room effortlessly, with the talent of an entertainer who began as a busking juggler at age 15 and switched to comedy a couple years later.
He’s there to warm up the crowd, and his set is a series of conversations — “Where are you from, you married, how many kids?” A 20-something in a Red Sox cap receives some gentle ribbing about appropriate New Year’s Eve attire. Steen, in his early 40s, is a natural. When someone in the audience gabs a bit too much, he switches to another side of the room; the banter keeps flowing and the mood is high. As Kendro steps up to deliver her observational bits about relationships and lifestyles, the 200-plus revelers are primed.
Beginning a dozen years ago with one-offs at restaurants, small-town opera houses, lodges and pubs, Steen is in many ways responsible for a comedy renaissance in the Granite State.
“I don’t like saying that, but your statement is accurate,” he agrees modestly. “Promoting as much as I do, you never know what’s going to click. I’ve taken a lot of risks, but the rewards are great.”
On New Year’s Eve, Steen had four shows in Manchester, a place he’s called home for the past 10 years — Fratello’s Italian Restaurant, The Yard, The Radisson and the latest addition to his list of clubs, Jokers Sports Bar and Bistro. Each show was a sellout save the Radisson, which only missed by a few seats. Jokers offers standup comedy every Saturday night — Boston funny man Paul Nardizzi is due next, on Jan. 21.
Under the Headliners moniker, Steen operates once-a-month shows at a range of New Hampshire venues, among them Papagello’s in Keene, Patrick’s Pub in Gilford and the Governor’s Inn in Rochester. Add to that occasional shows at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts and many corporate and charity shows — the next is Jan. 27 at the Crowne Plaza in Nashua, where he’ll also perform — and the comic stays busy; Headliners also operates at locations in Maine and Vermont.
The jewel of Steen’s empire sits down the hall from the Radisson ballroom. Festooned with pictures of jesters, it’s unmistakably a place for standup. According to Steen, it’s New Hampshire’s only dedicated comedy venue. “I used to do shows up here, there’s always been one-nighters,” he says, “but it’s never had an agent go full force and develop a comedy scene. Ten years ago, there was no comedy club … to do it the way I have, people seem to really appreciate it.”
Formerly located in Manchester’s Clarion Hotel, Headliners Comedy Club is a classically designed venue, with long tables, all pointed at the action on stage. “It’s a great layout, mahogany with furnishings, it’s got that wow factor,” Steen says. “People feel like they’re in a comedy club. The ambience really creates a buzz.”
The move to the Radisson happened quickly after the Clarion was sold. The new owners’ plans forced an immediate move.
“Literally at 10 in the morning they told me,” Steen says. “I called around to a few places and then I spoke to the people at the Radisson. They literally had us in there by 10:30 doing comedy.”
After spending six years at the former Chateau Restaurant in Manchester and six more at the Clarion, Steen believes he’s arrived at an ideal home for his showcase effort.
“It’s the biggest and best hotel in New Hampshire with the premiere comedy room,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit.”
Steen surveys the horizon and pronounces the immediate future as looking good.
“Once the economy changes it will be a game-changer,” he says. “This is tracking to be a great year for me. Comedy thrives during a recession, especially in New Hampshire. The demographics are good, too — it’s the right place at the right time.”
The symbiosis with other operators like Jim Roach, who books larger venues, and open-mike maven Jay Grove, who also produces several club shows throughout the region, makes for a fertile scene.
“When Jim Roach does what he does, it brings a higher awareness of comedy, and I reap the benefits,” Steen says. “Comedy has now become an option where it wasn’t before. We all work together in a certain sense. Jay Grove does open-mike shows and invites me to see them and perform, and I learn about comics who I can book in my clubs.”