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Coconuts Comedy Club re-opens in new location

Bill DeYoung

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Bob Shoemaker opened Coconuts Comedy Club on St. Pete Beach in 1986. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The upcoming multi-million dollar expansion of St. Pete Beach’s Tradewinds Island Resort will be, the company’s admins promise, good for the community, good for the tourist industry and – to be sure – good for Tradewinds Island Resort.

Bob Shoemaker, the longtime owner of Coconuts Comedy Club, will be yet another beneficiary when the property expands by over 600 rooms. Coconuts, an intimate space with a capacity of just 75, is moving into RumFish Grill, part of TradeWinds’ RumFish Beach Resort. Wednesday is opening night.

After 38 years in business on St. Pete Beach, leasing different venues, Shoemaker isn’t surprised by much. A decade ago, Coconuts was housed right there in the same hotel, when it was known as the Sandpiper.

“We were doing great,” the comedy maven recalled. “But they called me in, ‘I hate to tell you, but you’re going to have to leave. We’re going to re-brand the whole hotel, and we’re going to need that space where the banquet rooms are to build a restaurant and a lounge.’”

Then it was on to another hotel, and when that ended, Shoemaker moved into a strip mall further south down Gulf Boulevard. Coconuts was in that spot for eight years; at the end of 2023, the building was sold, and once again Shoemaker had to find another location.

The karmic wheel spun, and landed – again – on TradeWinds. “When it came all the way around that they invited us back, it was great,” he said. “Because our memories of being there were so positive and so good.”

In the 1980s, Shoemaker was a practicing attorney who played music on the side. In time, the latter became a lot more fun than the former, and from there he graduated to booking concerts – first music, then comedy.

The American comedy club boom was in full explosion at the time.

His first venue was Las Fontanas, a Mexican restaurant by the St. Pete/Clearwater airport. He’d put comics onstage in the banquet room.

Expanding to his beloved St. Pete Beach, he reasoned, would not only be fun, it made good business sense. Tourists, after all, are always looking for something to do. Why not give them a few laughs?

Shoemaker remembers driving south on Gulf Boulevard, searching for just the right spot. “The light turned red in front of the Howard Johnson’s, and I stopped,” he said. “And I looked up at the sign and saw the word ‘lounge.’ I go ‘I never noticed that before!’ So I pulled in, walked in and asked the guy hey, you want to do comedy in here? He went ‘Yeah, OK. We’re not doing anything, really.’

“I told him we’d start in a month, to give us time to get ready and get the word out. On Friday, I drive out to Las Fontanas. There’s a big guy from Specialty Restaurants, from California. They owned it. The guy says ‘Are you the comedy guy? This will be your last weekend.’

“I said ‘Let me speak to the manager.’ He goes ‘I fired him this morning.’”

Suddenly it was time to take comedy seriously. He opened at Howard Johnson with just a week to prep.

With Shoemaker at the wheel, Coconuts – the brand, the business and the logo – spread first across Florida, then the country. At its peak, there were more than 100 clubs around the world.

The original club remained at the St. Pete Beach Howard Johnson Hotel for 18 years.

Today, Coconuts is the longest continually-running comedy club in the state.

His secret, according to Shoemaker, is simple: He doesn’t hire big-name headliners, who usually charge too much and don’t perform at their best anyway. Rather, he focuses on the up-and-comers whose names are starting to generate buzz.

“It’s rare that we call anybody. People find out about us, and they call us. Over the course of the years – we went back and looked – over 1,300 comedians have worked for us.”

Numerous comics who cut their teeth at Coconuts went on to bigger things, including Billy Gardell, Darrell Hammond, Jim Bruer and Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney.

“A lot of comics that started with us had a real day job, carpenter or accountant or whatever,” said Shoemaker. “They got good enough working on the Coconuts stage to be able to quit their day job and be in the entertainment business. Go all over the country working the comedy clubs, and make good money.

“There’s a magic to it, and I don’t know what it is. It just seems to happen.”

Maybe it’s this: “If you’re a musician, you could go out and play Jimmy Buffett songs every night and make a decent living. Comedy is different. You can’t get onstage and do Rodney Dangerfield.

“You have to be original.”

Coconuts re-opens Wednesday, March 27, at the RumFish Grill, inside the RumFish Beach Resort, 6000 Gulf Blvd.

Coconuts website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Scott Simmons

    March 25, 2024at4:35 pm

    Congratulations Bob! Hard to believe it has been almost 40 years. Thanks for the laughs!

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