County game changer promises lots of laughs

Center: 50 exhibits in facility

OBSERVER Photo A view from the National Comedy Center in Jamestown displays green space and the Chadakoin River.

JAMESTOWN — Ray Romano was on a roll in 1998. Starring on “Everyone Loves Raymond,” Romano was a huge celebrity and often welcomed into America’s homes during prime time on Mondays as Ray Barone — sports writer and family man.

Despite his stardom, there was a special significance for Romano to make an appearance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center in downtown and be a part of what was then referred to as Lucy Fest, an annual event in Jamestown that celebrated the life and comedy of city native Lucille Ball.

Romano is far from alone. Ball’s legacy carries a great deal of respect that has led other famous and notable comedians to Jamestown, a city of 29,000 residents.

That list is a Who’s Who of many of the greatest performers of our generation — some at the peak of their careers — that include Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres and Bob Newhart. Last summer, Jim Gaffigan, Kevin James, Robert Klein and Lisa Lampanelli made appearances while Lewis Black, David Steinberg, W. Kamau Bell and Kelly Carlin took part in Chautauqua Institution’s sixth week of programming entitled “Comedy and the Human Condition.”

Those famous names have become building blocks to one of the most impressive happenings to come to this county since the first gas well was drilled in Fredonia in 1825. In about three months, one of Ball’s hopes and dreams before she died in 1989 will become reality: a National Comedy Center.

OBSERVER Photo The grand opening of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown is set for Aug. 1 to 5.

Located at West Second and Washington streets, the center has already become an anchor for an economic turnaround of this city that has had just as many past heartaches as Dunkirk-Fredonia with businesses relocating or closing.

More than $50 million will have been poured into the effort with funds coming from New York state, foundations in Jamestown and donations from around the world, including many with Hollywood connections.

All about you

Walking into the soon-to-be-opened National Comedy Center through the front entrance is an out-of-county experience. There is a feeling of awe and excitement.

An adaptive re-use of the Jamestown Gateway Train Station and a former Jamestown Board of Public Utilities building, the site has an ambiance that will include the past — and future. Beautiful archways and a brick exterior surround what will become a world-class experience.

Once you receive an extraordinary welcome, the center will then personalize your journey. The choices you make at a kiosk will tailor your comedy experience based on an individual’s sense of humor, their era of comedy and favorite artist.

After receiving a personalized wrist band, the exhibits begin. There will be holograms of famous comedians. There will be a number of historic items, including the archives of the great George Carlin. Interactive exhibits, stand-up routines, “blue” material — for mature audiences — and one other key ingredient: plenty of laughter.

In all, there will be nearly 50 exhibits in the 37,000-square-foot facility, which is connected to the refurbished train station on Second Street. In one area of the facility, there is a spectacular view that is a forgotten gem of Jamestown: the Chadakoin River.

Once the facility opens in August, the green space behind the center will be filled with activity. Already, the area has the look of a condensed Canalside in Buffalo. The potential for its use in all four seasons is endless.

A big impact

More big names are coming for the center’s grand opening. Lily Tomlin, Dan Akroyd, Amy Schumer, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Alan Zweibel will all be part of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

During the recent tour, there was a sense of urgency on the inside as well as the outside to make the deadline for what will be an awesome show. That being said, there is also a tremendous confidence and pride by all the workers in what is happening.

Rich Ryan, development director for the National Comedy Center since last June, has always seen the bigger picture. Ryan, who resides in Fredonia, is not about the north-south divide that has hindered this county for too long.

He took his current position knowing the impact the center can have regionally — and nationwide. This is a game changer, an ever-lasting gift from a county native in Lucille Ball.

How else would Jamestown get big names and celebrities without her clout? Her untimely death almost 30 years ago may have slowed the vision, but thanks to a small group of believers with big ambitions it is well worth the wait. That group includes Journey Gunderson, executive director, Tom Benson, chairman, and the rest of the dedicated board of directors who never swayed from their aggressive vision.

“We are thrilled to announce the opening of this amazing project which was conceptualized and launched more than seven years ago by a group of dedicated and hard-working individuals who have worked tirelessly to make this dream a reality,” Benson said in an April news release. “The National Comedy Center will take guests on a journey through all aspects and eras of the art form. It is the repository that has never existed that will respectfully celebrate comedy in a fun and unique way for generations to come. We sincerely thank all of our funding partners who have provided the support to make this happen.”

Cooperstown is on the map for the baseball. Cleveland has rock n’ roll while Canton, Ohio, scored with football.

But we get the laughs — something everyone can relate to and enjoy.

Our National Comedy Center is almost complete. Embrace the opportunity and excitement that comes with it.

This is not just Jamestown’s moment to shine — it is for all of Chautauqua County.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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