Donnie B’s Comedy Club and the adjacent restaurant, Westside Pub and Grill, closed on June 9 and owner Don Bassford had originally announced the business would not be able to continue to operate.
“We officially closed on Saturday night, I gave glasses away and when I walked out of the bar at 1:15 on Sunday morning it was over with. There wasn’t enough time to get the money together that we needed,” said Bassford, referring to a Friends of Comedy campaign that started last month in an attempt to raise $30,000 to keep the doors open. The club typically takes a break during the summer months and reopens each fall. “I sold a freezer that was in my kitchen and was getting everything else ready to sell.”
The comedy club, which has been in existence for 19 years, has operated from several different locations in Springfield, most recently at 3445 Freedom Drive. Donnie B’s moved to its current location in Parkway Pointe in December of 2015, which was about half the size of the previous venue located inside the Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center. The downsizing of the club was a reflection of the declining size of the audience.
Bassford said that the local audience for comedy has shrunk, particularly in the last five years. While he was initially impacted by the statewide ban on indoor smoking, more recent factors have included changing tastes in comedy and increased competition from other forms of entertainment.
“The past season was the worst I’ve had in 19 years,” said Bassford. “We dealt with bad weather, flu season, lots of competition from three major acts coming to town at other venues during my peak season. We lost over $100,000 and it took everything I had.”
Bassford explained that when some people came to him with the idea of doing a fundraiser, he was initially reluctant. “I didn’t want to do it; I’m very prideful.” However, due to his love for comedy and desire to keep the business going, he agreed, but initial results were far short of the $30,000 needed to get through the summer months and he resigned himself to having to close the doors.
“On Sunday, for the first time in 19 years, I didn’t wear a Donnie Bs shirt. I threw my business cards away. I was hurt and couldn’t believe that Springfield couldn’t support us when we bring in the top comic acts all over the country,” said Bassford. Then on Tuesday, he got a phone call that changed everything. “A person called me yesterday and said they couldn’t give me the whole $30,000 but would offer $20,000.” While it is technically a loan, Bassford said he would be allowed to pay it back as he is able. “This is not something that I’ll have to worry about every day.”
However, Bassford says he still wants to raise another $7500 to reach the initial goal and he hopes this close call will encourage people to come out and support the club. Donnie Bs will have a comedian one night a month during the summer, and Andrew Franklin is scheduled to perform this Saturday, June 16 at 8:30 p.m.
“I started this club 19 years ago because I was tired of driving to St. Louis to see comedians. I hope that this a wake-up call for people to understand that we have to support local businesses,” said Bassford.