Several times in his career, Rich Francese has reached Mount Comedy’s summit and breathed in its fine mountain air. He’s performed his stand-up act on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and served as a staff writer for Saturday Night Live. These days, however, he’s playing venues of a somewhat different sort. “I had a big gig Sunday,” he says. “I did the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office. And a pizza joint. It’s a big break for me.”
It’s not that Francese has really fallen that far from comedy’s heights. He’s reaching out to Mid-Valleyites to promote his new business, the Manhattan Comedy Club in Wallkill. Orange County is terra incognita for the New York-based comedian, who grew up in the Bronx and Yonkers. After scoping out sites for a club, he decided on Wallkill because he saw the area as “wide-open terrain,” he says. “There’s nothing like this within an hour of here. People want this kind of entertainment without having to travel so far to get it. When you walk in here, it’s like being in a Manhattan establishment.”
Although this is the first club Francese has owned, his plans for the Manhattan, located in a 3,300-foot space in Route 211’s Wallkill Plaza, are ambitious. Besides emceeing four shows each weekend, he hosts private parties and fund-raisers. “I’m going to produce strong shows from start to finish,” he says. “Not a guy who stinks up front, then a guy who’s okay, and then a decent headliner. I’m willing to spend more money to get better people.” Francese booked The Sopranos actor Frank Santorelli (who played Georgie the bartender on the hit HBO show) for the club’s opening weekend in December, and has plans to bring friend and Howard Stern Show star Artie Lange to town at some point this year.
The comedy entrepreneur began renovating the space in Wallkill last summer. Opening the club has proven more difficult than expected, an occurrence Francese says comedians face whenever they tackle real-world problems. “Basically, we don’t know anything. You can’t release us into the wild,” he says. “I’m over here talking about codes. They told me, ‘Even though you have a sprinkler system, you need strobe horns.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, when people are getting wet indoors, they might take that as a good sign that it’s time to get out.’ ”
However much the minutiae of fire codes may stymie him, it’s obvious Francese is dedicated to the project — he nixed an opportunity to appear in a Nicholas Cage movie being filmed in England because he knew it would interfere with the new club’s operation. “Never said I was a genius,” Francese laughs. He’s hopeful, however, that his NYC-flavored venture will be a hit upstate. “If 10 percent of the people show up who said they couldn’t wait for it to open,” he says, “I’ll be busy every day of the year.”