About 30 years ago, just before Lucille Ball passed away, she told her hometown of Jamestown that rather than a museum celebrating her life, there should be a place that celebrates all comedy. This past weekend, that vision was realized with the grand opening of the National Comedy Center.
The National Comedy Center is now the first non-profit cultural institution and national-scale visitor experience dedicated to the art of comedy. This new 37,000 square foot, $50 million facility tells the story of comedy from its origins through the present, with more than 50 immersive, interactive exhibits and rare comedy artifacts.
The Grand Opening week-long celebration featured Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin, a tribute to the original Saturday Night Live cast with Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman and writer Alan Zweibel, Fran Drescher, Lucie Arnaz, Laugh-In producer George Schlatter, comedians Lewis Black, W. Kamau Bell, Judy Gold, and more. In total, the opening celebration featured more than 50 events and 40 artists that included the innovators, creators, and legends of comedy with thousands of visitors in attendance from across the country.
The celebration kicked off with a ribbon cutting ceremony highlighted by Aykroyd riding his motorcycle to the front door of the National Comedy Center, and then donating it to museum. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, were among the federal, state and local officials who attended the new venue’s official opening.
Cuomo called the project an “economic game changer” for the area, brought to life by “the New York spirit.”
“The National Comedy Center highlights some of the most memorable comedic performers the world has known and will serve as a destination for visitors from across the country,” he said. “New York is proud to invest in comedy and the arts, as we work to foster economic growth and create cultural hubs statewide.”
Young called the center “one of the most ambitious and imaginative cultural endeavors of our time,” adding more than 100,000 visitors are estimated to flock to the center annually.
“The end result has surpassed our expectations,” she said. “The National Comedy Center is an economic catalyst for Jamestown and Chautauqua County that will transform the future of this region.”
Project Chairman Tom Benson said the project began eight years ago. In August 2015, ground was broken for the project. Construction encompassed a new 6,000 square-foot building, renovation of the historic Jamestown Gateway train station, renovation of two historic buildings and an exterior film and video screening area adjacent to Comedy Park.
Benson said it is anticipated the center will support over 200 jobs and generate $6.5 million in wages annually across Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Erie counties.
Journey Gunderson, executive director for the National Comedy Center, stated, “What we saw this week was that the National Comedy Center experience managed to garner extraordinary praise from comedians and ‘civilians’ alike. From Lily Tomlin, Amy Schumer, Dan Aykroyd and George Schlatter raving about it, to droves of visitors from all 50 states remarking they could spend days inside, the consistent response has been that this is much, much more than anyone ever imagined. Lucille Ball understood the power of comedy and had the vision for her hometown to become a destination that would educate, foster and inspire. To say it feels good is an understatement.”
“It’s incredible,” expressed Lily Tomlin, who toured the center at midnight after her sold-out performance.
Amy Schumer remarked, “When I got into the National Comedy Center I got really overwhelmed and really emotional. It was just really moving and it was really meaningful that we have a place now for our heroes. It’s so important to share the legacies of the comedians before us, because you look at Lenny Bruce and these comedians that would fight for their right to say what they wanted and express themselves and make jokes about things that maybe they weren’t supposed to.
“I’m really grateful to the women who have come before me,” she continued. “It was a different time and because they got up there is why I have the luxury of even being able to do stand-up and say any of the things I want to on stage.
“I’m really grateful that the National Comedy Center exists. It felt good to believe that our legacies will be remembered,” concluded Schumer.
Lewis Black, a member of the center’s advisory board said, “There is an art in this craft of comedy. It’s timeless. Therefore, it needs a dedicated home. And now, we have a place where somebody who really wants to be a student of comedy can go and study the history of it. Or if somebody is just looking for a laugh, the National Comedy Center is the place where laughter dwells.”
W. Kamau Bell simply stated, “This is the House where the First Amendment lives.”
“So proud and grateful to be a part of the National Comedy Center. The entire museum is fantastic. Come to Jamestown and check it out,” remarked Harold Ramis’ daughter, Violet Ramis Stiel.
Writer/Producer Alan Zweibel put it succinctly: “The art of comedy finally has a home. And a spectacular home at that.”
Lucie Arnaz said, “My mother would be over the moon with joy that her hometown decided to follow her advice and, instead of erecting some passive monument to her, pay homage to the healing power of love and laughter, the remarkable, life-saving tonic that is humor. Celebrate it. Study it. And find out how to make sure there is always more of it. The National Comedy Center will do just that in her memory.”
“From now on, when anybody says they want to get into comedy, I’ll tell them that the first thing they should do is come here,” said Dan Aykroyd.