The city of Cleveland owes Mr. Nick Kostis more than the “Happy Birthday” song in celebration of him turning 80 years young earlier this month. He deserves praise and accolades for single-handedly making the Cleveland comedy scene one of the finest in the country. From humble beginnings in Cuyahoga Falls, Kostis rose to become a pioneer of the revitalization of East Fourth Street by making a large investment in his restaurant, Pickwick & Frolic, which houses one of the most revered comedy clubs in the country, Hilarities Fourth Street Theatre in its basement.
This writer, like most entertainment enthusiasts in Northeast Ohio (and beyond), absolutely adore not only the comedy club but also the restaurant, which Kostis describes as “upscale casual.”
“I love seeing people walk in the front doors. I think of them as I would if you knocked on the front door of my home. If I open the door, I’m going to welcome you and bring everything out of the refrigerator and host you, and speak to your pleasure and your comfort,” Kostis told CleveRock in a recent phone interview. “I am passionate about that. I subscribe to a quotation that I’m very fond of and that has become part of what we teach, preach, and then reteach at Pickwick & Frolic and Hilarities.”
The quote Mr. Kostis is referring to?
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.Maya Angelou
I’ve been to the club. No description of Kostis’ hospitality could be more accurate. If one has been to his fine establishment, chances are they have encountered Nick himself. He is there most nights, hustling up and down the stairs to the comedy club to ensure the line runs smoothly and that patrons are seated in an efficient manner, He can also be found mingling and assisting his top-notch staff however he can and, of course, mingling with his valued guests.
The man just celebrated birthday number 80. One would never know it. He’s in better shape than the 39-year-old writer sitting at a computer composing this article. He doesn’t look a day over 65. And, if you’ve had the pleasure of talking to Nick in recent years, you know that he is sharp as a tack.
“There’s an owner’s high that comes from that,” he continued. “And, I believe there is a server’s high that comes from that. Those are much the same way that there is a runner’s high. You get going, and when you feel like you have looked in somebody’s eyes and they’ve seen you, and you can kind of block out what’s going on around you and just try to treat that person with the respect they deserve, that’s service in the hospitality world, especially today, because people sometimes, they come in, you need to treat them like they’re coming in from a world that they want to escape.”
Kostis, a Brooklyn native who adopted Northeast Ohio as his home, might have been voted “least likely to open a comedy club and, eventually one of the finest entertainment complexes in Northeast Ohio” by high school classmates. His path to where he is today is anything but conventional.
After obtaining a degree in secondary education from Rio Grande College in 1964 Kostis earned a master’s degree in counseling from Ohio University four years later. Post-master studies at The Ohio State University’s School of Psychology would soon follow!
Nick’s time as an educator started out as a social studies teacher in the West Lafayette Schools. His trail of helping children led him through Washington County Schools, Oberlin City Schools, and Tallmadge City Schools, where he was the Director of Pupil Personnel Services.
He opened his first club in the Akron suburb, Cuyahoga Falls in 1985. An odd location? Perhaps! However, it was a great starting point for an entrepreneur looking for one of his first building blocks.
The first act Kostis booked at the Cuyahoga Falls location was New York City-based Dennis Wolfberg, a comedian who was gaining a lot of national attention when he was invited to The Falls to perform at Kostis’ 300-seat venue. A capacity of 300 was larger than any venue in New York City at the time and would be one of the largest Wolfberg had performed in front of to date. Like Mr. Kostis, Wolfberg formerly worked in education before pursuing his dreams.
“Comics would come out from New York because there was no Comedy Cellar just yet. None of that was there. And, he came out and I saw him onstage. I’m telling you, the guy was a former school teacher who just made you cry laughing,” Nick recalls about the first time he saw Wolfberg perform on a trip to NYC. “I approached him after the show and I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing this club.’ I asked if he had of Akron. He said, ‘Geez, what the hell? What’s there?’ So I said it’s going to be a 300-seat room. Now, at that time, there wasn’t a 300-seat room anywhere in New York. That was a giant club compared to most comedy nightclubs. The thing is that they were just bar rooms, so he heard 300 and asked how I planned to do that. I told him that I was trying to work my way into the comedy scene in New York so I can start bringing comics in. I was out to bring national acts in!“
Imagine: Being a comedian or agent in NYC in 1985 and being approached with an offer to travel to Cuyahoga Falls. That’s a tough sell. Somehow, Kostis managed to pull it off!
“I remember going to New York, visiting talent agencies like William Morris. There were several that must have laughed their asses off after we left. Some guys from Akron are going to open a comedy club, and that would’ve been the joke of the month,” Kostis reminisced.
Like most self-starters, Kostis faced some hurdles, and the opening night of his first club was certainly one of them!
“The night we opened in the Falls, we lost our air conditioning,” he recalled. “Dennis is the first act in the place and the air conditioning fails and it’s like a July or August date. It was so hot! Our manager at the time announced, ‘Please welcome to the stage, on our first night, to what has to be the hottest comedy club in Ohio!’ It was sweltering hot. He joked about it not only being the hottest club in Ohio but in the entire United States. Anyway, the crowd really laughed at that because they were all soaking wet. Now, Dennis finishes the show by saying, ‘Well, I really thank you. You’ve been a wonderful crowd.’ And the place was packed; 300 people; who cheered so loud. He loved the place.“
After Dennis returned to NYC and talked about his positive experience, it helped open the door for other comedians to travel to Northeast Ohio and perform.
“I met everybody. It was a time of excitement and experimentation with something that my partner (at the time) and I walked into as really new to this,” Nick said. “It was largely still underground, but it was coming out. It was coming up.”
Kostis and his business partner eventually went separate ways and Nick opened up a club on West 6th Street in Cleveland. He hosted some of the top comedians in the country, as well as local favorites, up-and-comers, and even some that had decreased in their level of stardom and needed a place that would still welcome them with open arms. During this time, Kostis attempted to expand by investing in comedy clubs in Florida, which he calls a “big mistake.”
RTA would eventually purchase the building on West 6th, rendering Kostis’ comedy ventures homeless. Fortunately, Cleveland’s prized Playhouse Square theater district, the second-largest theater complex in the country, had its Hannah Theatre sitting dark for over a decade. Kostis made that his temporary home, branding it Hilarities at the Hannah.
The move to East Fourth Street in 2002 expanded Kostis’ venture into much more than a comedy club with the addition of the restaurant as well as two other prized rooms that host entertainment.
“We’re like a kind of three-ring circus. We have of course, the restaurant, we have the Cabaret Room and we have the Showroom, but we also have the Martini Bar and the Champagne Bar, which, unfortunately, I’m not opening the Martini Bar and Champaign Room right now because I do not have enough help. And, I’m not going to open those rooms unless I do it properly where I know that people are going to have a great experience. We’re not going to diminish or sacrifice the expectation for a good experience. I’m not going to just put somebody in there that, first and foremost, doesn’t live by our credo.”
The Cabaret room is one of the city’s hidden gems. It hosts everything from murder mystery dinners to local celebrity Mike Polk Jr.’s variety show. The ambiance and intimacy of the room make it a top spot for date night and a must-see for Clevelanders who have yet to visit.
It can’t be overlooked that Pickwick & Frolic has one of the most delicious menus in the downtown area with price-conscious offerings that make a nice night out at a beautiful establishment that is more accessible than its competitors.
“Fine dining has suffered a lot. Although, I don’t consider us to be fine dining. We are what you call upscale casual,” Kostis said. “When I built Pickwick & Frolic, I built it to be an extension of what had been formed as what was strictly a nightclub; a comedy nightclub; Hilarities on West 6th Street.”