Cooking up comedy

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The Kookieman of Central Avenue is concocting a new recipe to bring laughter to St. Petersburg.

Kookieman has his mojo working today. He breezes through the door at the Bella Moda beauty salon on Central Avenue and every head turns and smiles.

“Hello, ladies,” he announces. “Kookieman is here.”

The response is classic Pavlovian, right out of a psychology textbook. Several woman reach for their purses, dig out the required bills, and wave them in the air.

Kookieman doesn’t know all of these women by name. But buy from him once, and he can match your face to a cookie.

“Let’s see, you’re a California Quake, right?”

He makes his way around the room, schmoozing with the noontime shampoo and set crowd and selling Kookieman cookies, a dozen for $5. The charm, as always, is on the house.

“He’ll come in sometimes while you’re working and rub your shoulders,” says Julie King, a stylist at Bella Moda. “Everybody looks forward to the Kookieman. He’s an icon.”

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But time is money to this icon, and soon, he’s back in his black Jeep Cherokee, Marvin Gaye on the radio, heading for the next stop. He makes cookie drops at the PHD Hair Studio, the Fred Astaire Dance Studio and the Heads of State salon. At Nails By Us, he runs into a tall blond nail tech he knows. “I’m going to do something you told me never to do,” she says. She puts her hands in front of her chest.

Breast implants.

Kookieman shakes his head. “Oh, no … you don’t need that,” he says. “Be thankful for what God gave you.”

She explains that she has the money saved up. And it’ll be quick. And she’ll feel better about herself. And her boyfriend …

Too late. Kookieman doesn’t do excuses. He’s already walking away.

He sells his cookies faster than he can bake them, so he hasn’t taken on any new customers in months. Besides, Kookieman wants to work bigger rooms than the Bella Moda.

Rooms that seat, say, 5,000 people.

He wants to do what no one has done before. What no one has even considered before.

He wants to bring nationally known black comedians to St. Petersburg on a regular basis. Not just for black audiences, but for anyone.

“I’ve seen a lot happen here in the last 10 years,” he said. “Baseball, all the renovations … but what’s missing in this town is entertainment.

“A lot of middle-age blacks in Pinellas County have nothing to do. People get tired of sitting in their house. There aren’t enough black cultural events … not enough comedy, blues or jazz. Black people all go over to Tampa for entertainment. And that’s where they spend their money.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I love Pinellas County.

“But pretty soon, this is going to be Penniless County.”

Cookies to comedy

There are two Karl Blacks.

The first is the friendly pastry merchant. His cookies are considered a delicacy; his pies divine. He spent 10 years building a loyal clientele along Central Avenue, and most people know him only as Karl the Kookieman, the Famous

Amos of St. Petersburg.

The second is the harried hair salon owner and entertainment promoter. The man who was a business major at the University of Texas at Arlington, who starts work at 6 a.m. and stops 16 hours later, and who is constantly on the phone trying to book comics, negotiate with club owners and take care of a hundred other details.

The man who buys 10,000 fliers for his next comedy show and hands them out all over town.

By himself.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m taking a big chance. But life is chance.

“I have to do this.”

Of course, he didn’t come to St. Petersburg to shake up the cookie and entertainment business. Black, 43, left Dallas to visit his girlfriend in 1989, and never went back. The cookies started as a hobby. They were so good that within a year, he was selling them.

Next came the Special Request hair salon. He used to sell cookies there. Five years ago, when he found out the salon was for sale, he bought it.

But what consumes him now is comedy. Or rather, the entertainment business.

“You can become anything in this town,” he said, “because there’s no competition. It’s not like Dallas. It’s wide open.”

Not necessarily. The future of the African Festival Market, for instance, is uncertain. The market began Easter weekend of last year, and the hope was that it would be a low-cost training ground for entrepreneurs who might not have the financial means to open a shop but had creativity to sell.

That first weekend, about 70 vendors set up at Campbell Park, around 16th Street and Sixth Avenue S, selling food, crafts and art. But by late January of this year, there were no vendors in the park, despite perfect weather. The previous Saturday, a windy, cold winter day, only one vendor was there.

But Black is selling a very different product.

His first comedy show was last Thanksgiving at Ike’s Lounge on 34th Street S. He hired several comedians who appear regularly on the cable station BET. Not stars like Chris Rock or Damon Wayans, but solid second-tier comics.

“Everybody told me it wouldn’t work,” Black said. “But the more you tell me it won’t work, the more I want to make it work.”

To attract his target audience, he set strict rules: No sneakers. No blue jeans. No shorts. And because they serve alcohol, no one under 21. “If you don’t want trouble,” he said, “you don’t let it in the door.”

He also hired off-duty police officers to provide security and put the word out that the show would be geared toward an upscale, more mature audience.

It was a wall-to-wall success.

But he wanted a more diverse audience, so he moved the next show closer to downtown, to Club 1901 on Central Avenue.

“You have to market what you’re selling,” he said. “If you’re black, you have to get out of the ‘hood. If you get what you’re selling to the community, people will support it.”

His next test was March 25. The show at Club 1901 went off on the same Saturday night that Robert Cray was playing the Tampa Bay Blues Festival a mile or so away, and the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament was on TV.

Again, a packed house.

Among the performers that night was Ryan Robinson, a 20-year-old communications major at Hillsborough Community College. He’s trying to break into the comedy business, but he’s been unable to get stage time at several local clubs.

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He called Black and immediately got on the bill. It didn’t matter that he was paid only $50.

“This is like my classroom,” he said after he did a 15-minute performance the audience loved. “I’d do this for free any day just for the experience.”

The plan now is to try to do one show a month.

“People say St. Pete is a divided city,” Black said. “It’s not. St. Pete has come a long, long way. It’s like a little island. And it can be a paradise.”

Making things happen

If Black needs a role model, someone to show him that his dream is possible, he needs only to look a few blocks west of Club 1901. In many ways, Robb Hunter has done what Black wants to do. He owns Robb Hunter Cigars on Central Avenue, and although the business is barely a year old, it’s one of the most popular cigar stores in the city.

Hunter knows Black, and knows what he’s trying to do.

“I told Karl just last night that there are only three kinds of people in the world,” Hunter said. “The ones who let things happen, the ones who make things happen, and the ones who wonder what the hell happened.

“Karl is definitely a maker. He gets out and beats the pavement.”

The key, says Hunter, is to have a good product, appeal to both black and white audiences, and find a venue.

“The young guys have pretty much saturated most urban markets with rap and hip-hop,” Hunter said. “However, their parents would love to come out and enjoy some comedy or jazz or R&B. You have to have a quality product, impeccable service and focus on one color. Green.”

That, says Black, is going to happen.

“I see this going on in the Mahaffey Theater, the Palladium … I’m going to bring laughter to St. Pete.

“And don’t forget … it all started with the cookies.”

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