Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Club Back in Full Swing | Metro Silicon Valley

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There was nothing funny about the nearly three-year closure of Sunnyvale comedy club Rooster T. Feathers. But now that the team is reassembled and ready to gather comedy lovers back together, the club is once again echoing with laughter.

As Sunnyvale has developed over time, the humble comedy club with the funny name has been an entertainment mainstay for the city. It’s also been a mainstay in the development of many a comic’s career. Over the years, Ali Wong, Jerry Seinfeld, Gabriel Iglesias and Amy Schumer have all entertained fans in the 150-capacity room.

First opened in 1979 as the Country Store, Rooster T. Feathers officially rebranded in January 1984 as a full-time comedy club. Distinct in its appearance, the club occupies a brown-painted, brick-adorned facade on El Camino Real sandwiched between Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road and Mathilda Avenue, a building that once served as a bus station and now stands out from the rising construction surrounding it. That’s all part of the club’s charm, and part of the reason it has continued to pull such big names to its stage over the last few decades.

The combined 12,800-plus followers across Rooster T. Feathers’ social media channels adds to Roosters’s status as the little club that can. Following its two-plus-year closure from the prolonged and overwhelming COVID-19 pandemic, the club has already hosted some big names in comedy, like.

Owner Heather Barbieri, who’s been at the club’s helm since December 2001, says that those early days of March 2020 were a hectic time for herself and her team, with conflicting information and news coming out day after day.

“Business had been slowing down and March is usually our busiest month,” Barbieri recalls, pointing out that Santa Clara County became one of the first counties in the country to implement a shelter-in-place mandate. “We were like, well, there might be something to this COVID thing.”

THIS COVID THING

At the time, health officials both within the county and across the nation were calling for a two- or three-week shutdown. With that, Barbieri and her team decided after the Thursday night show on March 12 to shut the doors and just wait it out.

“I felt so horrible, because I’ve got 15 employees, all part-time,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to have to tell them, just go shelter in place.”

While Barbieri and her team were hoping to be back laughing together within just a few weeks, that hope was cast aside when the reality of the pandemic set in. Weeks of sheltering in place turned into months, as the virus continued to spread locally and around the globe. 

For Barbieri, even by March 2021, the question of reopening was still off the table.

“Some bars and restaurants were coming back open, sure, but we can’t do anything for takeout,” she says. “Zoom comedy shows were happening, but [they were] painful to watch. I didn’t have the bandwidth to pull all that together in a good way.”

As she repeatedly told her staff, the club works in stand-up comedy: “It’s live and in person, the way it’s supposed to be.”

And so, they waited. With the exception of a few who had to move out of the area, the staff largely stuck by the club, awaiting the reopening while taking on new jobs in the interim. 

“We are really like a little family,” says Laura Aguirre, office manager at Rooster T. Feathers. 

Aguirre describes the club as “everyone’s favorite fun second job.” During the dark days of the pandemic, she says the employees would often get together online to do something familiar to all of them: watch comedy. 

When the county released updated restrictions, allowing up to 25% capacity, Barbieri thought it wouldn’t be enough. Even at 50% capacity, she kept the lights off. 

“We don’t make money that way…I would just be coming back to lose money,” she says.

Help finally came in 2021 in the form of emergency assistance grants released for businesses like Rooster T. Feathers, aptly named the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The program—established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, and amended by the American Rescue Plan Act—included over $16 billion in grants for shuttered venues. Barbieri immediately applied, and then went about the task of proving her business viable for the funding. She and her team were one of the 1,891 California businesses to receive a grant in 2021.

Still, it was stressful to figure out what to do next. The club had cut down to its bare minimum costs to keep above water, turning off everything but the refrigerators, and only leaving them on because, she says, “I was afraid they wouldn’t turn back on.” 

NEW PLUMAGE

As many business owners found locally, the shutdowns also afforded an opportunity to rebuild. With the building closed and the money from the SVO Grant, Barbieri was able to reassess how she could eventually get Rooster T. Feathers back open, and also invest time in redecorating.

“We did some painting inside, there were a couple things that I realized we need to do for a better facelift because we had so much deferred maintenance over the years,” she says. “It’s a nightclub, we have a show and it’s great. The challenge now was we had to upgrade everything. So we really jumped in and got all the work done.”

By September 2021, Barbieri had finished all remodeling and had planned to reopen soon thereafter. But, by then, another issue had emerged: historic blockages and delays in the supply chain. Newer items for the club—including the bar sinks, an integral part of the club’s beverage station—were delayed for months.

Still, Barbieri was able to rely on one thing: her trusted staff. Throughout the first year-plus, the club’s employees who lived locally would swing by and grab mail, as well as check that the lights were off. Most of them stayed in touch, hoping for the chance to laugh together in person again.

“It was a watch and wait game for myself,” Aguirre says. She describes seeing another longtime employee leave the Bay Area entirely during this time, leaving her wondering, “Is this going to be my fate?”

One source of comfort were the messages she received from comedians hoping to come back to Rooster T. Feathers one day.

“Some of our regular comedians would reach out to me via social media, asking, ‘what’s going on? You’re not closing, right?’ I think that helped keep me optimistic,” she says.

In mid-October 2022, Barbieri decided that the time had come, planning for a Dec. 1 reopening. She reached out to comics (some of whom had already been keeping in touch throughout the pandemic) aiming to start promotions and get people rehired in time for the reopening. All of the staff that still lived in the area—now 15 people strong—returned, and have helped to train new staff members as well.

“It’s really heartwarming and great everyone came back,” Barbieri says. “[On our opening day], I was just taken aback by how many comedy lovers and neighbors in the area came and said such wonderful things about Roosters…It was so nice, and we got a kind of momentum going with that.”

DUSTING OFF THE FEATHERS 

Now entering its third month back, Rooster T. Feathers hasn’t slowed its momentum one bit. The club is now mostly booked through June 2023. 

“Once we hit New Year’s Eve 2022, we were super busy, and that was a relief for me personally, because that’s always a super huge night,” Barbieri says. “Everything’s kind of set to continue on that trajectory.”

Currently, the club’s website lists events through the end of April, with four-day weekend stints from Shane Torres, Don McMillan, Laurie Kilmartin and David Gborie, to name just a few. Local comedians also have a chance to perform as part of the club’s Rooster’s New Talent Showcase, on Wednesdays, from Feb. 1 through March 22.

This weekend, it’s almost like things never closed at Rooster T. Feathers. Starting Thursday, legendary stand-up Jackie Kashian—now perhaps best known for her podcasting career—commands the stage for four nights of incisive wit and impeccable delivery.

“Every single week, I’m excited to see the show,” Barbieri says. “I’m just so excited comedy is back at Rooster T. Feathers.”



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