Lori Callahan was the heart of the Denver comedy scene -- until her own heart failed her
People would laugh until they cried when Lori Callahan took the stage at Comedy Works South. And on April 13, both laughter and tears poured out as friends, family members and Callahan's fellow comics gathered in the room where the redheaded comic had slung jokes for years, taking their turn at the microphone as they honored the woman whom many called the "den mother of Denver comedy."
Photo by Crystal Allen; Photo illustration by Jay Vollmar
This city's comics fight every week to stand before a Comedy Works microphone, telling their stories to the crowd. But on this day, they were all telling Lori stories. How she had taken them on road trips around the country to tiny venues in one-horse towns. How she had gotten them gigs they never would have come near otherwise. How she would take them in her arms and tell them that they did great, that they killed, that they would make it one day.
See also: Denver comics remember Lori Callahan
From the rise of Denver-bred superstars like Roseanne Barr to the amped-up hipster antics of the Grawlix group, Denver's comedy scene has always had a distinctive culture, a community of funny men and women who support and value each other. Now up-and-comers and old hands alike testified that Callahan had helped define that culture during a career spanning nearly three decades.
Lori Callahan could be both cute and cutting.
"The genuine openness and the real generous spirit of Denver comedy -- I think Lori had a big hand in the creation of that back in the day," says Nora Lynch, one of the many comics who stood on that Comedy Works stage two months ago to remember Callahan as both a friend and a mentor.
"She didn't just jump onto anybody's bandwagon who needed support; she built it," adds Wende Curtis, owner of the two Comedy Works clubs. "She was that kind of a person for everybody."
"She was the constant," says Lynch. "I left town, a lot of people left town, went on to other things. Or they just dropped out here and did other things. But Lori, from the time I started comedy to when I came back here, she was always there. You might even say in some way she was the heart of it, the heart of that Denver comedy mojo."
Callahan always called herself a Colorado girl. She grew up in Cañon City, where she attended Cañon City High. "She loved to play with the boys. She was always out there playing in the dirt with the guys. She could throw a football and a baseball. She loved golf," says Terri Barton Gregg, a friend, fellow comic, and Callahan's partner in the local production company Hold Please Productions. "We were all raised in the '70s, and we were all a little wild back then."
Callahan as 1976's Miss Colorado United Teenager.
The wackier aspects of Callahan's family were often fodder for her on-stage routine, but there were parts of her life that few people knew about. "Lori presented herself as a very happy and positive person, but she had a very difficult, challenging personal life. She had come from a lot of dysfunction in her family -- which is not at all uncommon with comedians," says Lynch.
She also had a lot of humor in her family, passed down by her mother, Verna, or "Boots." While her daughter's world was the stage, Boots's is the beauty shop. Barton Gregg once worked with Boots at a salon for a couple of weeks and recalls that she "was so funny that I literally had to move away from working next to her and go next to the bathroom, because she made me laugh so much." A faded photograph from 1965, when Lori was five years old, shows Boots and her daughter in matching powder-blue dresses -- Lori with a brown pageboy and her mother with a towering scarlet pouf.
Callahan's biological father and Boots divorced not long after Lori was born. When her mother remarried, the girl born Lori Bloom changed her last name to her stepfather's and put that part of her past behind her. (When they married, Lori's husband, Mike, also took Callahan as a last name.) Many of Lori's friends never even knew her birth name. "And they never talk about it. She changed her name and that was it," Barton Gregg says. She had a brother who died young, and her surviving brother, Brooks, has struggled with addiction; he had to be bailed out of jail to come to Lori's memorial.
The spotlight first shone on Lori Callahan when she became, in her words, "the little beauty queen," 1976's Miss Colorado United Teenager. Yet according to Barton Gregg, her stage debut was less than auspicious. "She choked on stage when she had to do the talent portion. She completely froze," Barton Gregg says.
"I walked out there, saw the cameras, the 4,000 people," Callahan told the Sioux City Journal in 2012. "And I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm speechless!' and walked off the stage. I could see my mom and her best friend sinking down in their seats."
"I did everything before I did comedy," Callahan told the Denver Post in 2000. "I was in surveying and banking, and I just couldn't find really what I was happy at. I wanted to go into acting right out of high school and go to L.A. But my father, who was a state patrolman, discouraged me from doing that. I was too 'naive,' and I was too 'nice.'"
She was working as a bank teller when radio station KOOL 105 announced a competition asking people to send in audition tapes of their standup-comedy routines. Callahan did, was selected, and got a one-time spot at George McKelvey's comedy club in Aurora, the home turf of the legendary comic who helped found the original Comedy Works and put Denver's comedy culture on the map. (Callahan hosted a tribute to McKelvey at Comedy Works after he died, in 2009.)
"I was so scared, and somebody heckled me," Callahan told the Journal. "And my mom stood up and said to that person, 'That's my kid there for the first time, and I will have you shut up!' I said to the crowd, 'That's my mom -- the bouncer!' I won. I won $100 for that."