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Corporation sees little humor in show name

Think fast: Where is the Comedy Hall of Fame?

On a drawing board in a St. Petersburg office, or on NBC-TV Saturday?

A U.S. district judge may decide today in a lawsuit filed by a local corporation against a Los Angeles TV producer.

At stake is whether a St. Petersburg not-for-profit corporation known as the National Comedy Hall of Fame Inc. has the legal right to stop NBC from airing Saturday's 2nd Annual Comedy Hall of Fame, a two-hour tribute to comedians like Bob Hope, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Pryor.

The TV special was produced by George Schlatter, creator of Laugh-In and the recent She-TV.

The corporation, run by St. Petersburg's Tony Belmont, holds a federally registered service mark on the Comedy Hall of Fame name, which it has used since 1990. Schlatter's first NBC special of the same name aired last year.

The case will be heard this afternoon in the U.S. district courthouse in Tampa.

The suit falls into the tricky area of trade and service mark law, where just having a license to use a name doesn't always provide legal grounds to keep someone else from doing the same.

"The issue of trademark law is the likelihood of confusion," said Largo lawyer Bill Larson, who specializes in the field. "Would the consumer erroneously believe that this television show is produced by the man who owns this trademark?"

In the lawsuit filed Oct. 13, Belmont's corporation alleged that airing the program would cause continued confusion about where and what the Comedy Hall of Fame really is. The suit also alleges that the group would lose financial backing for the project if the TV special is aired.

So far, Belmont's plans to build the Hall of Fame in Clearwater are tentative at best.

For five months, he has had talks with Peter Gozza, executive director of Clearwater's Redevelopment Agency, about the possibility of a $4-million facility that would include exhibits on the history of comedy and a small theater.

But Gozza said Monday that Belmont's group has yet to go before the Clearwater City Commission, whose approval it would need to set any plan into motion.

"Yeah, we're interested. It seems like a good project It'd be the one and only Comedy Hall of Fame," Gozza said.

"Tony needs to give us the materials to take before the City Commission. Before I get that, there's nothing on the agenda. I'm just waiting for his next move."

Belmont did not return a reporter's calls to his office and home. His attorney, Anne Mason of Clearwater, said through an assistant that she did not want to discuss the case.

George Rahdert, the attorney representing Schlatter's production company, said the suit was "utterly without merit."

"You can't just throw a trademark into Washington, D.C., and own the trademark," said Rahdert, whose law firm represents the Times on First Amendment issues. "It is absolutely required that you must be in business and operate (with the name), and as I understand it, Mr. Belmont has not really gotten off the ground."