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  1. Pasco

Just for laughs, National Comedy Hall of Fame plans move to Pasco

Now a traveling museum, the Hall is planning to move to a permanent home in Holiday.
Tony Belmont with National Comedy Hall of Fame in 2007. TIMES fil
Published Jan. 27

HOLIDAY -- Pasco County may get the last laugh.

And if all works out as a promoter hopes, it could hear plenty of giggles and guffaws in the future, as well.

The National Comedy Hall of Fame, a traveling exhibit that at one time was located at John's Pass Village and Boardwalk in Madeira Beach, is planning a move to the Holiday Tower center at Darling Road and U.S. 19.

The hall of fame museum would be one of the attractions in a planned entertainment venue that would include a bistro and comedy club, an event center and the existing escape-room business, Race to Escape.

David Spezza of Trinity, vice president of the National Comedy Hall of Fame museum and the manager of EPRE Plantation Plaza LLC, the building's owner, was scheduled to meet with Pasco County's planning staff this week to discuss the planned hall of fame bistro and comedy club.

The museum has been without a permanent home for more than a decade. At various times, it unsuccessfully sought spots in Largo, St. Pete Beach and other locales as a place to set up shop. It's familiar territory for founder Tony Belmont, who tried to find public support in Sarasota, Palmetto and elsewhere for more than 10 years before landing at John's Pass.

Spezza, a Realtor, said his involvement began by trying find property for the hall, but "I really fell in love with the cause of preserving history and helping those who help us laugh through the years.''

The comedy hall of fame is the brainchild of Belmont, who lives in Seminole and has been a producer and agent. In previous interviews, Belmont said the idea for the comedy hall of fame came from a conversation with comic Morey Amsterdam, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Buddy Sorrell on the Dick Van Dyke Show which aired in the 1960s on CBS.

Belmont formed the hall of fame in 1989 and later met skepticism from local government officials, according to accounts in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, when he sought public subsidies to get up and running. He declined a Tampa Bay Times interview request for this story.

The museum finally opened as a nonprofit in 2007 at John's Pass, where it featured exhibits, artifacts and audio-visual performances by comedians. The hall's 23 inductees include William "Bud'' Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Pryor, Lucille Ball and Red Skelton. The last person inducted was George Carlin.

"We have people out there who are really due,'' said Spezza, naming Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Murray as worthy of induction.

The museum's stay at John's Pass was short-lived, and it became a traveling exhibit, Spezza said, as it again searched for a permanent home.

"We really feel this is going to be a great, for lack of better term, a great bragging point for Tampa Bay to say we have the National Comedy Hall of Fame,'' said Spezza.

It already has caught the attention of Commissioner Kathryn Starkey who represents Holiday, an area where the county is encouraging redevelopment. She toured the planned location with Spezza and said she hopes the venture can be the first on U.S. 19 to qualify for the county's new redevelopment loan program.

"I've very excited about this project and excited about the opportunity to bring this to Pasco County,'' she said.

Spezza said the current proposal for about 12,000 square feet of space, a quarter of which would house the museum, is just a starting point for what he hopes will be a building of up to 40,000 square feet. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for comparison, is housed in a 150,000-square-foot building in Cleveland.

But Spezza has another reason to promote the National Comedy Hall of Fame.

"If you've not laughing,'' he said, "you're really not living.''

Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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