Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
SoulJoel’s Comedy Club finds a new home
Joel Richardson is opening SoulJoel's Outdoor Comedy Dome at Sunnybrook Ballroom
LOWER POTTSGROVE » When SoulJoel’s Comedy Dome at Sunnybrook held its grand opening on Wednesday, July 27, Joel Richardson brought to the Pottstownarea a roster of A-list, nationally touring comedians you would typically only see in major cities like New York and Los Angeles.
The dome, a giant, COVID-safe outdoor venue made of canvas that can hold up to 400 people, is located at Sunnybrook Ballroom, 50 Sunnybrook Road in Lower Pottsgrove. Richardson’s new home also includes a traditional indoor venue called SoulJoel’s Comedy Club & Lounge at Sunnybrook.
The move marks the latest chapter in Richardson’s career as a local comedy producer. His story took a drastic turn thanks to COVID-19 — though not the type you might expect from someone in his business. If if you were to ask any comedy club owner or producer about the long, drawn-out shutdown that immediately followed the global coronavirus pandemic, you’d likely hear some version of this statement: “It was by far the worst experience of my career.”
Not Richardson. He calls the pandemic “the best thing that ever happened.” Of course, he says that with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, SoulJoel’s Comedy Club, a four-month-old Royersford-based comedy club with a moniker derived from the nickname one of Richardson’s high school soccer teammates gave to him, was just beginning to take off.
In just four months, the club had gone from a parttime weekly comedy venue to a full-time, five-night-aweek business with a full staff and a steady streak of sold-out shows. The pandemic threatened to kill all that momentum — if not the entire operation. Instead of allowing that to happen, Richardson heeded the advice of state Rep. Joe Webster (D-150th Dist.) and his club’s landlord and took live comedy outside.
Based on a blueprint created by his sister, who previously served as a “Seabee” (a member of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion), Richardson created the dome and put it in a parking lot overlooking the Schuylkill River. That same dome is now housed at the Sunnybrook location.
“When we went outside, we needed to cover the entire parking lot,” Richardson said. “Not only was sand the cheapest solution, but people also weren’t traveling — so we covered the lot with 200 tons of sand and gave people a fake beach right in the middle of Montgomery County.”
Suddenly, with New York and Philadelphia’s comedy scenes on hiatus, Richardson had the hottest club on the East Coast with his outdoor dome. He quickly capitalized on the opportunity and held a 16-day comedy festival (one day for each week the country was in lockdown) in July of 2020.
At the request of one of his friends and fellow comics — Richardson reached out to Dave Attell, one of Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comics of Comedians of All Time, and he agreed to headline the final night of the festival. With Attell’s seal of approval, it was easy for Richardson to attract nationally touring headliners like Michael Rapaport, Jim Breuer, the late Gilbert Godfrey and Mark Normand, to name a few. It was even easier for him to bring in audiences.
“We attracted people from 27 different states over the 16-month period we had the dome, and we were talked about on countless podcasts and radio and TV shows,” he says. To this day, Richardson says people come up and tell him how much those pandemic dome shows meant to them. “Some people say it was their first time coming out of the house since they lost someone, some people were fighting a terminal illness themselves, and these people will say, ‘You have no idea what laughter and coming out to these shows has done for me,’” he said. “It was the bright spot of their pandemic.”
If you think Richardson’s success in the middle of a live-entertainment-crippling pandemic sounds like nothing more than a stroke of good luck, than you have no idea the amount of work he put in — not to mention the risks he took — to open up his own comedy club in the first place. Thirteen years ago, Richardson left an extremely comfortable if unfulfilling career as a pharmaceutical sales rep to try his hand at producing live comedy shows and, hopefully, owning a club of his own someday. Prior to ditching his gig for Big Pharma, Richardson was both producing shows and performing stand-up on the side. He even considered embarking on a career as a comic until something veteran professional comedian Yannis Pappas said changed the trajectory of his life forever.
“Yannis told me, ‘You could probably be a good 20- to 30-minute middle act comedian, but you have the ability to be the best producer. Why wouldn’t you want to be the best?’” Once he made the decision to go all in on producing comedy, Richardson never looked back.
He put his heart and soul into producing Tristate area comedy shows — including a seven-year stint at the Valley Forge Casino — before landing in Royersford and creating the dome. Then, on the very last show of the very last night of scheduled shows this past fall, there was a downpour, and the dome started flooding.
“It had never flooded in 16 months prior, even during Hurricane Ida, and it happened during that last show” he said. “That was a sign the chapter had closed, and it was time to move on.”
Richardson moved on immediately, opening up a temporary location at the Jeffersonville Golf Club in West Norriton while he searched for his new permanent home — a spot that
can include both a traditional indoor club as well as the dome that brought him through the pandemic. That search concluded when Richardson found the Sunnybrook Ballroom, a venue that originally opened in 1926 and housed iconic performers such as Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.
Richardson was so inspired by the history of the place that he even kept Sunnybrook in the name.
What exactly can audiences expect from the latest iteration of SoulJoel’s? The same exact thing Richardson has been working tirelessly to provide for the past 13 years: A great show.
“First and foremost, I always want to put on a good show, and I’m never looking for a quick fix,” he says. “Whether it’s sold out, well-attended or practically empty, I always strive to put on the best possible show, and I think my passion comes across not only
to the comics I book but also to the audiences. That passion is what drives me, and it’s what will keep me in business.”
For more details or to purchase tickets, visit souljoels.com and SoulJoel’s new Facebook page.