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WomanOf the Month 8-03: Wende Curtis

As one of the few female comedy club owners in the U.S., Wende Curtis has blended financial acumen, persistence and management expertise to make her venue a home for top comedians. Today the Comedy Works, Denver, is one of the most successful clubs in the country, hosting performers ranging from Roseanne to Brett Butler, and Curtis is poised to launch a sister club in Chicago. Two clubs are probably enough for her taste, however. After years of struggling with eating disorders, Curtis has learned the importance of balance in her life.

Some 17 years ago, Curtis was finishing her degree in acting and directing at Colorado State University when she realized she wasn’t cut out for the rejection inherent in those professions. She began promoting and managing comedy venues and discovered she had a knack for leaving them more financially stable at the end of her tenure.

While her career was advancing, however, Curtis was wrestling with personal challenges—bulemia and anorexia—which she had suffered from throughout high school and college. "During college I was sitting at a dinner with a visiting opera singer who told me how women were ruining their voices by throwing up," she recalled. "I was 19, and I had never realized that others did this as well. Within a month or so I stopped." Her compulsive overeating continued, however. At age 22 or 23 she recognized that acting roles would be scarce for a 240-pound woman, and she dove into her career managing comedy clubs.

"I soon found I had an issue with working," she told attendees at a Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce luncheon. "I had switched from one addiction to another—but this one has paid off."

Curtis managed a club in Ft. Collins for several years and was next hired to open up Jazz Works in Denver, where one of the partners was John Hickenlooper, now mayor of the city. The owners next launched a club in Tampa and 10 months later sent Curtis there to "fix" operations, as she had done at clubs previously. A year later she was called back to Denver to fix the flagship club, Comedy Works. In 15 days of receipts she was able to enhance its finances. When the parent company faced financial difficulties, Curtis and other stakeholders purchased the club. A year later she began buying them out and today owns Comedy Works, save for the public shareholders’ position.

Eleven years earlier Curtis had faced a personal tragedy when the man she refers to as "the love of my life" was diagnosed with lung cancer and died nine months after her return to Denver from Tampa. "I had never lost someone like that in my life," Curtis said. "My weight went to 285 pounds, and I was deep in therapy." Binging, starving, and compulsive overeating had continued to be the "triple threat" in her life. She had heard about gastric reduction bypass surgery and underwent the operation nine years ago. She since has maintained her weight at 147 pounds and believes the surgery "saved my life."

Curtis has targeted Chicago for her next foray for several reasons: it currently has no comedy club, its population, at 8.3 million, can more than support a venue, and it’s the 3rd largest media outlet in the U.S. "Two clubs is all I can do," she said. "I used to think it was three."

Curtis credits her parents for their support along the way—her father for his entrepreneurial spirit, which inspired her work ethic and business abilities, and her mother, whom she describes as "Miss Congeniality."

"My story isn’t pretty or easy, but I wouldn’t change it for the world," she said. "That was my journey."