Two days before Big Dog Theater's Oct. 1, 2010, grand opening comedy show, owner Don Mitri got a call from his landlord. "Everyone was all set, and he's like 'You can't open,' " Mitri recalls. "It was a deflation."
He had been working to bring Big Dog to the long-dormant Centrum Theater since July. Restoring the 260-seat theater to its original beauty was a huge undertaking — water, ceiling and electric problems called for repairs and upgrades — but it was one Mitri was happy to tackle for his comedy venue that features stand-up, sketch and improv performances and also offers classes for the city's beginning and advanced comedians.
Mitri started his own comedy career at Cabaret Dada and became interested in the intricacies of different improv styles. But off stage, he eventually found a new thrill bringing in shows and producing, and now he's happy to be the one opening the Centrum's doors.
"I'm just the person who has this place; the ones they come to see are up here," he says from the theater's stage. "I'm OK with that. I like that."
Mitri has big plans for the comedians he'll welcome to Coventry. He hopes his audiences will see nationally reputed acts, including Second City's touring company, the Improvised Shakespeare Co. and Chicago improviser of the year Susan Messing.
But perhaps more importantly, Mitri sees Big Dog as an outlet for Cleveland's performers to grow and showcase their art.
"There's so many [groups] right now that are trying to find their own space and a place they can call home," he says. "That's really what this place is.
"I never wanted it to become a little Chicago," he continues. "We want to keep our identity. I absolutely believe the mentality of the Cleveland performer is you can't knock me down."
Judging from his experience opening Big Dog, he must be right. After the setback last fall, Big Dog Theater, named for Mitri's 150-pound St. Bernard, Libby, opened Feb. 19. to a crowd of about 215, and the funny hasn't stopped since.