Weylu’s may get last laugh

Comics’ hall of fame is proposed for site

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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Will Saugus become the next Comedy Central?

A Las Vegas entrepreneur hopes to turn the old Weylu’s restaurant on Route 1 into the National Comedian’s Hall of Fame, a nonprofit museum that will honor America’s funniest men and women.

“We hope it’s going to be the funniest place on earth,’’ said Matt Adragna, cofounder of the nonprofit, during a visit to the property last week with local and state officials. “Everybody loves a comedian.’’

Adragna said the vacant 65,000-square-foot restaurant could be remade into exhibit space, with changing displays of photographs, scripts, and other props used by famous comedians. It also would have a 300-seat theater, a library, classrooms, a restaurant, and gift shop. Adragna estimates the project cost at $50 million.

“This will be a place where people can come to learn about and enjoy comedy,’’ said Adragna, 52, a former marketing professional.

But officials who attended the site visit were more cautious.

“It’s a nice concept,’’ said Town Manager Andrew Bisignani. “If it’s a viable project and it moves forward, and the community supports it, then it would be a good thing.’’

Adragna declined to disclose financing for the project. He has enough money to buy the building, but still must raise about $12 million over the coming months, he said. He is considering a mix of private investors and financing. The nonprofit also would look to take advantage of state arts grants or economic development incentives. “Hopefully the state can help us,’’ he said.

Peter Milano, senior regional director of the state Office of Business Development in Lawrence, was noncommittal about state assistance. “We’d have to see a business plan,’’ said Milano, who attended the site visit last Wednesday.

Adragna said he is also pursuing corporate sponsorships. A promotional brochure lists Bank of America and Verizon Wireless as sponsors. The institutions have provided grant money, he said.

“It’s nothing huge,’’ he said of the sponsorships.

But a spokesman for Bank of America said the bank is not a sponsor, and will ask that its logo be removed from the brochure.

“We have not provided a grant to this organization, and will not do so moving forward, as their mission does not align with our philanthropic priorities,’’ spokesman T.J. Crawford wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not sure where the confusion is on Mr. Adragna’s part, but we will ask that he remove our logo from any promotional materials. ’’

A spokesman for Verizon Wireless said that company also is not a corporate sponsor. “There is no relationship, certainly no endorsement or sponsorship,’’ spokesman Michael Murphy wrote in an e-mail.

Adragna said he received a $3,000 donation from a Bank of America branch manager in Las Vegas, who told him he could use the logo. “He said, ‘Sure, put it on your brochure,’ so I did.’’

The Comedy Hall of Fame Inc., a Florida nonprofit that would operate the museum, has reached agreement to buy the former Chinese restaurant, Adragna said.

He declined to disclose a sale price. The restaurant, a replica of China’s Forbidden City, sits on 10.5 acres overlooking Route 1. The property is assessed at $2.5 million, town records show.

The property is owned by Golden Mountain LLC of Westbury, N.Y., which operated Jin Asian Cuisine, a restaurant and nightclub there. In 2009, Saugus selectmen revoked its licenses to operate after a series of violent incidents at the club.

“Basically, 90 days is our timetable to get this deal closed,’’ Adragna said. “Once that’s done, we’ll know what our construction timetable will be.’’

The once-ornate restaurant has been vacant for more than a year. Broken glass, cracked plaster, and rubbish scar the inside. Outside, grass is overgrown and the concrete parking lot is cracked. “It’s been empty for quite a long time and no one has taken care of it,’’ said Adragna. ’’But it’s still an iconic building. We want to bring it back to its heyday.’’

He said his research shows that the Hall of Fame would attract 1 million visitors per year. That’s due largely to the site’s proximity to Boston and Logan Airport, he said.

Down the road, Adragna said he may add a hotel, and possibly retail outlet stores on the property. “We’re not looking to do that now,’’ he said. “But other businesses are going to benefit from this. The people we attract are going to have to eat and shop somewhere.’’

Adragna said he and his business partner, Tony Belmont, have tried to open a Hall of Fame since the first induction ceremony in 1990. A two-hour induction ceremony in 1993 was televised on NBC. The honorees were Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Walter Matthau, Red Skelton, and Jonathan Winters.

The pair has considered sites across the United States. They operated a test location for a summer in St. Petersburg, Fla., Adragna said. “The response was overwhelming, but the place was way too small for us,’’ he said.

In 2008, they pursued a site in Las Vegas, but the economic downturn killed the deals, Adragna said.

The pair then decided to look on the East Coast. Adragna, who said his wife is from East Boston, was visiting the area when he saw the giant Chinese restaurant. “I was driving up Route 1 one day, saw the building, and said ‘Wow. That would be a pretty interesting place to put the hall.’ ’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at