Arts & Culture

The Second Act

Standup comedian Larry Noto changed paths to preserve his father’s legacy.

Larry Noto sat in the ballroom of a convention center in Nashville one night last summer at what appeared to be an ordinary conference awards dinner that was far from ordinary to him. This was the National Association of Music Merchants’ semiannual gathering, where seven music stores would be honored out of a membership of thousands—and a place that, a year or so ago, Noto would never have imagined he’d be.

Then, the announcer reached for an envelope, and, in a few words read with Oscar-style panache, Noto’s night turned extraordinary. “And the winner in the category of Best Store Turnaround is . . .” the announcer exclaimed, “Music Land in Bel Air, Maryland!”

The band struck up, and Noto, who’d sprung up in surprise, jogged toward the stage. He got about halfway there before he had to wipe his eyes behind his glasses, and by the time he reached the stage, he was really crying. His face was red as he was handed a crystal pillar and the announcer patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you so much,” said Noto, obviously overwhelmed to be accepting an award for his father’s vision, which he himself had brought to reality.

The announcer started to speak, but stopped when he saw that Noto had choked up again. Regaining his composure, Noto looked out at the audience and did what comes most naturally to him—he lightened the moment with humor. “She’s just really cute, you know?” he said, pointing in the direction of a knockout in a red strapless dress, who served as the award presenter. “I mean, it brings tears to your eyes, look at the dress.” The audience, and people on stage, began to laugh. Then, Noto got more serious.

“My father came over from Italy when he was 16 years old,” said Noto, gesturing toward the image of his father on the T-shirt he wore beneath his button-down shirt. “He was an accordion player, and he had a dream, and he built it from this small, little store to this 8,000-square-foot building that he ran morning, noon, and night for 50 years. We lost him a year ago, and I quit my job.”

“[You] have been so welcoming to a person who didn’t know what a humbucker was,” he said, referencing an oddly named electronic guitar part. The audience laughed appreciatively, then leapt to its feet. The announcer hugged Noto, who, after another round of thank yous, walked off the stage with his award.

At one point in his life, the 40-year-old Noto thought he would be gracing a very different kind of stage, one where wisecracks—like the one about the knockout in the red dress—would be his sole reason for standing before an audience.

Noto was bit by the comedy bug early in life, and he honed standup skills that earned him gigs at East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia, an audition at CBS, and a regular spot at the Baltimore Improv—opening for such comedic greats as Bob Saget and Richard Lewis. The defining moment in his career came in 2011 when he spent a week performing in Las Vegas at a comedy club run by Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame. “I was at the point in my career where I had found my confidence, where I approached every gig with the mindset of, ‘Okay, let’s get on stage and do it! Let’s punch ’em in the mouth and do it!’” he writes in his 2015 memoir The Opening Act: Comedy, Life, and the Desperate Pursuit of Happiness.

“It’s surreal. But I’m excited, and I’m really proud that I can do this for my dad.”

Though he did well in Las Vegas, it didn’t lead to another career benchmark. But in the weeks that followed, Noto realized he was all right with that. “I wasn’t frustrated or unhappy,” he wrote. “What I was left with instead was a genuine appreciation for my good fortune and the great memories I’d always have. . . .”

Similarly, that night last July, and the award, cemented a radical change in the path Noto took to honor his father.

“It’s surreal,” he says, as he reflects a few months later. “But I’m excited, and I’m really proud that I can do this for my dad. I can say now, ‘Hey, we’re going for it. And we’re going to make it.’”

Last winter, before the award ceremony was on his radar, Noto sat in Music Land with a pile of architectural plans on a desk that was already covered with a mountain of papers. He was juggling plenty—his father’s death seven months prior, a new career as a small business owner, plus a huge renovation and expansion of the Bel Air institution where countless customers had learned to play guitar or bought their first drum set since 1971.

And add book promotion to all of that. Along with comedic anecdotes and backstage stories—like the time he smoked cigars at a bar past 2 a.m. with Saget, or when he drove Lewis back and forth from his hotel between sets—The Opening Act (which is co-authored by local scribe Kevin Cowherd) explores Noto’s decision to stay with the ones, and the community, he loves.

Though his wholesome brand of comedy that features one-liners about growing up in an Italian family earned him accolades from big stars, and occasionally got him recognized on the street, Noto realized that wasn’t ultimately what would make him happy. “[The book is] about having a dream and getting a taste of it, but also knowing you weren’t willing to risk it all in order to make it,” he writes. He also chronicles his college days at Loyola University, his time in radio and TV, and his career in tourism at what is now Visit Baltimore and at the National Aquarium.

As usual, Noto turns to humor to explain the latest addition to his packed schedule. “I’m on dates, treating it like [book] junkets,” he quips, an ever-present twinkle in his eye. “I don’t even want a relationship, I’m just trying to sell books.” Then he stops, and continues on a more serious note. “I wanted to write the book for about 10 years. I always had the title, and I think the subtext was, ‘Stories and conversations from a comedian you’ve never heard of.’ But certainly, the events of last year helped form the ending.”

He’s, of course, talking about the death of his father, Joe Noto, the accordion player and singular force behind Music Land. In April 2015, as his father was dying of throat cancer, Larry Noto and his family met to discuss what would happen with the business. It was the same day that protests in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray were escalating into violence.

“The fact that those events and my father’s death happened in the same week, I don’t know if there’s a word for it,” says Noto. “It was numbing, but for me personally, I felt that I was where I was supposed to be at that point, which was with my family. . . . Out of all this chaos came a very clear moment that showed me the right thing to do.”

So Noto resigned as director of marketing and sales for the National Aquarium and started taking a far shorter commute from his home in Bel Air five miles down the road to Music Land. He plunged himself into a world of instrument rentals, music lessons, and negotiating with guitar reps. “It’s been like The Da Vinci Code, trying to figure everything out,” he says. “He left us a tremendous gift, just without the instructions.”

Noto also quickly saw that the store was in need of some updates. Though during its five decades the store had weathered competition from music corporations like Guitar Center, it required a new computer system and new flooring and lighting. Plus, his father had purchased the adjoining storefront some years earlier, and Noto began to envision a stage there that would feature open mic nights and performances.

It was a big undertaking, though, requiring a significant investment, permits, meetings with architects, and seeming endless construction work. As his former life of performing at Magooby’s Joke House in Timonium and nights out with friends in Little Italy began to seem further and further away, Noto wondered, “Am I moving too fast? Am I doing the right thing?”

Donna Noto has always described her son in two ways—as a comedian and a go-getter. “Not only is he funny, but he’s also got the courage to go up to or get up in front of people,” she says. “From the time he was little, he could talk to anybody, anywhere—he’d strike up a conversation with total strangers. It was like he was 3 going on 33.”

She knew no matter what he chose to do with his life—whether that was comedy, marketing, or something else—he would jump in wholeheartedly. So she wasn’t surprised at how quickly he began to put his own stamp on Music Land. “He will give it 200 percent, and he will love it and make the most of it,” she says.

As Noto rolled out plans for an acoustic guitar room and concerts, patrons got excited and started bringing in friends and relatives.

Friends in the comedy world, though surprised at Noto’s career change at first, began to see that it made sense. “Now, the way he talks about the music store and taking over the family business, he’s way more passionate about that than I ever thought he would be,” says fellow Baltimore comedian Mike Finazzo. “The people who do go to New York, [comedy is] their wife, their mistress, and their family. And for Larry, I think he’s content doing so many different things that this area suits him, and he seems really at peace and happy with that.”

Larry Noto also had the support of Music Land’s long-time customers and staff. As he rolled out plans for a climate-controlled acoustic guitar room and concerts featuring members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, patrons got excited and started bringing in friends and relatives. The business’s Facebook page is littered with comments like, “This place is the best! Massive selection, amazing team, awesome energy,” and, “This store is what makes the difference from the big box music stores—it has class, character, and excellent customer service.”

“When you see all the things that are going on, the excitement, and how the employees are stoked about each new project we have going on, it’s neat,” says Vincent Corson, who has worked at Music Land for more than 30 years. “I’m reminded every day about what a great place it is to work.”

Noto’s mind was made up even more when one day last spring, as he glanced over items from his father’s old desk, he found a binder with a piece of notebook paper that he immediately recognized as a sign. In his father’s writing, it began, “Don’t worry about the past. Full[y] commit to the future!”

“Be creative, be innovative,” Noto reads from the paper. “I got chills. And not only that, but I found a piece of paper that was a sketch of the store that [closely mirrored] our plan. He just didn’t have time to implement it.” He taps the paper gently. “I’m going to frame this.”

Now, a year and a half after taking over the store, winning big at the national convention, and completing the expansion, Noto is tired, but content. He hasn’t had much time for comedy lately, but he accepts that might be his current reality. “I don’t know what to talk about anymore,” he jokes. “I did an open mic night and I got up and sold people clarinets.”

He has also promoted his memoir at venues like the Baltimore Book Festival and wants to develop a public speaking gig based on it. And the book has taken on new meaning for him. “It’s so funny with the timing—the title obviously meant that I was the opening act comedywise, but it’s also the opening act of my life that led to this,” he says. “There are times that I wish that I could have worked [with my dad]. But I would never have been able to have the experiences I had and learn so much from the people that I worked with that I’m applying here.”

And he’s thinking about writing a second book, starting where the last one ended. The title?

What the Hell Is a Humbucker?” Noto says with a smile.