When Walter Latham says perseverance is his entrepreneurial ammo, there's nothing cliché about it. At 28, he's an entertainment mogul, heading the largest urban comedy promotion company in the country. But have you heard of Latham Enter-tainment, or its "Kings of Comedy" tour, which grossed $20 million last year? Probably not, due to sparse media coverage. Seasoned minority industry players say that's just how it is. Latham retorts, "I only accept what I think I deserve."
Don't assume Kings of Comedy has anything to do with Bob Hope. It's the laugh-fest that last year featured three African American stand-up comedians and ranked as the nation's bestselling comedy tour, outdoing Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy. When Latham began planning it near the end of 1997 to follow up his success with actor/comedian Chris Rock's "Bring The Pain" tour, he hoped it would propel his then-5-year-old business into greater fortune. When hope became reality, few noticed. "We'd call People magazine [for coverage]," says Latham, "and they'd say 'What's Kings of Comedy?'" Judging from the numbers (expected company sales are $35 million this year, up from $26 million last year) and the addition of ABC's The Hughleys creator D.L. Hughley to 1999's Kings of Comedy tour, the entertainment world cannot deny Latham the spotlight much longer.
The former customer-service representative for American Express was captivated by the successes of high school friends-turned-rap artists. When his own rap demo remained a demo, he tried a behind-the-scenes approach. "I don't think I knew the word 'promote,'" says Latham. "I probably just said 'I'll do rap shows.'"
Latham, who divides his time between his company's newest office in Los Angeles and its first, in Greensboro, North Carolina, has come a long way from scanning backs of CD cases for booking contacts. With just $5,000 from his family to start, Latham has transformed himself from a small-time promoter into a multimedia player. Frankly, Latham has gone Hollywood: In the works is a TV series animated by the creators of Rugrats. By reinvesting in his product to keep his tours fresh, focusing on the urban market and keeping his independent spirit intact, Latham is ready to play David to Tinseltown's Goliaths. Says Latham, "I've paid my dues with concerts, and I'm willing to do it again. But I will not accept 'no' just because it's the standard."