Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
Walking through the busy streets of downtown Asheville you will encounter great restaurants, unique shops, street festivals, art galleries, coffee shops, and, of course, a nun riding the tallest bicycle you have ever seen, closely followed by a long purple bus with gold embellishments and loud laughter flowing from the curtained windows. The LaZoom tour bus and its cast of characters have become a symbol of Asheville culture and tourism, embodying a city that accepted a young couple with a crazy idea they thought just might work in this quirky town. Ten years and many nuns later the LaZoom business is booming and the laughter is infectious.
A New Orleans Beginning
Jim and Jen Lauzon were just two young self-proclaimed punk kids living in New Orleans when they met. They both had a flair for the creative arts and a mutual sentiment toward counterculture. New Orleans provided the perfect stage for the couple’s interest in costume art and performing. Meeting the couple years later you can envision their younger selves street performing, developing their comedy routines, and testing the boundaries of their artistic gift.
“I would be in costume around town and people would stop and want to take my photo. I started to daydream about a business that could utilize that sense of quirk. So I bridged that with tourism and then we came up with the bus idea,” Jim recalls.
But the couple’s life wasn’t quite ready to launch a business and the bus idea was pushed to the back burner while they made a few key decisions about their future. Jim and Jen decided to make a move to North Carolina. Originally thinking they would move to Wilmington to be close to the beach, they were told to check out an eccentric little town called Asheville, and it was love at first visit.
Never the conventionalists, when they decided to get married they had no interest in a traditional wedding. Performers at heart, the ceremony was game show themed with all the attendees being active participants. The wedding would be the catalyst for their future endeavors in a number of ways. After they pulled off their unorthodox interactive wedding, they knew they really had something. Since they were able to plan it on a limited budget they used the money that their family gifted to them for the wedding to buy a house, which would later become equity for them to get a loan for the business.
They had always envisioned their bus rolling through the streets of New Orleans with a burlesque feel and Dixie music blaring, but after Hurricane Katrina they started to ask around town to see how the idea would be perceived in Asheville. With positive feedback in hand and a $30,000 small business loan to start, the wheels were put into motion.
Setting the Stage
The first step of this unconventional business plan would be finding the most integral part of the business, a character in its own right, the bus. The couple headed to Pittsburg for a bus auction. They humorously recall having no idea what they were doing. While other serious buyers came with mechanics on hand to scrutinize the engine capabilities, the Lauzon’s had two main criteria: long and tall.
Assuming that other buyers were confirmation that the bus was in working order, they didn’t even look under the hood.
“Our testing of the bus is that we could stand in it,” says Jen.
She gestures with her hands above her head, measuring an invisible length criteria.
“Yeah, I could wear a top hat in this. There was only one bus that was long enough that we could put a stage and a decent size audience inside and that you could wear a top hat in.”
Of course neither of them had CDL licenses so driving it back themselves was out of the question. They hired a company to bring it to them, and they traveled back to Asheville to await the arrival of their newly purchased baby.
Their new big bundle of joy would finally arrive at midnight on a dark and stormy night, dramatically appropriate. They planned to park the bus in the backyard of their small West Asheville property, a lot about 40 feet across, a seemingly perfect spot for their new 40 foot bus.
As the rain poured down, the driver arduously tried to fit this monstrosity in its new home, taking down branches in its path and most likely shocking the neighbors from their slumber.
“All night we were holding our heads and in the morning we were having our coffee, looking out at this thing bigger than our house, and thought…What did we do?!?” says Jim.
[quote float=”right”]“When we first started, we said let’s just imagine, instead of being the parade announcers talking about the parade as it goes by, let’s be the parade announcers and we ARE the parade going by everything.”[/quote]Over the next six months they would take on the task of transforming the bus into what they dreamed would be their traveling stage. It was painted and outfitted to their liking. They admit that at this point they were just making it up as they went along.
“The first day, when we rolled the bus out of the yard having a friend’s dad drive it to get inspected, we were riding, holding onto the sides. We had been in it for so long never knowing if it would actually work, and it was rolling, and we were like ‘Oh my god!’” Jen and Jim look at each other mimicking their scared and amazed expressions and demonstrating them holding on for dear life while the curtains were flying in the wind.
And work it did. Inspections were clear, and other than a few minor details they were ready to roll. They were so caught up in the process that it wouldn’t be until later that they would look back on how they got there. Jim says that his experience working with Mardi Gras parade floats, a time working for Disney, and even being an Amtrak conductor all attributed to their success.
“I put all the pieces together and was like ‘Oh, it’s like we have a rolling parade.’ When you are so close to something you don’t really understand what’s going on sometimes.”
The Laughter Starts Rolling…For the Most Part
With the bus ready to hit the streets, the LaZoom bus tours officially began. When asked how the inaugural tours kicked off, Jim and Jen have one word: quiet. The beginning was a little like testing the waters. Sometimes they would perform for only 2-4 people. They were used to doing short bits and street performances that were only a few minutes long. Now they were working on filling a 90 minute show.
Jim and Jen reminisce about the rough beginning and those awkward moments when they would run out of material as the bus came to a stop light and would have to improvise for their expecting
audience, pointing to random objects outside of the bus. As they talk about those first experimental, years they look at each other and laugh, providing a glimpse into the performers that they were at the beginning. You can sense the giddiness they must have felt. Fresh, inspired, and at times grasping.
These two business owners and performers began to develop a routine. As the bus travelled around the town they had grown to love, the two of them sat in captain’s chairs at the front of the bus, sometimes facing each other, sometimes facing the audience, playing off of each other’s humor in a comfortable way that maybe only husband and wife can achieve.
“When we first started, we said let’s just imagine, instead of being the parade announcers talking about the parade as it goes by, let’s be the parade announcers and we ARE the parade going by everything.”
Eventually their natural roles would emerge, and while Jen was adamant on developing a concrete script to follow, Jim was less interested in memorizing lines and more interested in off the cuff characters. So lovingly, Jim was kicked off the bus in order for his creative characters to hit the street in an interactive way.
“It was just a nice way for me to get off the bus and to be more of an element of surprise, instead of ducking in the stairwell and getting changed into characters,” Jim says.
It was around this point in time that the couple realized that their dreams were coming to fruition. Jim says that he had always had a recurring vision of sorts. This vision involved an old man sitting in a barber shop getting his haircut when a gorilla runs by the window being chased by a guy in a safari outfit yielding a net. When the old man is shocked, the barber looks up and says, “Oh, that’s just Jim Lauzon.”
Jim always aspired to be the town character, and at last he finally was. But as Jen would point out, instead of a gorilla, it would take the form of a nun.
Sister Bad Habit
What could be considered the official town character of Asheville, Sister Bad Habit, was born in the usual organic Lauzon way. As they were going through their costume drawers they pulled out a white bandana with black fabric hanging
off of it, a comical nun habit of course. And in Jim’s creative mind the perfect accessory for this character would be fire, and so she carried a fire torch in her pocketbook.
Jim feels that this was the easiest character he ever did because, having attended catholic school as a child, he had plenty of material to pull from. In fact, Sister Bad Habit is “loosely” based on an actual nun from his childhood.
“Sister Pauline was the best. She was really strong, very virtuous, never wrong, and kind of very cute and curmudgeonly,” says Jim, as both he and Jen emphasize the never wrong attribute.
This nun character would take on a life of her own, and she can be spotted around town riding bicycles, chasing after purple buses, or enjoying a tasty beverage at one of the local bars. She is actually featured on the label of a local craft brew, an appropriate image for a town often called the cesspool of sin.
What started out as a humble dream has morphed into a successful business. The startup costs were minimal as far as business standards go, and the pair praise Mountain Bizworks for teaching them the hard facts of running a business and offering them advice and support along the way. The Jim and Jen comic duo has grown into a bona fide company with twelve staff members.
[quote float=”left”]“We are able to grow the business in the ways we were hoping to do years ago but were trapped underneath the bus, but now we are on top of the bus screaming ‘Yeehaw!’.”[/quote]
“We grew so slowly and organically with the town holding us up and helping us. That was the best part, how much everyone wanted us to succeed.”
When they first started the business they were driven by fear. They worried not so much that they would fail, but that they wouldn’t be accepted. They have found the opposite to be true, and have instead felt fully supported by the community, the chamber of commerce, and even the occasional run in with the police for running lights or harmless fender benders.
But as the business has grown, inevitably it has changed and, as with most businesses, there have been some growing pains. The chemistry between Jim and Jen is what had the audience eating out of their hands, and by the fifth year they knew how to make it work, but they also began to feel burnt out on performing and realized it was time to relinquish some of their duties.
“One of the hardest things is transferring and finding the right type of person to fill our shoes when you don’t even really know how to define what you are doing. So finding the right replacements was difficult, and even the script is being rewritten and strengthened right now.”
So the two stepped off of their stage with full confidence in their team that they say could each individually have a one man show and are truly capable of stepping into their roles on the entertainment side of the business.
Although it has been a challenge, they took a year off to take an online business course. They realized they were wearing too many hats and that there was some inner disorganization that was weighing them down.
“We spent most of last year going step by step and giving a label and description to every position and every task. Our business is stronger and we are so clear about everything. We are able to grow the business in the ways we were hoping to do years ago but were trapped underneath the bus, but now we are on top of the bus screaming ‘Yeehaw!’.”
Jen says that it was important for them to unplug in order for them to move forward. The future will involve a kid’s program, black history tours, a band on a bus brewery tour, and maybe even a new branch since they have found a model that works.
Both Jim and Jen talk about their business with passion and love. Although stepping off the bus has been an adjustment, it has also been a way for them to realize the significance of what they have created.
“Last summer, not being on the bus, walking downtown, the streets were packed, all of a sudden I hear this music and laughter and the bus comes blowing right through Pritchard park and Augusta Wind had jumped off the bus and people were cheering for her as she is running through the crowd. And my heart just melted and I thought this is awesome. We are doing everything and more than we originally imagined.”
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