Neighborhood News: 60+ years of laughs at Old Town’s The Second City
Comedy today has its roots deeply in Old Town’s The Second City, 230 W. North Avenue. It seems as if every comic actor of the past 60 years… from Valerie Harper and Alan Arkin…to Bill Murray to Tina Fey to Jordan Peele… all came out of the same improv-comedy sketch vault, laying the groundwork for the next generation of comedians.
It came from Hyde Park…
The Second City origins lie within the University of Chicago, when undergrad Paul Sills co-founded the Playwright’s Theater Club in 1946. There, with fellow actors Edward Asner, Byrne Piven (father of actor Jeremy) and Zohra Lampert, they blended Viola Spolin’s(Sills’ mother) improvisational techniques with established theater training, often set to piano accompaniment.
That formula set the framework for legendary comedy that impacts today.
Another person joining the Playwright’s Theatre was my mother, then-U of C undergrad Betty Moore. At 96, she’s one of the last surviving original members, but worked with Lampert, Sills, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, who went on to enormous careers on Broadway and in Hollywood.
“We were just kids who wanted to perform, “ she recalled. “Paul was the leader because his mom had written a book. All of us just tried to make each other laugh.”
She remembered Nichols and May as “teenagers, and Mike was so shy.”
Mom left the group in the early 1950’s after graduation. By that time, Bernie Sahlins had come in as producer. They changed their name to The Compass Players, gained a following and a bigger space up north in Old Town.
On a cold Chicago night-December 16, 1959-to be exact, The Second City opened at 1842 N. Wells Street, the former site of Wong Cleaners & Dyers.
The carpet was still being nailed down as the audience entered on opening night, he show began with Barbara Harris singing “Everybody’s in the Know,” according to their website.
They Grow… and Grow… And…
In the 1960’s, The Second City welcomed Bill Curry, their first African American actor, into ‘Enter from Above,’ and moved south to its new (and still current) home at 1616 North Wells. Following his death at age 51, Second City launched the Bob Curry Fellowship program in 2014 to honor Curry’s trailblazing contributions and encourage diverse voices to pursue careers in comedy. Rounding out the decade, Harold Ramis joined the cast of Second City in 1969.
“The addition of Ramis,” their website explains, “Was just the beginning of how the Chicago cast would set the tone for an entire generation of comic performers who were as hilarious as they were radical.”
Becoming a cultural icon
Over the next decades, The Second City branched out to Toronto, where Dan Ackroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Martin Short cut their teeth on the comedy stage before being picked for the cast of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ as well as ‘SCTV.’ They also started offering workshops for children, adults and corporations for staff development.
In the 1990’s, Second City opened a children’s theatre, called Second City e.t.c. as well as cabaret-style shows in the UP Comedy Club space.
Today, Second City owns seven different venues for performance. They also have a traveling company.
All this giving credence to the phrase, “There’s a comic born every minute.“
The Second City has been the recipient of 37+ Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards, which have recognized for Best Revue five times, the first being Paradigm Lost (1997). As Wikipedia notes Mick Napier was one of several directors recognized by the Jeffs, including founder Sahlins (for 1983’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear) and improv guru Del Close(1981’s Miro, Miro on the Wall). Sixteen alumni have received Jeff Awards for their performances in Second City revues, including Shelley Long(Wellsapoppin, 1977), and Nia Vardalos(Whitewater for Chocolate, 1994), with Rachel Dratchand Keegan-Michael Key each being honored twice. They have also earned recognition from the Tony Awards.
In 2007, The Second City honored the future 44th President with their 94th Mainstage revue, ‘Between Barack and a Hard Place.’
The Second City is open seven days a week: Tuesdays-Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays – Saturdays at 7pm and 10pm, and Sundays at 7pm. For tickets and current show information, click here.
Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago