Obit of the Day: Co-Founder of The Second City
They opened the doors of the 120-seat theater in Lincoln Park on December 16,1959. For some it was the date that comedy would change forever. The Second City would become the first nationally-recognized sketch/improvisational troupe. Their alumni is a “who’s who” of comedy talent: Aln Arkin, Joan RIvers, Fred Willard, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Julia Louis-Drefus, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell, and Stephen Colbert (fuller list here).
And all agree that it would not have been possible without the investment and direction of Bernie Sahlins. A theater producer for years before investing $6000 in the small Lincoln Park venue, Mr. Sahlins would not only finance the theater but influenced the direction of The Second City for nearly thirty years.
He would direct productions (and was known for his rather blunt criticism: “Five of you were terrific,” when there were six people in the case), hire talent (he referred to the period before John Belushi joined as “the age of innocence”), and expand the brand (he supported the creation of Second City Toronto as well as the cult-favorite SCTV).
Ironically, while The Second City earned much of its fame from the alumni who performed on Saturday Night LiveMr. Sahlins did not like that the television show’s producer Lorne Michaels would steal his group’s talent. He called the period when SNL was getting off the ground “the best of times and the worst of times.”
His other disagreement was with Del Close, a legend in the history of improv. Mr. Close believed that improv was its own art form and could be showcased on its own. Mr. Sahlins believed that improv was only useful for developing sketches. At Mr. Close’s deathbed, Mr. Sahlins admitted that he saw improv as an art form - as the Tribune puts it “for that day only.”
After selling The Second City to current CEO Andrew Alexander in 1986, Mr. Sahlins continued to be active. He founded the now-defunct International Theatre Festival of Chicago, directed plays at The University of Chicago (his alma mater) and Disney, wrote his memoir, Days and Nights at Second City, and worked to create staged dramatic readings of poetry with the Poetry Foundation.
Bernie Sahlins, who was scheduled to appear at a June 23 panel discussion marking the 60th anniversary of the Playhouse Theater, a Second City predecessor which he helped found, died on June 16, 2013 at the of 90.
Sources: Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times
(Image of Mr. Sahlins outside of The Second City theater, February 15, 1977, copyright Chicago Tribune.)