…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
At 50-Year Anniversary, Second City Vets Reflect on Their Beginnings From Beat Generation Coffee Shops to the Smell of Tear Gas
Categories: Company profiles, Copy

by Meg White

As the venerable comedic institution of Second City turns 50 years old this week, we at BuzzFlash are once again reminded of how much we love calling Chicago home. Not only did Second City bring a new art form to the highest echelons of comedy, but also it brought a down-home, Midwestern audience to the theater. And it’s not easy to make Midwesterners laugh.

As part of a festival celebrating its “Fifty Years of Funny,” the institution that has grown to take in $30 million in annual ticket sales thanks to theaters in two cities, 11 touring groups, and cruise ships shows, Second City closed with a look at its humble beginnings. A panel titled “Second City in the Sixties” at their main stage theater this past Sunday brought together heavy hitters from co-founder Bernie Sahlins to renowned comedic actors Fred Willard and Robert Klein to talk about the early days.

Sahlins said they never even intended on putting on a show.

“We were all out of work, and we decided to build a coffee shop, because that’s what one did in the Beat Generation. We needed a place to hang out,” he said. They rehabbed a building that recently had been home to a laundry, and Sahlins recalled former customers coming back, coupons in hand, to pick up their shirts for months.

Eventually, the stage was somewhat ready for a prime time of sorts. The surface of the bar was still piled high with glasses that hadn’t been put away yet and the paint on the walls was literally still wet. The kitchen was serving hamburgers that night, but they neglected to connect the flue, flooding the theater with greasy smoke and causing the fire department to drop in on the show.

“He said ‘We’re going to open,’ so we did,” Joyce Sloane, the woman in charge of selling out the show, said of Sahlins.

“And it’s been like that ever since,” quipped Sheldon Patinkin, once artistic director of Second City.

The group credited for creating the space in which politically charged comedy from The Daily Show to Saturday Night Live to The Colbert Report could flourish, grew into their own political shoes slowly.

“The Second City Sixties started when Eisenhower was still in the White House, and as Bernie has recalled, all you had to do to titillate the audience in those days was say ‘Eisenhower’ on stage, and people laughed,” said panel moderator Richard Christiansen.

“It was funnier than sex,” Patinkin added.

But as the decade wore on, the assassination of President Kennedy in particular weighed heavily on the company.

“The first time the F-word was said on our stage… was the night after the Kennedy assassination — we were closed the night of it,” Patinkin recalled. “The cast was taking suggestions after the last show of the night for the improv set afterward, and somebody yelled out, ‘the assassination.’ And the audience groaned; they’d come there to laugh, they didn’t want to think about it, and they’d had a really good time. Same thing happened with 9/11 as a matter of fact… And Del [Close] just turned to the guy as only Del could, and said, ‘What the fuck did you want to see, sir?’ And the entire audience burst into applause and everybody was happy again.”

Another assassination that decade, which physically affected Second City’s shows, was that of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“When Martin Luther King was assassinated [in 1968] was the only time that I know of that Wells Street was closed down. For 2 days, we weren’t allowed to open and the street was patrolled by open-air Jeeps, or whatever they were, with three men with guns — rifles — and one man driving. It was a really scary time,” Patinkin said.

But nothing was closer to home than the infamous protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

“It was happening in Grant Park, but the tear gas drifted up to the north side. There were young people with bloody bandages like a Spirit of ’76 pageant,” said Robert Klein. “The cops came around where Wells Street meets Clark [Street]. And they came around that windy corner and they just saw, and whacked. You know, it was crazy. And it was emotional. And it was not, to me, what I thought of Chicago. I’m a New Yorker, and this was like my little Chicago… It was ’68, and that was a toughie.”

It wasn’t just out-of-towners such as Klein who had a hard time dealing with the violence visited upon the protesters during the convention. Patinkin told of watching it all unfold from the entrance to Second City.

“We stood on the stairs in front and watched them come running down Wells Street toward us. You could smell the tear gas. We could see them getting the crap beaten out of them against the wall of the Walgreens across the street,” he said, noting that one of their cast members made the mistake of stepping off of the stairs and got beaten up in the melee.

“The convention was the best example of what tore this country in two at that time and it was really difficult to get people to laugh about certain things,” Patinkin added. In fact, the political upheaval made it tough to even sell tickets, and Sahlins identified that as one of the major threats to Second City in that decade of its infancy.

The delicate balancing act that became necessary to cultivate at the time meant that nobody — counterculture or establishment — was safe from ridicule.

“The first time ‘shit’ was said onstage, Lenny Bruce had just been arrested for obscenity,” Patinkin recalled. “That night, the [whole] cast was onstage except for one person… The last member of the company came out and said, ‘Hey, did you hear Lenny Bruce just got arrested for obscenity?’ And the whole rest of the cast said ‘No shit!’”

Yet Klein, in between remembrances of arguing with “right-wing debutantes from the suburbs” in the Second City bar, took a shot at the anti-nuclear power movement of the time.

“It’s like the anti-nuke demonstration down in Battery Park with Carly Simon and others. Their guitars were being powered by Indian Point [nuclear power plant] 30 miles away,” he said.

Indeed, everyone was fair game, as illustrated by the near constant jabs lovingly thrown in between those on the panel. Original cast member Mina Kolb, when asked about what it was like to break into the boys club that formed Second City, dismissed any difficulty:

“Oh, I didn’t notice that there were men in the show,” she deadpanned.

Fred Willard, now famous for his work in Christopher Guest films, said the most fun he had was when they got away from politics and just got to be downright silly.

“Politics was going around, you know, and [influencing improv],” Willard said. “But I realized we were not going to change anything by something we did onstage at that time, so let’s have fun and laugh.”

Sahlins concurred with that characterization for the most part.

“We never were totally political; it became political to just talk about regular life. To talk about love and labor and management and all that. Of course we were more political at election time because that’s when it was in the air. But I would say 10 percent or 15 percent of our show was political. The rest was everyday life,” Sahlins said.

Perhaps the strength of Second City, that which allows it to thrive to this day, is that its members were not “pop culture” or “counter-culture,” but a family of people who could look at the world from the outside, and poke fun at it when things got too serious.

“We were a group of outsiders. Everyone at Second City was an outsider,” former cast member David Steinberg said. “All of us were outside whatever the center of whatever the establishment was.”

Now that Second City could be fairly called part of the comedic establishment of this country, it’s comforting to remember where it all came from: a little storefront theater in a Midwestern city looking out on the chaos of the 1960s and trying to get a good laugh out of it all.


Photo courtesy of Second City, credit John McCloskey.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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