The Second City, Inc.
The Second City, Inc.
Sales: $30 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 711110 Theater Companies and Dinner Theaters; 611610 Fine Arts Schools; 611430 Professional and Management Development Training
The Second City, Inc., is one of the premiere names in comedy. The Chicago-based organization operates or licenses theaters in Chicago, Toronto, Las Vegas, and Detroit; sends touring companies to cities around the United States and Canada; offers improvisational comedy training at its theaters and in Los Angeles and New York; provides corporate education for clients that include Motorola and Major League Baseball; and develops comedy material for theater, film, and television productions. The list of Second City alumni is a virtual “Who’s Who” of comedy with names like Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey.
The Second City traces its roots to Chicago, where it was created by former members of several theater groups founded by University of Chicago students. During the mid-1950s the Playwrights Theater Club and the Compass Players had helped launch talents like Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May, and in 1959 ex-Compass/Playwrights director Paul Sills joined with former Playwrights coproducer Bernard Sahlins and Compass actor Howard Alk to found a new company called The Second City, which took its name from the title of a condescending 1951 New Yorker magazine piece on Chicago.
Sahlins, an early 1940s University of Chicago student and World War II veteran who had sold his stake in a successful tape recorder–manufacturing business to secure $6,000 in start-up money would head the small organization. The company’s founders soon recruited a small troupe of performers that included other ex-Compass and Playwrights members, and they began developing an improvisation-based comedy revue.
It would be staged in a former Chinese laundry at 1842 North Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town, which had been converted into a cabaret-style coffeehouse/ nightclub that seated about 100. The show was made up of a dozen or more sketches that were separated by brief blackouts, followed at the end with improvised pieces based on audience suggestions. The best of these would be added to later revues, with the show refreshed every few months to keep audiences coming back. The cast consisted of four or five men and two women, who relied on their skills at developing characters and comic situations, rather than jokes, to generate laughs. Props and costumes were minimal, with a pianist seated onstage for songs and to play during scene transitions.
The initial production, Excelsior & Other Outcries, opened on December 16, 1959, and the response was enthusiastic, with weekend shows soon selling out on a regular basis. Tickets were priced at $1.50 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and $2 for the three Friday and Saturday night shows. Within a year the organization also began offering improvisational workshops to the public that used methods developed by Sills’ mother Viola Spolin, a well-known drama teacher.
HITTING THE ROAD IN 1961
In the spring of 1961 a theater called Playwrights at Second City opened next door to feature more serious repertoire, while Comedy from The Second City was released by Chicago-based Mercury Records. The troupe also paid visits to Los Angeles and New York, where an attempt to conquer Broadway proved unsuccessful. In 1962 the company made the first of several well-received forays to London, exchanging venues with British comedy group The Establishment, and in the spring of 1963 visited Toronto, Canada, to inaugurate a popular series of annual appearances there. The Second City had earlier been featured on television in Chicago, and in the fall of 1963 a series of specials were broadcast in England called Second City Reports.
The organization was by widely known as a training ground for comedians, and talented young performers began trekking to Chicago to seek a spot in the cast. Second City actors were paid little more than union scale, but the training and exposure they received were usually considered worth the financial sacrifice. Well-known alumni of the 1960s included Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Fred Willard, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, and the comedy duo of Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber. One of the most influential company members was Del Close, who served as a mentor to many in the troupe despite serious problems with drugs and depression during an on-again, off-again tenure that spanned more than two decades.
In early 1967 Second City coproducer Joyce Sloane launched The Second City Touring Company to bring comedy to cities around the United States, as well as to serve as a training ground for future mainstage cast members. Later in the year the theater moved to new quarters at 1616 North Wells in Chicago’s Piper’s Alley district after its original location had been slated for demolition by a developer. By this time the company’s first audience of college students and beatnik types had largely been replaced by a more suburban crowd of tourists and conventioneers, though the humor retained its intellectual and sometimes politically charged edge.
In the fall of 1967 The Second City formed a partnership with camera and electronics maker Bell & Howell to produce a series of films in Chicago budgeted at $1 million each. The first and only one made was a science fiction–comedy titled The Monitors, which was released in the United States and Canada late the next year.
- Improvisational comedy nightclub The Second City opens in Chicago.
- Public workshops introduced.
- National touring company launched; theater moves to new quarters at 1616 North Wells.
- Second club opens in Toronto.
- Debut of Second City TV on Canadian television; later syndicated as SCTV.
- Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart buy out Second City founder Bernard Sahlins.
- New theater opens in Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows.
- Second City Communications formed to offer corporate training.
- Second City theater opens in downtown Detroit.
- Acclaimed Pinata Full of Bees revitalizes format of Second City revues.
- Toronto club relocates to new, larger quarters with two theaters, restaurant.
- Second City Theatricals founded to develop scripted entertainment.
- Detroit theater moves to suburban Novi; Toronto theater moves to smaller space.
- Reality TV show The Second City’s Next Comedy Legend airs in Canada.
The Second City had long been popular in Toronto, Canada, and in 1973 Sahlins opened a second theater there with local backing. Without a liquor license it struggled to attract audiences, however, and closed within months. In early 1974 Sahlins sold the rights to operate Second City Canada for $1 to a young British-born music and theater promoter named Andrew Alexander, who then borrowed $7,000 to reopen it in a former firehouse that had been converted into a tavern. The reconstituted theater quickly began packing in crowds, in large part because of a talented cast that included future stars Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Joe Flaherty.
SCTV LAUNCHED IN 1976
In 1975 a new comedy television series debuted on NBC called Saturday Night Live, which made stars of a cast that consisted largely of such Second City alumni as Aykroyd, Radner, Bill Murray, and John Belushi. In 1976 Andrew Alexander partnered with Canadian gambling industry executive Len Stuart to form Old Firehouse Productions (later known as Second City Entertainment), which began producing a low-budget 30-minute program called Second City TV, in part to keep the theater’s cast from defecting. The series about the offerings of a fictional television station debuted on Canada’s Global Television Network in the fall, and a few months later was syndicated to stations around the United States as SCTV, after it had been turned down by the major networks. Though it was not seen in all markets or in a consistent time slot, the show developed a cult following and went on to boost the careers of a cast that included Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, and Martin Short.
In 1979 Alexander and Stuart cut a deal to produce the show in partnership with Allarcom Broadcasting, Ltd., and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), and moved production 3,500 miles west to Edmonton, Alberta, for two years, where a Second City club was opened for a time. The firm also signed development agreements with NBC, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Home Box Office during the year, and in the fall of 1980 a new comedy/variety show starring Candy called Big City Comedy premiered in Canada, though it ran for only one season before he returned to SCTV.
In 1981 NBC began airing a 90-minute version of the program (cut to an hour in Canada) on Friday nights at 12:30, which lasted two seasons before it was briefly switched to pay-cable network Cinemax in shortened form. The various editions of the program were later edited down to half-hour episodes for rerun syndication, and ran for years in that format. Despite the show’s six-season run, cast members were paid relatively low salaries (especially compared to their rivals on Saturday Night Live ), and some complained bitterly that they had been exploited. During 1982 Old Firehall Productions had grossed $13 million Canadian, of which only $2.5 million came from its theater.
During 1982 Bernard Sahlins opened a new theater adjacent to the mainstage in Chicago called Second City e.t.c. (for “Experimental Theater Company”), to present shows that took an edgier approach to comedy. The following year a new club was opened by Alexander in London, Ontario, which was run by his sister and her husband.
ANDREW ALEXANDER AND LEN STUART TAKE CONTROL OF FIRM IN 1985
In March 1985 Alexander and Stuart paid $1.6 million to purchase the American Second City organization from founder Sahlins, who would remain involved as a producer. That year the Second City Training Center was also formally established to coordinate the firm’s education and training efforts.
In 1988 a new Chicago-area performance space was opened in the suburb of Rolling Meadows and a joint television production venture was formed with Ron Howard’s Imagine Films. The following year The Second City opened a theater near Los Angeles to give the company a presence near the film and television industry, though it operated at only about half of capacity and closed in mid-1990.
That fall a new syndicated television series coproduced with Imagine, My Talk Show, debuted, but ratings were low and it was quickly canceled. In 1991 the company signed a new production agreement with Walt Disney Television and a live TV special aired in Canada as a pilot for ABC, though it was not picked up.
By this time the firm was sponsoring three touring companies, one of which focused on trade shows and other corporate appearances. Their performances blended classic sketches with special material written for local tastes, with some engagements one-nighters and others lasting for a week or more. The touring companies also took turns appearing at the Chicago theater on Mondays, allowing Alexander and his staff to spot replacements for the mainstage casts.
In 1992 the London, Ontario, club closed, but the fall of 1993 saw a new 350-seat theater open in downtown Detroit through a partnership with pizza baron Mike Ilitch. During the year an Outreach and Diversity program was launched to recruit minority actors, responding to complaints about Second City’s overwhelmingly white cast as well as to help the company stay relevant.
In 1990 the firm had formed a unit called Second City Communications to offer improvisational team-building workshops for businesses in Toronto and Chicago, and in early 1994 it began more aggressively promoting this service, signing up clients like Ameritech and CNA Insurance. The number of workshops jumped from 15 in 1991 to over 160, with companies paying $3,000 and up for a one-day seminar. The unit also offered custom performances for corporations and created training videos. Earnings from the operation helped subsidize the company’s less-profitable theaters, with corporate events accounting for approximately $2 million of the $18 million the company took in during 1994.
LIVE SHOWS REVITALIZED IN 1995 BY PINATA FULL OF BEES
During the late 1980s and early 1990s the Second City formula of sketches separated by blackouts began to go stale, and critics increasingly panned new revues as ticket sales tapered off. To get a handle on the situation, CEO Alexander moved from Toronto to Chicago to take more direct control of the company’s flagship operation.
With inspiration from the more experimental Second City e.t.c., in 1995 a revue titled Pinata Full of Bees debuted on the Chicago mainstage that featured edgier material and sketches which dissolved into each other or used recurring characters. Sales of tickets, which were still reasonably priced at $6 on weeknights and $11 to $16 on weekends, quickly surged, and the show ran for ten months and was later invited to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. As had frequently happened in the past, however, its creators were hired away by Saturday Night Live.
In 1997 the Toronto Second City moved from the outdated Old Firehall location to a new downtown facility that included a larger 350-seat mainstage as well as a smaller experimental venue and an Italian restaurant. A broadcast center was later added, as was a franchised version of the hit off-Broadway participatory theater event, Tony & Tina’s Wedding. Another syndicated TV show was also launched during the year, but Sports Bar, featuring members of the corporate training company, was quickly canceled.
In the mid-1990s the firm’s Rolling Meadows theater had closed after losing its lease, but in 2000 The Second City returned to the Chicago suburbs where its three touring companies would share a summer residency in Arlington Heights. The Los Angeles operation was also reconstituted during the year to offer workshops, with a small theater space available to host student shows as well as occasional performances by others seeking entertainment industry exposure. A training program was later added in New York, as well.
During 2000 the company formed a new unit called Second City Theatricals to develop scripted live shows, with the first title to emerge, Hamlet! The Musical, debuting at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater during the summer. Ticket sales were strong even as comedy clubs around the United States had fallen on hard times, with 76 percent of available tickets sold each week, of which 60 percent went to local residents, an improvement over earlier years. The company’s revenues were estimated at $30 million.
SECOND CITY LAS VEGAS OPENS IN 2001
In 2003 the nonprofit Second City Foundation was established to coordinate the firm’s diversity, outreach, education, and scholarship activities. In the summer a dormant children’s theater program which included improvisational camps and classes was reactivated, though in December the Cleveland theater was closed due to low ticket sales.
In 2004 the first volume of SCTV was released on DVD, after complicated music rights clearances had been resolved and the cast had been offered an increased royalty rate. A feature comedy directed by Second City alumnus Dave Thomas and executive-produced by Alexander, Whitecoats (known as Intern Academy in the United States), was released to little notice in the fall, while a touring group of Second City cast members appeared in Iraq and Kuwait as part of a United Service Organizations (USO) tour, the organization’s fifth such effort.
While business remained strong in the United States, in December 2004 the company’s Toronto theater filed for protection from its creditors, citing poor ticket sales due to declining tourism. After efforts to renegotiate the 25-year lease or buy the building failed, the operation moved into the back of hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant across the street in mid-2005. A more intimate 300-seat theater, offices, and a bar were soon set up. Second City Toronto would continue to operate its training workshops and the franchised Tony & Tina’s Wedding at different locations, while eliminating the smaller venue that had housed experimental shows.
In August 2005 the Detroit theater was moved to the suburb of Novi in partnership with Andiamo Restaurant Group after its downtown lease ran out. The restaurant firm invested a total of $3.5 million in the club and an attached bar and restaurant, after paying $125,000 to buy the license from Ilitch Holdings.
In 2006 Columbia College Chicago began allowing students to attend Second City improv classes for full college credit. CEO Alexander was a trustee of the school and former Second City director Sheldon Patinkin chaired its theater department. The firm also signed a two-year development deal with NBC Universal Television during the year, while Second City touring companies appeared at the summer rock festival Lollapalooza and enjoyed a yearlong run in Denver.
In the summer of 2007 a new reality show bowed on the CBC called The Second City’s Next Comedy Legend, which showcased contestants’ efforts to win a place in the Canadian touring company. The series would include appearances by well-known Second City/SCTV alumni Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty.
In just under a half-century, The Second City, Inc., had become firmly established as a top name in the field of improvisational comedy. The organization that had launched the careers of stars like Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and Tina Fey continued to offer shows on stages in Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Las Vegas, and wherever its touring companies were appearing, while also nurturing new talent, providing corporate training, and developing television, film, and theatrical properties.
The Second City Touring Company; Second City Communications; Second City Theatricals; Second City Entertainment; The Second City Training Centers & Educational Programs, International.
iO; ComedySportz; International Theatresports Institute; Annoyance Theater; The Impatient Theatre Company.
Acland, Charles R., “Second City Television (SCTV),” http://www.museum.tv/archives.
“B.&H., Second City to Produce Full-Length Motion Pictures,” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1967, p. E7.
Borden, Jeff, “A Broader Stage for Second City,” Crain’s Chicago Business, November 1, 1999, p. 1.
Buchanan, Leigh, “Joe Keefe Launched SCC to ‘Bring Comedy Where It Is Most Desperately Needed, Which Is in Business,’” Inc., September 1, 2000, p. 89.
Clark, Andrew, “The Second Stage of Second City,” Toronto Star, January 29, 1998, p. J 10.
“Comedy Troupe on Second Wind,” Toronto Star, April 2, 2005, p. A15.
Currie, Bennie M., “Famed Comedy Troupe Seeks Minority Talent,” Associated Press Newswires, September 21, 2002.
Godfrey, Stephen, “From Free Beer to a $13 million Gross, Second City Celebrates Its 10th Year,” Globe and Mail, July 23, 1983, p. E7.
“Improvising Takes Practice,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 26, 1961, p. E10.
Jevens, Darel, “The Second Coming of the Second City,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 4, 1996, p. 27.
Lacey, Liam, “Second City Comes in First,” Globe and Mail, March 24, 1979, p. F8.
Lothery, Todd, “Off the Top of Their Heads,” News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), October 23, 1998.
Newhart, Dave, “Comedy 101: Second City Course Gets College Credit,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 2, 2006, p. 5.
Patinkin, Sheldon, The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2000.
Sachs, Lloyd, “Second City at 30,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 17, 1989, p. 1.
Salem, Rob, “Second City: 15 Years of Fun and Names,” Toronto Star, June 10, 1988, p. E3.
_____, “Wacky SCTV Put Canada on Comedy Map,” Toronto Star, March 9, 2002.
Smith, Sid, “How America’s Most Renowned Improv Club Keeps Its Long Winning Streak Alive,” Chicago Tribune, May 20, 2007.
Snavely, Brent, “Second City Fills Plenty of Seats in Its Second City,” Crain’s Detroit Business, January 2, 2006, p. 14.
Spevack, Leatrice, “Mayor of the Sprawling Second City,” Toronto Star, December 19, 1999, p. 1.
Starr, Mark, “The Constant Kingpin of Second City,” Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1979, p. G25.
Whyte, Murray, “Second City Considers Second Home, Citing Cost,” Toronto Star, December 8, 2004, p. F4.
Zwecker, Bill, “Funny Business,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 13, 1997, p. 3.