The Second City

12 - 21 Oct 2006


Taking its name from the title of A. J. Liebling’s derisive profile of Chicago in The New Yorker, THE SECOND CITY opened on December 16,1959. Success was instantaneous. Before the startled actors knew it, they were inundated with praise from the press, including Time Magazine, which called The Second City „a temple of satire“. Chicagoans packed the place every night and the small club became a „must see“ stopover for out-of-towners.

The Second City’s roots can be traced to a small group of students from the University of Chicago theatre department in the early fifties. That group included Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Zohra Lampert, and Sheldon Patinkin. After sharpening their skills at the University Theatre, this band of young politically active actors and writers left the south side campus for a second floor ex-chop suey house at North and LaSalle streets and, along with David Shepherd, Barbara Harris, Ed Asner, and Byrne and Joyce Piven, created The Playwright’s Theatre Club. By 1954, with more than 25 productions to their credit, The Playwright’s Theatre Club closed.

In 1955, Shepherd and Sills regrouped to create, the now legendary improvisational group, The Compass Players, to play local Chicago nightclubs. Meanwhile, some new faces had joined the old crowd, including Shelly Berman, Severn Darden, Roger Bowen, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, and Alan Arkin. By the time they broke up, The Compass Players had become the launching pad for the Broadway success of Nichols and May, as well as the cabaret and concert fame of Shelly Berman.

In the fall of 1959, Paul Sills joined forces with Howard Alk and producer Bernard Sahlins to once again establish a permanent home for an improvisationally based theatre group. They approached the owner of a shuttered Chinese laundry on the edge of Old Town and asked to rent his building. It took some persuasion, but once open the doors of The Second City have never closed.

Though still far short of being venerable, The Second City has become a North American theatrical institution. Writing in The New York Times, Clive Barnes was prompted to state that, „the entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words: ‘The Second City’.“

The Second City has been the starting point for many of the comedic actors, writers, and directors working today in American film, television, and theatre. Its alumni list reads like a who’s who of American comedy, as it includes: Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farlex, Martin Short, George Wendt, Shelley Long, John Candy, Nia Vardalos, David Rasche, and a host of others. Its reputation has so far outgrown its humble beginnings that many first-time visitors are surprised at the theatre’s still modest and informal atmosphere.