There are three names most-associated with the history of The Second City, the renowned comedy troupe in Chicago. Paul Sills, director Del Close and Bernard Sahlins. The first two have passed away, and Bernie Sahlins just died yesterday at the age of 90. (To give full credit, another often-overlooked name was Howard Alk, co-founder with Sahlins and Sills.)
The remarkable list of Second City alumni (and its connection as training ground for Saturday Night Live and SCTV -- "the SC" is for Second City) is generally well-reported, but what's less-known is that the company was an off-shoot of The Compass Players. However, even far less-known is that another earlier incarnation was the Playwrights' Theatre Company.
The line for all of them goes through Bernie Sahlins, because the first of these was the Playwrights' Theatre Company. Among the members of that company were Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, the aforementioned Paul Sills, and Joyce Piven (mother of Jeremy).
As a result of that Playwrights' Theatre legacy, Sills then went off to form the Compass Players, at the University of Chicago. Its many notable alumni include Alan Alda, Shelly Berman, Valerie Harper, Linda Lavin, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (who of course brought forth Ben Stiller), Jane Alexander, Ron Leibman and Sandy Baron.
Eventually, the Compass Players -- which was freeform and heavily based on improvisation -- reformulated into the more-structured The Second City, though still influenced by improv. It began over half a century ago, in 1959, and even its opening night cast is impressive today: among them was perhaps the most legendary Second City member to this day, Severn Darden, along with Barbara Harris (who went on to win a Tony Award for The Apple Tree, get two other Tony nominations, and star in such movies as A Thousand Clowns, Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot, and Freaky Friday), and Roger Bowen (who played Colonel Henry Blake in the original movie version of M*A*S*H);
But it was the actors who came later that turned The Second City into a legend. The list is amazing, it changed the face of comedy, and is much, much, much too long to repeat here, but you can see them here. But just a very few include Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, Joan Rivers, Peter Boyle, Fred Willard, David Steinberg, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Betty Thomas, Shelly Long, George Wendt, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Corell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and a lot, lot, lot, lot more, whose names you'd know and whose work you'd recognize.
Though I grew up listening to sketches from The Second City on radio station WFMT, which has long-had the broadcast rights to the company, I only saw them live a few times. But one was particularly memorable because they did their famous P.T.A. Meeting sketch that night. For the sketch, members of the troupe go out into the audience and find empty seats -- as if we are all members at the meeting -- leaving only one actor on stage to lead things, which quickly turn bizarre and out-of-control. What made it so memorable for me is that there happened to be an empty seat next to me that evening, and it was filled in by George Wendt. (It's worth noting that he stayed in character the whole time.)
Also memorable was a much earlier show I attended as a kid that a young Robert Klein was in.
And Bernard Sahlins was one of those that triumvirate who made it all possible. And his remarkable legacy lives on. You can read all about The Second City here on their website.
Which leads to a treat. As I've mentioned, I have a small collection of some classic sketches from The Second City that I've recorded off of WFMT. And one of those is -- that P.T.A. Meeting.
So, here it is. This particular cast is...well, you can see below...Jim Fisher, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis, David Rasche, Ann Ryerson, Eugenie Ross-Leming, and Jim Staahl
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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