by Bernard Sahlins

Days and Nights at The Second CityBernard Sahlins is one of the founders of the original Second City in Chicago; he was also present at the genesis of SCTV, helping to conceive the concept and co-producing the first season. The following is an excerpt from Sahlins' memoir (published in February 2002), Days and Nights at The Second City, available from Amazon and from the publisher Ivan R. Dee.

Days and Nights at The Second City

A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre
Bernard Sahlins

1 The Beginning

In 1576, James Burbage erected a wooden theatre in Shoreditch, a sleazy section of London. It was the very first of the English public theatres. Burbage came out of the small artisan and middle class in England. He united in himself the trade of carpenter and the profession of actor, and he built a building -- such as had not been seen in England before -- designed for the practical purpose of providing a permanent home for a company of actors. He called it simply "The Theatre."

In the course of his planning, while figuring out how to organize his project, Burbage made what is arguably among the most important contributions -- if not the most important -- to the theatre world ever made by one man. To prove that I do not say this lightly, weigh the fact that some twenty years later, in a company headed by James Burbage' son Richard, one of the company members was an actor -- and, incidentally, a playwright -- named William Shakespeare. You can see that when I so value James Burbage's contribution on a comparative scale, I do so quite seriously. What he did -- like so many important discoveries once they have been achieved -- seems simple now. But it really was revolutionary. He did nothing less than invent the box office.

Up to the time James Burbage came up with his idea, players would give their performance in a field or in a castle hall or public square. At the end they would bow and start to pass the hat, only to find that the audience had melted away. Burbage had another idea. Build a special place to present drama and charge the audience a penny before the performance. Brilliant. To this day, theatre managers, staff, and casts should, every night before curtain time, offer up a small prayer to James Burbage. His ingenuity changed forever the structure of dramatic presentation.

Thanks to Burbage and his discovery, there followed in England a veritable orgy of public theatre-building. Elizabethan London was unique in Europe because of its many theatres. Like Burbage's playhouse built of wood and able to accommodate thousands of people, these theatres were the wonders of foreign visitors. All this from the notion of a box office.

While the material advantages of Burbage's concept are clear, even more important are the spiritual implications of his work. When Burbage installed the box office, he not only changed forever the structure of play presentation but, and here is the delightful and wondrous point, he started the process of transforming the actor from being a beggar, who humbly passed the hat, to being an artist, who was held to be of some worth to the community. For me Burbage represents the indispensable, the crucial role of the artist-entrepreneur: to bring to art the world's respect and to the artist, self-respect.

April 1959

Several of us, Chicagoans, mostly in our early thirties, many of us graduates of the University of Chicago, had worked together as actors, directors, and producers in many theatres for many years. We had presented plays ranging from the classics to new works still in manuscript. In some good weeks we had earned the princely sum of seventy-five dollars, in some weeks.

Some years ago the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki described to me the regimen imposed on his actors, which included sweeping the stage before each rehearsal as an act of artistic purification. "We too did that," I said. "We too swept the stage, in fact we cleaned the entire theatre, not for artistic reasons but out of economic necessity since we couldn't afford a janitor." I never thought to make it a requirement for artistic achievement.

Now, in 1959, we were tired of the start-up-in-hope-and-go-down-in-flames cycle. We were pushing thirty and beyond. We decided to start another kind of theatre, we hoped a "popular theatre." We weren't aiming to "sell out," just to bend a little. Besides, there was a vaguely egalitarian virtue in working with popular forms that suited our politics. It wasn't an entirely new idea for us. We had tried something like it in bars and showrooms around town. We took as our model those experiences plus some vague ideas of European cabarets, and dim memories of the Living Newspaper and the Pins and Needles Review done during the Great Depression by the WPA Theatre. We were especially influenced by Brecht and by what we had read of German cabarets. Although we were a bit undecided as to the exact form, it was a point of honor not to compromise our skills and intellect.

May 1959

The corner of Wells Street and Lincoln Avenue, a stone's throw from bustling, downtown Chicago, was in one of those lonely areas that circled the busy center of industrial cities in the era before gentrification. There we found a couple of storefronts at an affordable rent, which we hoped eventually to turn into a cabaret theatre. A mile and a half south of us lay the Loop with its great stores and office buildings. A short distance east was Lake Michigan and the city's Gold Coast, and a mile north sprawled the trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood. Earlier in the century the area had provided the warehouses and distribution centers where trucks unloaded produce and supplies for the rest of the city. Now it was quiet, even desolate, small shops in old buildings, some rooming houses, a few Edward Hopper bars.

When it came to local theatre production, Chicago in 1959 was a barren scene. Except for the Goodman Theatre, the major theatrical activity was provided by touring shows originating in New York, supplemented by a few summer theatres in the suburbs. Attempts at resident theatres had been few and short-lived. Now we were to embark on yet another.

December 16, 1959. 7 p.m.

The usual Chicago winter cold. If we were lucky, we thought, there might be an audience of twenty or thirty for the opening night of our new theatre, which we called The Second City. Hadn't we failed often enough to now?

Three of us devised and founded The Second City. Paul Sills, a matchless director with a longtime interest in improvisation, was a golden boy -- attractive, articulate, gifted, charismatic. He was barely thirty and had directed dozens of plays from every period. Paul is several kinds of genius. As a director he has that rare faculty of inhabiting each moment as it is born on the stage. Any slight deviation from the truth, any flash of uneasiness that arises from a false note, which for most of us is a passing, forgettable twinge -- is for Paul an excrescence to be furiously excised. The wonder of it all is the way he carries out this operation. Although normally highly articulate, when it comes to conveying information to an actor he rushes to the stage emitting strange, incomprehensible grunts and burbles, meanwhile reinforcing with violent and seemingly random body language the message he bears. Lo, by some miracle of communication, the actors understand precisely what he wants to convey, and the rehearsal goes on. No false moment is allowed, no shortcuts. The fact is that Paul, like Chekhov, hates "acting" and loves truth. Anything hammy or affected is anathema to him.

In his work and in his person, Paul radiates idealism. He is a theatrical pied piper, inviting his actors to embrace the purest, highest ideal of the art and of themselves as artists, then leading them in a crusade against the Philistines. That is why some high-priced stars gladly work with him for a pittance.

I learned to direct from watching Paul Sills. I was never able to match the total effectiveness of his incoherence, but I did learn to detect what I now call "the awful fiction." This is when a character in a play does not notice, or pretends not to notice, something that is happening on stage until long after that character should have noticed and the audience already has. For example, a husband comes home from work sporting an air of gloom that would do justice to Cassandra. His wife greets him at the door and asks how his day went, as if he had entered normally. A simple "What's the matter?" -- a question that every audience member is already asking -- would propel the scene forward.

Howard Alk, our pipeline to the counterculture, couldn't act, play the guitar, or sing, but he managed to do all those things convincingly. Howard was a great bear of a man with a highly developed sense of irony, a voracious appetite for high-level gossip, and a well-developed nose for trends and fakery. Howard stayed with us only a few months and then went off to do whatever his thing was; but his incisive knowledge of young, avant-garde thinking was invaluable at the start.

And myself, Bernard Sahlins, fascinated with the theatre and now, having sold my share in a tape-recorder factory, retired though not rich, in my mid-thirties. We three had met at the University of Chicago four or five years earlier and had tried various theatre projects which had succeeded critically and failed financially. Now we and many of our actor colleagues were at loose ends. But I was the only one among us who had not committed to the theatre as vocation. I had only dabbled in it, often and intensely, but never totally. Now I was leaving the world of business (where I never felt comfortable) for the world of theatre. It took me a decade to feel I belonged, to achieve a level of comfort with my new life.

December 16, 1959. 8:30 p.m.

As I say, we would have counted ourselves lucky had there been twenty people at the opening. But a half-hour before curtain time there were more than a hundred. Our capacity was one hundred twenty. Over the years at least five hundred of that one hundred twenty have introduced themselves to me, claiming to have been there on opening night.

We three had not come together to build a theatre. We had been burned enough times doing that. This was still the time of the Beat generation, and we started out to found a coffee house where we idlers, including the actors whom we had worked with for years, could loll around and put the world in its proper place. We pictured ourselves there, drinking coffee and listening to poetry with a few of our friends, sort of a San Francisco Beat scene in Chicago. It is hard to imagine now, but in Chicago then there was no "scene" for theatre aspirants: few places to work, almost no way to earn a living.

We searched the Near North Side for a location and found two adjacent storefronts. One had housed a hat shop, the other a Chinese laundry. Both of these enterprises had foundered, and the stores were empty. In the case of the Chinese laundry, the exit must have been precipitous: for several weeks after we took occupancy, people would knock and mournfully enter brandishing their laundry tickets. We were unable to help since Wong Cleaners & Dyers had left no forwarding address.

The rent was cheap because, despite its nearness to downtown and to the Gold Coast, this was hardly a high-traffic area. (Since then that section of Wells Street has flourished, first as a honky-tonk collection of bars and night spots, now as a trendy avenue with five coffee houses, four Italian restaurants, and the city's best cigar store within two blocks.) We hired a couple of itinerant carpenters and sat back to await the opening of our coffee house. But after a little while we grew restless. Maybe we ought to stage some sort of show.

People like Studs Terkel, who had participated in the WPA Theatre in the 1930s, recalled doing a "living newspaper," that is, reading from a current newspaper and commenting on, even dramatizing, the news. This inspired us to think again of a topical review in a setting where the audience could drink and smoke -- a cabaret in the European sense. Hadn't we played with the review form in previous ventures at other people's bars? Why not a cabaret of our own, with music and songs and scenes and blackouts? After all, we were already building the coffee house. We already had plans for tables and chairs and drinking and smoking. All we needed was a small stage. Certainly we had plenty of out-of-work classical actor friends to choose from. Most of them were hovering about before we hammered our first nail.

"Why don't you get a job?" We all heard that, from our parents and some of our friends. Work and life were balanced differently in those days. Older people (in their forties) remembered the Great Depression: the fear and misery of being out of work, the desperation. Considerations like "quality of life" were luxuries, perhaps dangerous to dream of. Blake's "I sometimes try to be miserable so I can do more work" found ready assent from our parents. But by 1959 a long period of affluence led to a rejection of these fears. The young were ready to fly.

"The theatre? That's no life," sniffed my mother. "You should stay in the tape-recorder business." True, I wasn't quite as fancy-free as the others in the project. After all, I was a school generation older. I admit to a kind of shock at the fact that many male and female students were cohabiting as a matter of course, and that sex and travel and life decisions, the way young people loved and lived in 1959, were more casual than I was used to. Life wasn't that free when I was a student. We had to work hard to get laid. By today's mores it was all rather tame, but not to me at the time.

In other ways too, though I did my best not to show it, I was a fish out of water. My role with theatres had always been that of patron or adviser or even cheerleader. I looked at actors and directors across a divide, fascinated, distant, and a little bit awestruck. Although I had been involved with these very people for years, I had never committed to that life. Now I devoted my days and nights to it. Now what had been a game was suddenly serious. I had traded a secure livelihood for the uncertainties (and the pleasures) of art. I did see it that way. But for a long time I belonged to neither world. Was it a Faustian bargain? I pretended to be at ease, but I never stopped peering at myself in this new life.

Our first company included Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb, Eugene Troobnik, Andrew Duncan, Roger Bowen, and Howard Alk. A short time after we opened, Bowen and Alk left. Alan Arkin, who as a youngster had studied with Paul Sills's mother, Viola Spolin, and Paul Sand, who had studied in France with Marcel Marceau, replaced them.

The Dream Team: Our First Cast

Partly by chance, partly by selection, the first Second City cast -- intelligent, well informed -- displayed a range and variety of talents that meshed like the gears of a fine watch. In skill and attributes they so complemented each other that they served as casting prototypes for years. A polymath Severn Darden type was sought avidly, as was a witty, pretty Barbara Harris type, a deadpan Alan Arkin, an affable Andrew Duncan. Of course we never found clones, but we did wind up with great variety in small compass.

Andrew Duncan. There is a reason that successful talk-show hosts command such high salaries. The ability to speak to an audience about everyday things in one's own person seems easy but is difficult, and rare. In all my years at The Second City there have been only three or four actors who could master this feat. Andrew was the first and perhaps the best. This was especially important at the beginning, when the rule was to introduce most scenes in direct address to the audience. Solid, not flashy, instantly ready to play Mr. Average Man, Andrew was an invaluable cast member. To him belonged the parodies of those official voices that blare at us from our radios, our television screens, and the public part of our daily lives.

Eugene Troobnik. He of the mellifluous voice. He was close to embodying the stereotype of the classical actor but self-aware enough to parody the type brilliantly. Invaluable at playing senators, executives, and generals, Eugene is best remembered in a parody of Superman, doffing his shirt to reveal the logo of "Businessman". . . "able to leap loopholes at a single bound."

Severn Darden. Sui generis in 1959 and not duplicated since. The legendary Severn, scion of an old-line Southern family, was a stocky, tallish man with a vacuum-cleaner mind that I swear retained and could instantly call forth every obscure fact, philosophical tenet, and literary work ever produced by man. And whether in his famous art lecture devoted to explaining a blank canvas ("Featuring two shades of white in which both shades are exactly the same . . .") or in his scene as Oedipus Rex ("It's not my fault"), Severn could juxtapose all this information to devastatingly comic effect.

In his personal life too, Severn was the stuff of legends. The most famous concerns the night when he, together with his date, managed to enter the great gothic Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. Alerted by the sound of unauthorized organ playing, the campus police, advancing down the aisles, were treated to the sight of Severn throwing himself across the altar and screaming, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"

Barbara Harris. Barbara, who went on to a distinguished career on Broadway and in film, was the innocent-looking ingenue with the unexpectedly rapierlike mind. She combined accurate analyses of middle-class ridiculousness with a stellar acting talent to skewer the would-be bohemian suburbanite or the self-styled intellectual. But what set audiences back on their heels were the moments in an otherwise richly comic scene when, through the magic of her acting talent, they glimpsed a serious and emotion-rich inner life. Mina Kolb. Mina was, in the best sense of the word, a clown. Although she came from a rich background in commercial TV and was the one cast member without extensive experience in theatre, she more then held her own with her deadpan comic insights into the minutiae of everyday life.

Alan Arkin. If one were to meet Alan in ordinary circumstances, the last guesses one would make about this serious, somewhat taciturn man would be that he is a superb actor and a talented musician -- performer, singer, and composer. (Alan wrote the famous "Banana Boat Song" and a great number of comic masterpieces, including "I Like You Because You Don't Make Me Nervous.") Alan is intense and relaxed at the same time, with a deadly sense of humor. Like many great actors, he has a superb talent for mimicry. After a moment of study he can walk like anybody, talk like anybody, and sing like anybody.

Howard Alk. Although not a professional actor, Howard, a co-founder of The Second City, had a firm grip on what the counterculture was thinking and saying. He served as a balance wheel to our tendency to be awed by the intellectual and was quick with the witty analysis of life's contradictions. It was he who defined a Freudian slip as "meaning to say one thing and saying a mother." Howard quickly tired of acting and was replaced by Alan Arkin.

Roger Bowen. He of the devastating wit (he conceived the Businessman sketch for Eugene Troobnik) also quickly tired of the eight-shows-a-week grind and was replaced by Paul Sand.

Paul Sand. Sweet Paul Sand. If mime were a popular art form, Paul would be a major star. He was physically eloquent, riveting when playing a fish in our underwater ballet, touching when responding to the instruction from a phonograph record entitled, "Make-a-Friend."

Bill Matthieu. A piano was an indispensable part of the show as we conceived it, not only to accompany songs but to underscore and to play scenes in and out. We were fortunate in meeting with Bill Matthieu (later known as Allaudin), a great musician who could parody any style on the spot and was sensitive enough to know when not to play.

By September the theatre was shaping up, though between moonlighting carpenters and the natural propensity of show people to start their day at suppertime, I was groggy for many weeks. My biological clock took a long time in adjusting. All my working life I had been hard at it by eight in the morning. Now things began to stir only in mid-afternoon.

I was constantly reminded of the story about Ferenc Molnar, the Hungarian playwright living in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century. Molnar rarely went to bed before 5 a.m. and accordingly woke in the afternoon. One day a friend prevailed on him to be a witness in a court case, which is how Molnar found himself driving in a carriage through the streets of Vienna at the unlikely, ungodly hour of 8 a.m. He was amazed, had never seen anything like it. The bustling streets were filled with people and vehicles, going to work, making deliveries, rushing to appointments. Who were these people? Puzzled, Molnar turned to his friend. "Tell me," he asked, "are they all witnesses?"

Eventually I did adjust.

Naming Time

Naming the theatre was a collective endeavor that took weeks. Each day we and the actors would gather and offer the gems we had thought of overnight. The short list occupied four single-spaced pages.

At about this time a series of articles about Chicago, entitled "The Second City," was appearing in the New Yorker. As the appellation implied, their author, a wonderful journalist named A. J. Liebling, did not think much of our metropolis on the lake. In fact he was relentlessly negative about its citizenry and its culture. I think it was Howard Alk who suggested we defiantly carry the title of the articles as our banner. It was one of those "of course" moments.

Thus it was: Paul directing, Howard on stage, and I taking care of the rest. Most of the people we worked with were University of Chicago graduates, and the audiences, in our heads (and indeed, the majority of the real audience for our first six months), were made up of university students and faculty. They shaped our reference levels, our characters, our causes, and our humor.

We took the summer and fall of 1959 to ready our space, with our moonlighting tradesmen working away at the theatre, with our cast playing theatre games, and with Jimmy Masucci designing our space. A couple of engagements in our past theatre life had taken us to St. Louis. There a handful of bar and club owners in a Victorian area of the city known as Gaslight Square had embarked upon a frenzy of Victorian Restoration, gilded chandeliers and mirrored bars, antique storefronts and botanical prints. Here was an odd sidebar to the taste of the times. While we, together with the venturesome, liberal club owners in St. Louis and the new breed of entertainment entrepreneurs in Chicago, embraced "modernism" culturally, we were retro in our visual tastes. Political rebellion was in, but when it came to design, plush Victorian nostalgia was cool.

At the design center of the St. Louis renaissance was a most remarkable figure. With very little formal education and no background in interior design, but with an incredibly inventive talent, Jimmy Masucci, a tall, thin, shambling man, became the guiding design genius of Gaslight Square. Jimmy was not the most articulate of men, but his taste was unerring. In St. Louis he not only found the antiques, he created the most fetching environments out of the most unlikely elements. We hired Jimmy, and what did he do? He bought telephone booths, which then consisted of four wooden panels, each some seven feet high, the top halves of which were glass. He painted them black and paneled the walls with them. In the center of each, under the glass, he installed prints from a set he had cut from a book on Roman antiquities. The effect was stunning, especially when highlighted by the electrified gas lamps extending from the walls and some jerry-built red velvet banquettes, all well within our meager budget.

By mid-November 1959, Paul and the cast had worked out a group of disparate scenes, songs, short blackout pieces, and parodies. Paul's mother, Viola Spolin, who taught theatre on the West Coast, had over the years developed a series of theatre games designed to teach acting and the development of material.* Paul started with her Theater Games and from these gradually developed a full-fledged review. Later I found that we, all unknowing, were working in a tradition that started in 600 b.c. with the short comic scenes arising from the Greek harvest festivals. In any event, we produced an hour and a half's worth of unconnected scenes and songs that we ourselves were not quite sure how to organize.

From Days and Nights at The Second City : A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre © 2002 Bernard Sahlins by permission of Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1332 North Halsted Street Chicago, IL 60622-2694 www.ivanrdee.com.