A history of Second City: 61 years of comedy ahead of Feb. 21 show at the Chief
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It all began at the former site of Chicago’s Wong Cleaners & Dyers. On a frigid evening in December 1959, The Second City’s first-ever audience showed up for the first time to the venue — its carpet not yet fully nailed to the floor.
Its inaugural show kicked off with actress Barbara Harris performing “Everybody’s in the Know.” The group’s founders were bright young artists, many of them alumni of University of Chicago and local companies, such as Playwright’s Theatre Club and Compass players, which had folded.
Second City members performed on a bare stage, with a cast of five or six actors per edition, focusing its sketches on social and political satire. The actors utilized short-form improv games, many based on Viola Spolin’s book “Improvisation for Theater,” bringing the techniques into mainstream popular culture.
By the early ’60s, Second City was spreading its reach in several directions. The group swapped stages with London’s The Establishment in 1962 and headed to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre to perform. Ten years later, the group would open “The Second City Toronto.”
During the next decade, Artistic Director Paul Sills’ improvisational theater techniques and culture of urban satire picked up traction and bloomed into a point of pride for Chicago. The theater — sassily named after New Yorker articles by A.J. Liebling that disparaged the city — proved second to none. The theater brought in and projected homegrown talent, including Harris who would go on to Broadway stardom and a Tony nomination. Fellow Second City members throughout the ’60s included Joan Rivers, Fred Willard and Bob Curry.
In 1967, the group expanded, launching The Second City Touring Co., aiming to further increase comedy training all over the world.
In 1975, several alumni of Second City, including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, snagged spots on Saturday Night Live, accelerating Second City’s fame and success. It had indisputably grown into a nationally known comedy institution.
By the early 1980s, Second City was winning Emmys — one for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program in 1982, then another in the same category one year later. In 1987, Second City allowed a young man to answer the box office phone and sell T-shirts in exchange for free classes; his name was Stephen Colbert. Two years later, the group’s West Coast outpost in Santa Monica opened and welcomed Robin Williams’ guest appearance in 1992.
The early 1990s saw The Second City Training Center welcome its Outreach Program, led by Frances Callier, which aimed to provide more diverse voices, including LGBTQ, Asian American, African American and Latinx voices, to the comedy community.
What: Second City All-Stars
When: Doors/bar open at 6 p.m.; show begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21
Where: Chief Theater, 813 Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $50 at chieftheater.com
In 1994, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey auditioned and were hired for The Second City Touring Co.
By the early 2000s, Second City was partnering with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in productions of “Hamlet” and Norwegian Cruise Line in on-ship performances. The group also saw growing outposts in Detroit and Las Vegas.
The year 2007 was another big year for the organization. The Second City Training Center and Columbia College in Chicago began offering students college credit for a comedy-centric semester, and then-future president Barack Obama visited the group’s main stage to watch the show “Between Barack and a Hard Place.”
In 2010, at 51 years old, Second City was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. The same year, The Second City: Hollywood celebrated its renovated training center.
In 2016, Second City’s Harold Ramis Film School opened, becoming the first film school dedicated to comedy in the world. In the same year, the group’s training center doubled its size to 25,000 square feet and accepted Chicago’s Fifth Star Award for its contribution to the city’s arts and culture scene.
In 2020, on Friday, Feb. 21, the legendary comedy group will visit Steamboat Springs’ Chief Theater, with audience participation determining how the evening’s comedic content unfolds. Several members of Steamboat’s own Tongue in Chief Players will join the troupe for an encore set, including the four Tongue in Chief founders: Director Katie Carroll, Calder Young, Kristen Cronin and Chief Theater Executive Director Scott Parker, who’s been teaching improv classes for about 20 years.
“It’s so exciting to have a troupe of this caliber in our town,” Carroll said. “One of the best ways to get better at improv is to see great improv.”
Tickets are available for $50 at chieftheater.com.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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