Bernie Sahlins, Founder of Second City, Influential Improv Group, Dies at 90

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17 Jun 2013

Bernard Sahlins, who, as the co-founder of Second City, the legendary improvisational comedy theatre group, had an incalculable affect on generations of American comedy, died June 16 in his home. He was 90.



Sketch comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live," "SCTV" and "The Kids in the Hall" would largely be unthinkable but for the fertile influence of Second City Theatre, founded in 1959 on North Wells Street in Chicago. The simple, but complex, stock in trade of the theatre were comic plays created spontaneously, based on audience suggestion. It was the first on-going improvisational theatre in the United States. (The troupe's name came from an essay in The New Yorker, in which writer A.J. Liebling waxed dismissively about Chicago's charms).

The theatre's three founders were Mr. Sahlins, Howard Alk and Paul Sills. All three were members of The Compass Players, a University of Chicago-born improv group out of which Second City grew. Sills was son of teacher Viola Spolin, who devised the theatre techniques that were the bedrock of Second City performances. Alk, who coined the theatre's name, left the company in the early '60s. Mr. Sahlins had a brain for business. He acted as producer and, later in the company's run, a director.

Throughout, he was a peerless divining rod of talent. Among the names that cut their comic teeth in Second City revues were future SNL cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray; future SCTV actors John Candy and Eugene Levy; Chicago comedy legend Del Close (an improvisation genius himself, with whom Mr. Sahlins often disagreed); Alan Arkin, Avery Schreiber, Jack Burns, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, James Belushi, Tim Kazurinsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Joel Murray, Tina Fey, Jackie Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Mike Myers, and many more.

In 1973, Second City opened a second theatre in Toronto. That theatre led to the creation of "Second City Television," or "SCTV," a Canadian sketch comedy show much like SNL in character, but specifically a parody of television entertainment and culture, and taped instead of played lived. It ran from 1976 to 1984, and produced such talents as Candy, Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short.

Both the Chicago and the Toronto theatres quickly proved poaching grounds for Lorne Michaels, the creator of "Saturday Night Live," a situation that Mr. Sahlins regarded with some bitterness.

In 1984, Mr. Sahlins sold the theatre company to Andrew Alexander for millions of dollars.

In 1986, the restless Bernie Sahlins co-founded the International Theatre Festival of Chicago. Mr. Sahlins was awarded The Sergel Prize for playwriting, The University of Chicago Professional Achievement Award, The Chicago Drama League’s Professional Achievement Award, Joseph Jefferson Awards for directing and professional achievement, The Illinois Arts Alliance "Legend" award, and the Improv Festival Achievement Award.

Bernard Sahlins was born in Chicago in 1922 and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1943. In the 1950s, he was a co-founder the Playwrights Theatre Club. Its members included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Joyce Piven and Ed Asner. After that, he turned to staging a season at the Studebaker Theater, but the enterprise swiftly folded.

Mr. Sahlins is survived by his wife, Jane, and a brother, Marshall. Funeral services will be private.