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Why iO founder Charna Halpern is gambling $7 million on comedy in Chicago

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Updated: April 1, 2013 10:01AM

On a winter afternoon at the iO improv comedy club in Wrigleyville, three classes are in session, a tiler needs to be paid for the bathroom he just repaired and founder Charna Halpern has just returned from another round of negotiations for a $7 million bank loan she’s about to use to take the biggest gamble of her life.

Halpern is the sole owner and chief darling of an improv empire that grosses more than $2 million annually. At any given time she has about 1,000 students in Chicago and Los Angeles, the best of whom perform live on her stages in front of audiences who Halpern hopes make repeat trips to the theater bar. Pricey classes, cheap labor, hefty bar receipts — add in a smattering of corporate clients, and you have the business model that Halpern built. It is used in one form or another by every major long-form improv theater company in America.

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