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Second City co-founder Bernard Sahlins dies at 90

Bernie Sahlins chomps cigar his Second City office 1984. | Sun-Times files

Bernie Sahlins chomps a cigar in his Second City office in 1984. | Sun-Times files

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HEDY WEISS: Bernie Sahlins was both playful intellectual and savvy businessman.
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Updated: July 18, 2013 6:47AM

Bernard Sahlins was for years the cigar-puffing patriarch of Chicago’s Second City comedy theater, which he co-founded in Old Town with Howard Alk and Paul Sills more than five decades ago.

Launched on Dec.16, 1959, during a renaissance of American humor, The Second City — whose first incarnation was funded with $6,000 of Mr. Sahlins’ money — quickly gained national notice and was instrumental in establishing Chicago as a top comedy town. Over time, it spawned a multi-million-dollar empire that today is global in scope.

A sampling of the future stars Mr. Sahlins hired and nurtured at Second City during his three decades producing and directing there includes Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, John and Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bill Murray, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Shelly Long, Harold Ramis, George Wendt, Joe Flaherty and Martin Short.

Mr. Sahlins, a Chicago native, died Sunday at his Near North Side home after a short illness. He was 90.

“His legacy here will surely be that he was the one who established that actors and creators should work at the top of their intelligence,” says longtime Second City CEO and co-owner Andrew Alexander, who with business partner Len Stuart bought out Sahlins in 1984 after a decade of licensing the Second City name for an outpost in Toronto. (Sahlins stayed on as artistic director until 1988.) “That’s probably the most important thing we have in our arsenal.”

A 1943 graduate of the University of Chicago, Mr. Sahlins was married a year later to his first wife, Fritzie, and became a partner in a small tape-recorder manufacturing company, where he served as production engineer.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Sahlins went from mere theater maven to budding impresario when he became a producer-investor with the scrappy Playwright’s Theatre Club on the city’s Near North Side. Comprised of many University of Chicago graduates, the group staged classics and original works and included several soon-to-be-prominent young thespians such as Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Joyce Piven. Paul Sills and David Shepherd led the ensemble with the help of a teenage piano prodigy and aspiring theatrical director named Sheldon Patinkin.

As a boss, Patinkin says, Sahlins’ approach “depended on the situation. Our relationship was always very ‘I’m not your boss. I can tell you what to do, but you can argue.’ ”

Mr. Sahlins was always game for an argument, Patinkin says, if it was an intelligent and reasonable one.

In 1954, one year before the struggling Playwrights disbanded, Mr. Sahlins and three other business associates culled investors and made plans to stage plays at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building on North Michigan. The venue’s planned 40-week production schedule kicked off on Oct. 2, 1956. But the Studebaker proved difficult to sustain financially, and in April of 1957 Sahlins was forced to seek another $50,000 from donors that never came. Before long, the Studebaker closed.

When Mr. Sahlins partnered with Alk and Sills to found Second City, he wrote in his his 2002 memoir, “Days and Nights at the Second City,” building another theater was the last thing on their minds. “We had been burned enough times doing that. This was still 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.”

Originally a small and smoky joint at the intersection of Lincoln and Wells, with budget bentwood chairs and decor that included old phone booths, the bastion of satirical hilarity with which Mr. Sahlins would become inextricably linked for the rest of his life emerged during the heyday of and shared an aesthetic with already popular local establishments such as Mister Kelly’s, the Gate of Horn and the London House. This time, though, the timing was right.

While Second City was by all accounts a hit within months of opening, its launch was not hitch-less. There were money problems, attendance problems and other issues. But Mr. Sahlins “never gave up,” Patinkin says. “Never. He always figured, ‘We’ll get through this, and then it’ll be fine.’ And it always worked out eventually.”

In his memoir, Mr. Sahlins recalled the time a fedora-clad thug visited his fledgling establishment a month or so before it opened. “He announced that he was there to ‘help’ us by seeing to it that we would have no ‘trouble’ from unruly patrons or ‘undesirable elements.’ ”

“He spoke softly,” Mr. Sahlins added. “He mispronounced words. The delivery, the syntax, the implied threat came right out of a bad B-movie. … We didn’t know whether to laugh or cower under a table.”

Sparsely filled houses during that first winter convinced Mr. Sahlins and his cohorts the end was nigh, but they soldiered on into a new decade — even opening a new space next door, Playwrights at Second City, in 1961. The ensuing years were increasingly rife with racial strife and cultural upheaval, much of which was reflected in the sketches on Mr. Sahlins’ stage.

During that same period, Mr. Sahlins also directed a movie (“The Monitors”), divorced Fritzie and married an elegant British woman named Jane. As the 1970s dawned, Second City was evolving as well. Thanks to some strategic reshuffling by Mr. Sahlins, cast members (including Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty) were younger, shaggier and in closer political kinship with their audiences.

That’s when Mr. Sahlins found himself face-to-face with a Wheaton-bred bulldog named John Belushi. He auditioned once, for Mr. Sahlins and the late Second City producer Joyce Sloane, and was hired.

Although Belushi embodied the antithesis of Mr. Sahlins’ preferred comedic style — understated and high-minded, perhaps informed by the works of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky, Aristophanes or Albee — he was an undeniably electric performer, and his crowd-luring presence signaled the start of something bigger than anyone could have imagined. Mr. Sahlins has dubbed the significant tonal shift that began shortly before Belushi arrived and continued after he left less than two years later “the end of innocence.”

“[Bernie’s] sense of humor was more literary and more classical,” Patinkin says. “Which is another reason I think he didn’t want to do Second City anymore [in 1985], because the audiences had changed so much and the show had to change to go with them.”

Adds Alexander, “Bernie had a very delightful, impish way about him. And he was an extraordinary wit, with some philosophical life lessons behind that wit.”

As some of his former charges have recalled, Mr. Sahlins’ wit could also be withering.

“Five of you,” he’d say to a six-person cast following a performance, “were terrific.”

Likening Mr. Sahlins to “the Wizard of Oz,” George Wendt recalled a time in the mid-70s when he and some others in a sketch were booed off the stage. “I was so mortified that i walked down the stage door stairs. I was going to leave the building and never come back. And [Bernie] burst backstage and said, “Get back out there! You affected those people!’”

Friend and Second City vet Tim Kazurinsky said Sunday that Mr. Sahlins “was father to us all. So of course, as some sort of cosmic jest, Bernie would choose to leave us on Father’s Day. Such was his style. He took us all in — waifs, rebels, malcontents — and gave us a home. He taught us as best he could, then gave us the boot. But he never forgot a single one. And none of us will ever forget him.”

In 1972, Mr. Sahlins and his wife purchased a 5,000-square-foot home near the foot of Lincoln Park on North Dearborn. Crashers over the years included the actor and erstwhile Second City standout Bill Murray, who took up residency in its basement. The Sahlinses lived there until the summer of 2012, when they sold the property to neighboring Latin School and moved to another residence nearby.

Having proved himself in Chicago, Mr. Sahlins — along with Sloane and improv master Del Close — set off in 1973 to open an outpost in Toronto. Their first effort fizzled in only six months, but Alexander facilitated a regrouping at Toronto’s Old Firehall. This year the institution marks four decades in the Great White North.

Not long after NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” debuted, in the fall of 1975, Mr. Sahlins’ saw his Chicago venue become a poaching ground for TV types. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he has quipped. (According to Sloane, who died in 2011, Mr. Sahlins once half-jokingly commanded her to lock “SNL” honcho Lorne Michaels out of the building.)

About a year after “SNL’s” premiere, in what some saw as a futile attempt to compete with a well-financed network smash, Mr. Sahlins persuaded Alexander to launch a comedy show in Canada using actors from that nascent troupe. Before long “Second City Television” — eventually known as “SCTV” and starring Ramis, Candy, Levy, O’Hara, Flaherty, Martin and Dave Thomas — was born and initially broadcast in Canada. Mr. Sahlins, however, left its helm after only one bumpy year — well before the program hit U.S. airwaves and became a cult favorite among pre-fame comedy connoisseurs such as Conan O’Brien and Tina Fey.

Of “SCTV’s” initial cast members, Thomas was known to give Mr. Sahlins guff about creative decisions with which he disagreed. One day, as Mr. Sahlins was presiding over the edit of a scene featuring Eugene Levy, the two began to argue about which take was best. Despite Mr. Sahlins’ insistence to the contrary, Thomas was sure he hadn’t screened them all. Growing exasperated, Thomas recalled long after the incident, Mr. Sahlins finally declared, “I don’t need to put up with this s---. I’m rich.”

“That actually made me laugh,” Thomas said in “The Second City Unscripted,” “because that’s a really funny thing to say when somebody’s yelling at you.”

Throughout much of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Second City’s popularity rose and with it ticket sales, but by 1985 Mr. Sahlins had had enough and sold his interest to Alexander for millions. “I was losing contact with the work,” he said in 2008, “and it was time for me to do other things.”

Retirement wasn’t an option. With wife Jane, he’d already begun envisioning and planning for a theater extravaganza in Chicago, and in the spring of 1986 the Chicago International Theatre Festival was finally born.

Only a couple of weeks after it ended, the Sahlinses began traveling around the globe to find plays for their next blowout. Here’s how Mr. Sahlins described his breakneck pace to the Tribune’s Sid Smith:

“Just last month, I got on the tube in London. I got out of the tube and walked onto an airplane, I flew to Dusseldorf, and go into another tube. I took that to my hotel, took a taxi from the hotel to the theater, where I saw ‘The Three Sisters’ in Hungarian. I took a taxi back to the hotel, slept, got up and got back on the tube, onto another airplane, flew back to the London airport and back on the London tube home. I was hardly outside the entire trip. It was as if I had never breathed German air.”

That was the way Mr. Sahlins operated best: in near-constant motion. He maintained a strong presence in Chicago’s theatrical community until the end of his life.

“The worst thing was to be bored,” says Mr. Patinkin. “He never allowed himself to be bored.”

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

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