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Second City loses its ‘mother’ with passing of Joyce Sloane

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

From her large and memorabilia-stuffed corner office at Second City, producer emeritus Joyce Sloane frequently held court, cheered on her beloved Cubs and served as a bridge between the 51-year-old theater’s past and present.

A West Side native who started at the Old Town comedy crucible roughly a year after its 1959 founding, Ms. Sloane died late Thursday of heart complications at her North Side home. She was 80 and had a history of health issues, including several heart attacks.

“It was really peaceful,” said her daughter, Cheryl. “She went out like a lady. My mom was a class act and that’s how she left us.”

Cheryl, a former director and producer with Second City, said her phone had been “ringing all night and all day” since news broke of her mother’s death. Many of those calls were from Ms. Sloane’s former charges — actors for whom she served as a mom away from Mom.

“When actors’ parents came to the theater, they were treated like royalty,” Cheryl said. “Because she knew that when their parents saw them onstage at Second City, they felt confident that their children had made the right choice and that they were going to be OK and that they weren’t going to be waiting tables their whole life.”

Jim Belushi, one of countless Second City alums (the late Gilda Radner and John Belushi among them) whom Ms. Sloane supported morally, financially and otherwise during their sometimes turbulent early careers, called her a healer of heartache and rejection and “a mother to all the orphans and misfits that the theater and this profession attract.”

“I loved her so deeply,” he said in an e-mail. “Even when she was ‘wrong,’ she was ‘right.’ Except for her holiday cranberry sauce that she would make and give to everyone, which I never thought was that good, but maybe that’s because I don’t really like cranberries.”

Speaking a few years ago, former Second City standout Stephen Colbert observed that while Ms. Sloane could be “incredibly encouraging,” she also could be “a frightening figure if you upset her. You don’t want to piss her off. She could fire you! And you’d worked so hard to get there.”

Another Wells Street cast member, Ruth Rudnick, echoed Colbert’s sentiments. “It’s not like it was all sweet and light,” Rudnick said. “She could kick ass.”

Second City CEO/co-owner Andrew Alexander and long-divested co-founder Bernie Sahlins (who sold the theater to Alexander in 1985) both spoke of Ms. Sloane’s lasting effect.

“She really spent a lot of time with the talent, and I think she had a real gift for that, just listening to actors’ problems and giving them good advice and just caring,” said Alexander, who first met Ms. Sloane in the early ’70s in Toronto, while she and Sahlins scouted for rehearsal space and attempted to establish a permanent Canadian outpost. “She had a great heart, there’s no question about that.”

Alexander also lauded Ms. Sloane’s “social conscience. She was very involved in the community.”

From the League of Chicago Theaters and the Joseph Jefferson Awards for excellence in professional theater to fledgling outfits she helped start or guide, organizations big and small benefitted from Ms. Sloane’s considerable wisdom and savvy.

In a nutshell, Sahlins said, Ms. Sloane was “generous. She was generous with her time, she was generous with her advice, she was generous to the whole theater community, not only to Second City, and they appreciated it.”

Dennis Zacek, the outgoing artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, certainly did.

“She helped provide a moral compass for the board of directors,” said Zacek, who began working with Ms. Sloane, one of Victory Gardens’ original board members, in the mid-1970s. “Because it’s so easy to get confused and to forget that the business of a theater like Victory Gardens is the creation of art.”

While the nurturing Ms. Sloane was known alternately as a “Jewish mother” and a “den mother,” Zacek noted (as Ms. Sloane herself wryly did) that her preferred title was “sex goddess.”

In recent days, Cheryl Sloane said, her mother “didn’t feel sick at all.” In fact, she was looking forward to seeing a second screening of her nephew Kevin Coval’s film, “Louder Than a Bomb,” at the Gene Siskel Film Center. And she was planning a New York trip to catch a few Second City alums in action on Broadway.

But there was no place like home — more specifically, her home away from home on Wells Street.

“She loved her job,” Cheryl said. “My mom preferred to be at Second City more than anywhere else in the world.”

Besides her daughter, Cheryl, Ms. Sloane is survived by her brother, Danny Coval; two nephews, a grandson and others.

A funeral service will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway. After the funeral, internment will take place at Waldheim Cemetery, 1400 Des Plaines Ave. in Forest Park. A reception will be held afterward at Second City.

Contributions in Ms. Sloane’s memory can be sent to the Chicago Academy for the Arts ( and/or Victory Gardens Theater (

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