Coffee and Comedy, Hanging with Hef, and the Birth of a Sensation 1959–61
Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills
America was in the midst of a comedy revolution when Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Paul Sills conspired in 1959 to open a bohemian coffeehouse for recreational smoking, erudite discourse, and satirical theater. Considering the times, it seemed destined for success—or miserable failure.
Alk and Sills had formed a professional bond working together at Chicago's famed folk den the Gate of Horn, where Sills house-managed and Alk ran lights. At that point, the business-oriented Sahlins was a budding producer and a devoted theater enthusiast. In addition to sharing a vision for what would become the Second City, another thing all three had in common was a diploma from the elite University of Chicago. A successful thirty-something entrepreneur, Sahlins had graduated in 1943 and went on to run a lucrative tape recorder manufacturing business. Alk entered the school in 1944 at the age of fourteen. Subsequent to his short-lived involvement with Second City, which ended in the early sixties, he became a respected film editor and cinematographer. In 1950, former military man Sills became a director with University Theater—which staged literary productions on a campus that had no formal theater program—and joined the student drama group Tonight at 8:30, where he worked with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and several others who'd follow Sills to future endeavors.
Having already met during Sills's University of Chicago directing days, Sahlins and Sills initially hooked up professionally in the early fifties to produce dramas (Brecht, Chekhov) at and to sit on the three-member board of the highbrow but ragtag Playwrights Theater Club, which Sills co-founded with comrade Eugene Troobnick and a Socialist populist Harvard man named David Shepherd. For training purposes, Sills steeped the Playwrights cast in spontaneity-enhancing theater games developed by his mother, Viola Spolin. A Los Angeles–based improvisation teacher, Spolin also taught drama at Chicago's Hull House in the 1930s. Its Recreational Training School, founded by social worker Neva Boyd, was part of the U.S. government's Works Progress Administration. The Playwrights Theater Club featured a stable of young actors that included Ed Asner and Barbara Harris and operated at two locations on Chicago's Near North Side before the group folded in 1955.
That same year, Sills and Shepherd co-founded the Compass Players, which began performing extended scenario-based improv shows (essentially a modern version of the age-old Italian form called commedia dell'arte), shorter "blackout" scenes, and spur-of-the-moment material based on audience suggestions in the Compass Tavern near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. The inventive ensemble was wildly popular among in-the-know intelligentsia types, and eventually migrated several miles northwest to the Argo Off-Beat Room. After leaving the fold, several Compass members—Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May in particular—vaulted onto the national stage. Berman became a chart-topping stand-up (who mostly sat down), and Nichols and May formed the hottest social satire duo in recent memory, with bestselling albums and a triumphant run on Broadway.
But while the Compass drew capacity crowds night after night (the offering of then-rare Michelob beer may have played a role as well), it eventually hit financial bottom and folded in January 1957. Another incarnation opened in St. Louis shortly thereafter, but that branch dissolved before long, too. As of early 1958, after a roughly three-year run, the Compass Players was kaput. But the concepts upon which it was founded—a symbiotic actor-audience relationship and ensemble-based satire created through improvisation—were not. With that sturdy foundation already laid, Alk, Sahlins, and Sills began to build in the summer of 1959.
Little did they know that the result of their labors would become an instant hit. Sahlins, who'd produced plays in 1956 at the handsome and ?historic Studebaker Theatre on South Michigan Avenue, initially invested six thousand dollars, and the new organization's defiant handle was reportedly conjured by Alk in ironic response to a snotty 1952 New Yorker magazine feature-turned-book by A. J. Liebling (Chicago: The Second City). Original members—many of them Compass and/or Playwrights holdovers—included Roger Bowen (later Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake in Robert Altman's film M*A*S*H), Severn Darden, Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, and Eugene Troobnick. Allaudin (then William) Mathieu tickled the ivories as musical director. The opening night opener, sung by the magnetic Harris and part of a revue called Excelsior! And Other Outcries, was an especially apt tune called "Everybody's in the Know."
And they were. That shared sense of insider savvy coupled with an appreciation of and a hunger for smart satire—always in two acts—kept people coming back. So did cheap tickets ($2.50), flowing booze, beefy burgers, a soon-opened outdoor beer garden next door for summer sipping, and a red-velvet-curtained venue in which to absorb tar-tinged toxins. On many evenings in the months that followed, 120 educated and cultured patrons (University of Chicago types were prevalent, naturally) grinned and chortled and laughed themselves silly at scenes that referenced Kierkegaard, Eisenhower, and Greek mythology. Onstage, actors played at the top of their intelligence (an edict ever since), skewering people, politics, people in politics, and, as one early cast member put it, "almost all the foibles of everyday living from suburbia to fallout shelters." The post-intermission portion was improvised using audience suggestions. New scenes were born thusly, and eventually new shows. The formula—diluted though it became when writing nudged out improvising as the primary method of invention—would serve Second City well in decades to come.
And then, only three months after it began, in March 1960, none other than Time magazine praised the fledgling theater as a place where "the declining skill of satire is kept alive with brilliance and flourish"—lofty plaudits indeed for a tiny Midwestern outfit that boasted no national stars, a scant budget, and something of an inferiority complex. The fact that it remained afloat a few months out was—at least to the founders and early cast members—a small miracle. "For many months after that first performance we remained certain that our luck would run out and that no audience would appear the next night," Sahlins wrote in his 2001 memoir Days and Nights at the Second City. "Even if it was a brutally cold Tuesday in February, one empty seat convinced us it was the beginning of the end."
While tough times ahead would continue to cause concern, the beginning was more auspicious than anyone had imagined. From night one, even as the budget carpet was still being installed, there were crowds in the lobby and lines out the door to witness the birth of a sensation.