Bernie Sahlins put two wooden chairs on a stage inside what used to be a laundromat on North Wells Street in Chicago, turned on a spotlight, and along with partners Paul Sills and Howard Alk, made what happened next a force in American cultural history. Sahlins, Sills and Alk were the founders of "The Second City." The improvisational comedy troupe, theater, and training ground for generations of superstars and perhaps most important, a way of thinking about making the world laugh.
Bernie Sahlins died Sunday at home in Chicago. He was 90 years old. And if there was a flicker of darkness on every single stage across the world, the scope of the tribute would be justified.
If you were to make a list of comedic superstars influenced by Sahlins, you'd get bored half way through because the list is virtually endless. You'd quit and start doing something else. Perhaps you'd start doing old Saturday Night Live bits. Recite a line from a Mike Nichols movie, recall Ed Asner telling Mary Tyler Moore that she has spunk. And he hates spunk.
Chances are that each moment you laughed could be traced straight back to what Sahlins started at The Second City.
If the spirits of anybody from Jack Benny to Charlie Chaplin stepped out of the pages of time to pay tribute to Sahlins, it would not be a surprise.
Sahlins' own book, Days and Nights of Second City takes his story up to 1985. And as the years pass, others will take up the story, add to the conversation.
But if you were to do a scene right now to pay tribute, perhaps you'd take those two wooden chairs in the spotlight on the empty stage, and the actors would create for you, the smell of Greek chicken and french fries drenched in a vinegar sauce. You're in the Athenian Room. Not far from Second City. Tina Fey and an almost endless stream of people are about to arrive and order that Greek chicken.
A bunch of tables are pushed together underneath the sunlight blue and white hand painted mural of a Greek fishing village.
Your eyes are drawn out the front window to the people strolling through the soft twilight of Webster Avenue on a warm summer night. You are seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting all of this.
Alex, the owner looks out on the room. Gives you a nod and you nod back. You've been here since the early years. When there was no grey in Alex's beard.
You don't even notice the three strangers who have joined you at the table until they stop talking.
That's when you feel the intensity of the silence. Two young women and a man, are having a conversation, bubbling over with laughter, but then they all three do something remarkable. They all listen. Listening like it was a thing you could put on the table right next to the Greek fries.
Listening like it was a contact sport. A key to the improvisation for the theater wave sent out to the world by Sills, Alk and Sahlins.
You can't really get a sense of who these three strangers are. So you shift your chair for a better view. And a second glance shows something else at the foundation of improvisation for the theater. There are no stars. Not here when you are creating "something wonderful right away." Learning the craft demands that there be no stars. Because everything you do depends on someone else. The three unknown diners conversationally bounce off each other like three silver pin balls. But no one is a star.
Then a woman named Neva Boyd walks on to the stage. Born in 1876. Friend of social service pioneers Julia Lathrop and Jane Addams. Neva Boyd, who figured out that encouraging children to play games with each other made for deeper, richer lives. Imagine what changed when she brought that message to the world and made it her life's work.
Paul Sills joins the crowd to introduce his mother, Viola Spolin. Author of Improvisation for the Theater. She took Neva Boyd's work to the next level. So there is a connection between a pioneer in the way society treats children and Bernie Sahlins.
The Compass Players, the troupe that evolved into The Second City, walks on stage. The names are flowing, way too many to mention. The Players start in on "Football Comes to the University of Chicago," (still on You Tube) and the laughter can be heard even from that little Greek fishing village painted on the wall.
The room is bursting with people.
Bernie Sahlins brought the laughter.
The work goes on.
The stage goes dark.
But only for a moment.
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