Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins, who co-founded Chicago’s Second City theater and who nurtured the early careers of many of the earliest stars of Saturday Night Live, died Sunday. He was 90.
Andrew Alexander, one of Second City’s current owners and its CEO, told The Associated Press that Sahlins died peacefully at his Chicago home with his family nearby. He is survived by his wife, Jane Nicholl Sahlins.
Sahlins and business partners Howard Alk and Paul Sills opened The Second City in December 1959, and it quickly gained national attention and helped establish Chicago as a vibrant comedy town, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The Second City wasn’t Sahlins’ first attempt at running a theater. He was a producer-investor in a theater troupe in the early 1950s that was comprised of many fellow University of Chicago graduates, and he and several business partners produced plays at the Studebaker Theater from October 1956 until the following year, when it had to close due to a lack of funding.
In his 2002 memoir, Days and Nights at the Second City, Sahlins wrote that he, Alk and Sills hadn’t set out to build another theater.
“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 with for years, could loll around and put the world in its proper place.”
But The Second City caught on within months of opening, despite some early money problems and other issues, and it became instrumental in the growth and development of improvisational and sketch comedy.
Sahlins had an eye for talent, and he hired and nurtured the early careers of such future stars as John and Jim Belushi, Joan Rivers, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis, among others.
Shortly after Saturday Night Live began airing in the fall of 1975, Second City became a breeding ground for the show. According to Second City producer emeritus Joyce Sloane, who died in 2011, Sahlins once half-jokingly commanded her to lock SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels out of the building, the Sun-Times reported.
Alexander, who along with business partner Len Stuart bought The Second City from Sahlins in 1985, according to the theater’s website, told the AP that Sahlins will be remembered for always urging performers to work at the top of their intellect, and that this is still preached at the theater today.
“You think about that theater, and think of all the stars that came out of it … from Belushi to Aykroyd to Allan Arkin. It’s extraordinary, the amount of talented people that came out of it,” Alexander said.