A Second Wind for Second City?

In its 31st year, Second City is feeling the winds of change. For years the famous theater club was in a unique and much envied position, selling out almost every night simply because of its long-standing reputation as a home of biting comedy and a training ground for hot actors. But over the past few years Second City has been slipping. The sharp satire has dulled a bit, and critics and audiences have responded accordingly. Lately the material seems to be getting better (witness the current Winner Takes Oil, the club’s 74th revue), and Second City executives are using the opportunity to rethink the marketing of the organization.

“We’re pushing our product harder,” says Kelly Leonard, Second City’s director of sales (and son of WGN radio and television critic Roy Leonard). Like many other institutions, Second City is finding it must aggressively sell itself to young adult audiences faced with a multitude of entertainment options–including plenty of other improv shows–and clarify its somewhat blurred image. One example of how Second City is changing is the full-page ad touting Winner Takes Oil that ran in the Tribune’s June 7 Friday section. According to Leonard this was the first time in Second City’s history that it sought to market a particular show title in a full-page newspaper ad. Leonard hopes the ad will help the public better understand what Second City is all about. “A lot of people don’t associate us with shows that have titles,” he says. “They think we’re another standup comedy club.”

Leonard says the stand-up clubs that began to pop up all over Chicago in the mid-1980s have complicated the marketing of Second City, as have comedy-theater groups such as Metraform, Cardiff Giant, the Improv Institute, and ImprovOlympia. “I think there is a great deal of confusion out there,” he says. “Our performers are actors rather than stand-up comedians, and we perform skits instead of delivering one-liners.” Even so, Second City’s clientele, according to Leonard, is generally less sophisticated and more blue-collar than typical theater audiences. And it includes more tourists than Kelly would like to see: “We want to increase the local audience.”

Despite its “theatrical” approach to comedy, Second City competes more actively with the movies than with theater companies, perhaps in part because its price scale ($10-$12) remains below that of many theater companies. Leonard and other Second City executives are watching to see whether the recent opening of four Loews movie theaters next door in Pipers Alley will significantly affect their box office. The club is also strengthening its relationships with hotel concierges, who often suggest entertainment options to out-of-towners. Second City has doubled the manning of its reservation lines, added a new call-sequencing device, and begun developing a mailing list from phone reservations. It’s also running ads for the first time on some of the city’s hipper young-adult-oriented radio stations such as WXRT, WLUP, and WCKG and on outlets for older listeners, such as WGN and WFMT.

There are signs the extra effort may be paying off. Leonard says sales are up marginally–about 700 seats over last year’s figures, an encouraging increase considering the war last winter and the brutal recession. But Leonard believes more can be done, including an ad campaign that clearly explains what Second City does. Meanwhile, one aspect of Second City is unchanged: its knack for finding and developing top-notch talent. Three recent Second City alums–Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, and Michael Myers–wound up on Saturday Night Live, and many others are going on to stardom elsewhere.

Son of Performing Arts Center: Another Project Hits the Shelf

History repeats itself: the fate of the performing arts center that until recently was in the works for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera is being repeated on a smaller scale in Skokie, where plans to build a $14 million performing arts center to replace the existing Centre East are in trouble. Apparently the money available for the project–most of it from the state of Illinois and the village of Skokie–isn’t enough to build the 2,000-seat and 500-seat theaters that were to have constituted the proposed facility. Frustrated Centre East executive director Dorothy Litwin says any facility built now would be much more spartan than had been envisioned. Litwin and various consultants working on the project have gone back to the drawing board to see if a performing arts center that would suit the needs of Centre East–which presents a range of cultural attractions, from dance groups to orchestras to singers to comedy acts–could be built for the money available. On top of money problems, the project’s various parties–Skokie village officials, the Centre East board of directors, and the Centre East Authority, a group set up to oversee the new project–are wrangling over who will control programming and scheduling of events at the proposed center. Litwin said Skokie politicians are concerned about getting stuck with a major financial burden and want a say in the programming. “We’re at an impasse right now,” says Litwin, adding that village trustees may be brought in to resolve the situation if the groups can’t come to an agreement on their own.

The End of Exit and a New Look for the Voodoo Beef Bar

Club operators Kenny Smith and Cal Fortis aren’t resting on their laurels at Ka-Boom! Smith confirmed the duo is already working on another club near North and Sheffield, tentatively called Crobar and scheduled to open as early as September. The 7,000-square-foot space will have an industrial feel and will be aimed at the underground crowd that frequents Exit, another of Smith’s clubs. Smith says Crobar’s debut probably will mean the end of Exit: “We’re calling Crobar ‘son of Exit.'” Crobar has yet to get the necessary city licenses and other clearances. Meanwhile Michael Morton, owner of the Voodoo Beef Bar at 1248 W. George, says his club will be open Wednesday nights only through early August, when it’ll shut down completely for four to six weeks for remodeling. Morton says he’s adding a taxidermy display, a small dance floor, and facilities for showing slides and eight-millimeter films. When the space reopens, he says, it will be christened simply Voodoo. “You’ve got to keep a place fresh.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.