By Paul Ryan
Tonight, we will be remembering the magical life of Bernie Sahlins. If you never met him– or if you knew him well, here’s what Kelly Leonard remembers most about The Second City’s co-founder and father figure.
Bernie Sahlins gave me my first job in theatre. In classic Bernie fashion, he didn’t even have to foot the bill. He hired me to work at his new theatre “The Willow Street Carnival,” but since that opening was almost a year away, he got Joyce Sloane to give me a job washing dishes at The Second City, a job every bit as glamorous as it sounds. When Willow Street didn’t pan out, it was back to Second City, where I will have logged 25 years this coming October.
All thanks to Bernie.
Bernie Sahlins was charming, smart and influential. He used those gifts to not only create one of the theatre world’s most treasured institutions, he gave that institution the cultural fortitude to sustain itself through seismic sea changes in the way the world works.
When I started at The Second City, there were no computers. We had one electric typewriter; there was no box office system and we didn’t take credit cards. We didn’t just not have a website, we didn’t have print brochures.
But we had something more important than technology.
The DNA that Bernie infused in everything The Second City was – and is – includes nimbleness, craft, attention to detail, intelligence, portable content, interactivity, real-time innovation and an embrace of risk and failure as a by-product towards something truly original.
Taken in another context, you could think we were talking about a map of how the human brain works. Perhaps we are.
Bernie was always one of the smartest people in the room, but I’m fairly certain he had no idea that he was creating a creative ecosystem that is likely to live on well past those of us who are currently tending to its legacy.
Bernie brought joy to his work, and it’s an example we should all embrace. He was fast with a joke and even quicker with a smile. He married an incredible woman of grace and beauty and sophistication – Jane Nicholl Sahlins – making them a truly formidable pair. He had the respect of his peers and colleagues. He chose the ideal business partner to hand off The Second City to in Andrew Alexander. For every risk that didn’t pay off, every show that didn’t get a good review, there were plenty of other opportunities to relish in success.
When I was working for Bernie at The Willow Street Carnival, he had a vision for the show – which took the audience through the four seasons – that had snow descending on them as they entered the theatre. He kept talking about how that would immediately create the theatrical environment that he was looking for. Unfortunately, it cost a lot of money to rig up a system that would slowly drop fake snow over a 7,000-foot square space. By the first preview, I was backstage gently pulling on a rope that held the faux flakes in an old paint can tilted so that they would descend on stage in a single focused spotlight… the size of a paint can.
I remember Bernie walking by me and dropping the line, “Well, we can dream big.”
Kelly Leonard is the Executive Vice President of The Second City and President of Second City Theatricals. He has worked at The Second City since 1988, thanks to Bernie Sahlins.