Second City—infamously known for its hilarious bits on shady politicians, local stereotypes, and controversial current events—has become more than just a stage. After 50 years of entertaining audiences, Second City has partnered with Levity Entertainment to create and promote its newest enterprise: Up, featuring sketch and national stand-up acts while featuring a bar and restaurant.
The theatre will be located in the former Tony & Tina’s Wedding space in Piper’s Alley. During Up’s conception, Andrew Alexander (CEO of Second City) conventionally alluded to Mister Kelly’s continuously stirring/conjuring influence and inspiration. “Andrew kept mentioning the club Mister Kelly’s,” says Second City VP, Kelly Leonard. “When my father moved here from Boston in the 60’s to work for WGN radio and TV, he was a theatre reviewer, and he wanted to see two places in Chicago—Mister Kelly’s and Second City.” In what is now Gibsons Steakhouse on Rush, Mister Kelly’s hosted live performers and comedians like Sammy Davis Jr., B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, George Carlin, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. With this, Up will take on a new stand-up format much different than the sketch and improv seen at Second City. However, a new idea rarely comes without controversy or complaint.
Second City held a brief town meeting to iron out any potential conflicts within the community relating to their new venue. Revenue expectations and traffic patterns were discussed as well as Up’s direct effect on the Old Town community, including the ever-dubious LED sign that will advertise Up to oncoming traffic and residents.
According to President Diana Martinez, “The good news about the sketch shows is that…” She pauses for a moment, then looks to the audience. “Do we have any Old Town restaurant owners in here?” Diana squints hard from the bright theatre lights to match a face with a long, gangly arm as people slowly raise their hands. She slowly beings to count, “One in the back, one over here and over there.” Before speaking again, she momentarily collects her thoughts. “Up will mean the most to you as restaurant owners—afternoon business from tour and school groups visiting; I know the lunch business is hard in Old Town, and this will have a tremendous impact on walking business in the neighborhood.” With Up’s new matinee shows, the organization hopes to generate about $2.5 million. Phew! Now that that’s settled; we move on to Second City’s new proposed LED sign outside of Piper’s Alley.
Attempting to gain street presence has been a daunting task for the Second City team. The question of “How do we get 90,000 patrons to our shows every week?” took center stage. Being tucked away on the third floor of Piper’s Alley created some major marketing headaches. From the beginning, hosting an outdoor sign was an immediate no from Piper’s Alley’s landlord. The next logical thought was to choose a new location; however, CEO Andrew Alexander was very insistent on keeping the Second City family within Old Town. “Old Town is where I grew this business. It’s a good place for me. I love this community, and I don’t want to move.” Hmmm. So the dilemma continues.
After much dispute, the choice to work within the current sign was made, which meant reworking the marquee. By partnering with the sign’s original maker, Whiteway Sign, the desired eco-friendly LED backlit poster now could have the same appeal and theme. The sign has to be changed four times a day because of the variety of shows being offered (the matinee, kids’ show, evening show and comedians). In addition, Up’s new sign wasn’t cheap, costing Second City nearly $70,000. Eh, the cost of doing business. However, the thought of a “well-lit sign” did bring some concern from one Old Town resident: “My problem is the precedence of the sign. What if Walgreens comes to the alderman and says, ‘Well, they have a sign; why can’t I have a sign?’” However, the resident had seemingly forgotten that Walgreens does have a sign, with their company name brightly lit in big, bold, red neon letters streaming across their storefront. After that, the questions soon came to a halt.
Overall, business owners and residents seemed pleased to have a new spot for weekend outings.