Jona Whipple 2016-07-11 13:52:27
December 16, 1959, was a cold night in Chicago. Those unlucky enough to be out on its streets would have been experiencing those piercing, snowy gales for which the Windy City has become famous. Those fortunate enough to have ducked into the little theatre at 1842 North Wells Street would have been experiencing the kindling of improvisational comedy history. The Second City’s first comedy revue show took place that evening in 1959. Established by Bernard Sahlins, Howard Alk, and Paul Sills, the theater was intended to be cabaret-style, a place where improvised scenes poked fun at current events and political figures. Even the theater’s name was tongue-in-cheek, in reference to a series of 1952 articles in The New Yorker in which writer and critic A.J. Liebling heaped derision upon the city of Chicago, a place he had been forced to live for several years on a writing assignment. Beneath the banner of runner-up to New York, comedians built a comedy empire that would become an attraction for both locals and tourists for years to come. There is no question that history has been made at The Second City: countless writers and performers launched their careers, moving on to Saturday Night Live and SCTV. The Second City franchise moved to a second location on North Wells Street, then spread across the U.S., opening training centers across the country and in Toronto. As performers, writers, and directors have crossed the stage and moved on, time has marched steadily along to the laugh track. As is the case all too frequently, time moved faster than efforts to document its passage. The Birth of an Archives In 2002, Chris Pagnozzi was an intern at The Second City while completing his degree in television writing and producing. His first job was to locate and create copies of past Second City shows as they were requested by training center students and instructors. “I was basically just going through a room of boxes of photos and tapes,” Pagnozzi said of the experience. He noticed that The Second City’s film assets were scattered, disorganized, and existed in a variety of outdated physical formats. The subjects of The Second City comedy shows have changed over time, but the format has remained the same. The first part of the show is scripted comedy, written and developed by the performers. In the second half of the show, performers build an improv show based on audience suggestions. No two Second City shows are alike: each performance on each night provides an entirely different experience. While shows were recorded regularly, their physical formats were lapsed by years, then copied several times over, which put them in danger of being lost. Due to the ephemeral nature of The Second City’s shows, Pagnozzi’s first and foremost preservation concern was video footage. He proposed that the precious archival footage at least be transferred to master tapes. He later sent the material to an outside vendor for digitization and preservation. His intervention developed into a full-time project, and The Second City’s archival program was born. Glimpses into the Past Pagnozzi’s first official responsibility as The Second City’s archivist was to prepare for the fiftieth anniversary in 2009. In pulling together clips and photographs for the project, he found that many in the comedy community were forthcoming with material. “Things like this would just come in all the time,” he said, gesturing toward a small stack of scrapbooks he’d just received, filled with reviews—the good and the not so good—of early shows. Tucked inside, a statement typed by Sahlins indicated that a small group of actors, including one William Murray, had each been paid in full ($166) for their participation in a show in June of 1974. The influx of material related to the history of Chicago’s premier comedy institution only solidified the need of a custodian for its care and maintenance. In recent years, Pagnozzi has been called upon to provide material for a variety of uses outside of The Second City marketing and classroom needs. Producers of the upcoming Mike Birbiglia film Don’t Think Twice were looking for footage of early Second City content. They hoped to convey that improv was an art form developed over a long period of time, not something that simply popped up on the comedy scene overnight. Pagnozzi was happy to provide historical material that fit the bill. After the 2013 death of The Second City founder Sahlins and the death of actor Harold Ramis the following year, Pagnozzi’s research and The Second City’s archives were instrumental in celebrating their lives and the invaluable contributions they made to comedy. These projects provided glimpses into the lives of the comedy giants who shaped the world’s idea of what was funny. “I got access to Harold Ramis’ personal computer,” Pagnozzi said, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. “That was amazing.” Pagnozzi’s days of digging through those boxes of tapes were essential in changing The Second City’s preservation strategy. The digitization vendor was eventually left behind in favor of CatDV for storage and metadata and a mix of Adobe products and tools for production. Today, Pagnozzi’s digital repository is robust and flourishing. The Second City performers and employees have full online access to shows, scenes, and performances that have been carefully digitized, described, and placed in the archive for their use. Film and photographs of early Second City shows, actors, and ensemble casts that were once thought to be lost are now available, inspiring the next generation of comedy greats. Evidence of The Second City’s use of the archives is apparent: Polaroids of early cast members such as Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris, blown up to portrait size, adorn the walls of classrooms. The new 1959 Kitchen & Bar near the theater features custom wallpaper made from prints of early Second City scripts, ticket stubs, playbills, and newspaper reviews. And the wooden sign which once hung above the doors of the original Second City now sits high above the stairwell, greeting those who enter. Preserved and Prepared In August of 2015, a thin metal door was all that stood between staff offices and a sudden fire that raged through The Second City’s administrative building. The fire originated in the kitchen of a neighboring restaurant, and while the theater complex was relatively undamaged, The Second City offices were destroyed. Fortunately, years of cast photos, scene props, and other historical memorabilia were safe in climate-controlled off-site storage. Pagnozzi had taken no chances with Chicago’s aged buildings and history of disastrous fires. The Second City’s history had dodged a major catastrophe. As The Second City underwent repairs, Pagnozzi began to get calls from small, local theaters. “They saw what happened here,” he said, “and they don’t want it to happen to them.” Pagnozzi was happy to share his recipe for disaster preparedness in the hope that it might save other vulnerable, hidden pieces of Chicago history, pieces that may not have been fortunate enough to have come under the care of an archivist. A Legacy of Laughs Like the winds of the city of Chicago, history can change in an instant: the spark of an idea with the power to inspire millions can ignite in a flash, and the spark of a flame can demolish all records of the past without warning. For the time being, the history of The Second City is safe under the watchful eye of an archivist, and it will be available to future audiences. The institution that has kept the city laughing is still holding up its end of the deal: a click of Pagnozzi’s mouse, and John Belushi flickers onto the screen, running down a long-gone Chicago alley, pursued by a six-foot tall gorilla who suffers from the misfortune of slipping on its own banana peels. The best humor withstands the test of time, and thanks to The Second City’s archives, we can be sure that this theory is true.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
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