Bernard Sahlins, 90, cofounder of Second City theater

Second City cofounder Bernard Sahlins with members of the comedy troupe including George Wendt (center).
Chicago SunTimes
Second City cofounder Bernard Sahlins with members of the comedy troupe including George Wendt (center).

CHICAGO — Bernard ‘‘Bernie’’ Sahlins, who cofounded 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 chief executive, said Mr. Sahlins died at his Chicago home with his family. He leaves his wife, Jane Nicholl Sahlins.

Mr. Sahlins and business partners Howard Alk and Paul Sills opened The Second City in December 1959, and it quickly helped establish Chicago as a vibrant comedy town.


The Second City was not Mr. Sahlins’s first attempt at running a theater. He was a producer-investor in a theater troupe in the early 1950s that featured fellow University of Chicago graduates, and he and partners produced plays at the Studebaker Theater until it closed due to a lack of funding.

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In his 2002 memoir, ‘‘Days and Nights at the Second City,’’ Mr. Sahlins wrote that he, Alk, and Sills had not set out to build another theater. ‘‘We had been burned enough times.”

But The Second City caught on within months of opening, despite early money problems and other issues, and it became instrumental in the growth and development of improvisational and sketch comedy.

Mr. Sahlins had an eye for talent, and he hired and nurtured the early careers of future stars such as John Belushi, Joan Rivers, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis, among others.

Shortly after ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ began airing in 1975, Second City became a breeding ground for the show.


Alexander, who along with business partner Len Stuart bought The Second City from Mr. Sahlins in 1985, according to the theater’s website, said that Mr. 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.

‘‘You think about that theater and think of all the stars that came out of it . . . from Belushi to Aykroyd to Alan Arkin,’’ Alexander said. “It’s extraordinary, the amount of talented people that came out of it.”