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The fine art of making art pay: Bernie Sahlins alongside McCormick, Ray Kroc

So what did Bernie Sahlins, who died June 16, have in common with such fellow Chicagoans as Cyrus McCormick, Ray Kroc, Gustavus Swift, George Pullman, Potter Palmer, Wallace C. Abbott and Aaron Montgomery Ward?

Not much, you may be thinking. Sahlins ran a comedy theater. He put on sketches. He did not create a retail emporium or a famous catalog. He did not put his name on railroad cars or hamburgers, pharmaceuticals or reapers. He saw himself in an entirely different category. As his close friends well knew, Sahlins wanted to be remembered as an artist, not as the guy who handled the contracts and money. His obituaries mostly reflect the later career he styled for himself.

But, in fact, Sahlins invented a business in Chicago, as surely as Kroc invented fast food or Pullman luxury intercontinental travel. And the business — an entire collection of profitable enterprises, actually — that Sahlins built from Chicago has ended up as something far, far bigger than most people understand. Sahlins deserves a spot on a pole outside the Merchandise Mart with the titans of Chicago industry.

When discussing the history of Chicago business for "The Encyclopedia of Chicago," Loyola University economist Louis P. Cain (riffing on the work of great Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter) made the important distinction between inventors and innovators. His point was that innovators are far more crucial to a local economy than inventors.

In other words, it is far more accurate to call Kroc the inventor of fast food than the McDonald brothers of San Bernardino, Calif., whose name and concepts Kroc took for his first restaurant in Des Plaines. Kroc was hardly the first one to flip a burger, but he built the burger business by successfully introducing a new idea to a massive global market. Similarly, McCormick did not invent the reaper (that was his dad), but he introduced it to prairie farmers in the Chicago of the 1840s. You get the idea: There were stores before Palmer's partnership with Marshall Field, rail cars before Pullman cars, catalogs before those of Montgomery Ward. But these guys were the ones who made all those ideas viable and marketable. They weren't inventors; they were the innovators who built Chicago business.

Consider this notion in terms of improv and sketch comedy — Sahlins' bailiwick. There's no question that modern improv, the art of making up funny material based on suggestions from the audience, was a Chicago invention. It dates to the first show of the Compass Players in Hyde Park on July 5, 1955. That invention was confirmed by no less a personage than Dan Meyer, the official archivist of the University of Chicago.

Sahlins was involved with Compass Players (a lot of innovators are around at the start; consider McCormick's situation). But he did not invent improv. In my mind, that distinction rightly belongs to artistic genius Paul Sills, who was drawing from the theater games created by his mother, Viola Spolin, and to Del Close, who dug down deep into the artistic soul of this new performative act and made it honest.

But neither Close nor Sills were equipped to bring their new invention to market. They were not interested in the mass market — heck, they weren't much interested in any market at all, regarding such considerations as anathema to the creative act. Like a lot of artists, including some performance types working in Chicago today, they were scared of popular success and inclined to blow things up whenever too many people started paying attention. Sills moved to a farm in Wisconsin, ever looking for artistic purity; the wacky Close moved deeper and deeper inside his own formidable intellect, pushing his fellow performers to work in stranger and stranger scenarios. Actors loved Close and still cherish his genius. But Close didn't give two figs about entertaining a tourist from Iowa.

Enter Sahlins, who saw the potential of what was going on around him, just as McCormick saw what his dad's reaper could do if he got it in the hands of the ordinary farmer. And that's exactly what Sahlins did. He popularized the form. He took control. He kept it mainstream. He made it into a business.

How? Well, for starters Sahlins insisted that improv be used mostly as a tool for creating sketches that would then be improved, honed and scripted. Just as Kroc made a consistent hamburger a guarantee when you walked into any McDonald's, so Sahlins devised a system to ensure every Second City revue was funny. Just as crucially, he came up with the rule that Second City retained ownership of the material created by those in its employ. This was a masterstroke (and not something that would have occurred to Sills or Close), for it allowed Second City to multiply in part by finding new ways to exploit archived content.

Any media organization needs to own its own software, so to speak, in order to make money. The Tribune Co. pays me a salary but now owns this column and can do with it what it sees fit, in whatever media it sees fit, just as HBO owns the scripts for the pilots it hires people to write. This is a no-brainer in today's media circles, but in the realm of left-leaning Chicago improv in the 1960s, it was a radical notion. In live entertainment, it still is. The Goodman Theatre does not own the plays it produces. Madison Square Garden Entertainment does not own the songs of the artists who play there. But thanks to Sahlins, Second City owns everything spoken or sung on its stages.

Ah, but Sahlins did not build something on the international level of a McDonald's, you might be thinking. But he did. "Saturday Night Live" was based on a Sahlins revue, and, in its crucial early years, populated by performers from those revues. That's still the case. Without "Saturday Night Live," you'd have no Tina Fey, no "30 Rock," no "Parks and Recreation," no "Colbert Report," and on and on. The business Sahlins built in Chicago is difficult to quantify but unquestionably massive: In my mind it's thoroughly comparable to that built by Pullman or Swift.

Actually, Sahlins did not get as rich as he deserved. One of his few mistakes was not becoming Lorne Michaels, the great TV maestro of what used to be thought of as alternative comedy but now has gone mainstream. Sahlins had that chance, but for a variety of reasons, it did not work out. Perhaps he was too worried he was getting away from his art. It's an occupational hazard.

In time, Sahlins cashed out at Second City. Still, Marshall Field did not keep his name on his stores forever, even though his place in retail history is secure. And I don't see Sahlins' Second City turning into Macy's any time soon. It still gives the people what they want.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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