‘I’m going to walk you through my dream,” says Diana Martinez, president of Second City, after greeting me on a sticky afternoon in August. Martinez and I are wandering through the Piper’s Alley complex, 45,000 square feet of which houses Second City’s famous Mainstage and e.t.c. theaters, corporate offices, training centers and student theaters. And soon, a brand new stand-up and cabaret club.
Large chunks of the Piper’s Alley mall sit empty now that Fleet Feet has moved around the corner, Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding has finally taken that honeymoon, and the AMC Loews movie theater has gone belly up, leaving room for changes Second City has been wanting to make for a while.
“This, as you know, is the e.t.c.,” Martinez says as we reach the top of the escalators, “but it’s also the back entrance to the Mainstage.” She pushes open a secret door to our right. The passageway, currently used as a wheelchair-accessible entrance to the Mainstage, soon will be the another point of entry for that theater.
Beginning in December, audiences may purchase tickets for all Second City shows at the old movie theater box office before proceeding up the escalators, where they’ll be ushered into the Mainstage, e.t.c.—and Second City’s latest expansion, the Up Comedy Club.
The 280-seat stand-up comedy club and cabaret, scheduled to open December 1, will take up the space where Tony ’n’ Tina once toasted their nightly nuptials. “It’s like a modern-day interpretation of an old cabaret,” Martinez says of the room, which will boast bistro tables, fringe lamps, leather chairs, a proscenium stage, two large TVs and a back wall flanked by eight booths with serpentine banquettes, including the Pump Room’s original Booth One.
The fringe lamps sound like Second City, but the flat-screens don’t. “[CEO and owner] Andrew Alexander is extremely sensitive and protective of the brand,” Martinez says. “That’s why he wanted a separate name for it. He didn’t want to call it Second City Three. He doesn’t want to misinterpret what our product is because we do sketch comedy.”
Up primarily will be a stand-up comedy club. The Second City has partnered with Levity Entertainment, owner of the Improv comedy chain. The partnership will allow Second City to mine Levity’s stand-up connections to route big names like Lewis Black and Maria Bamford to the club.
Martinez attempts to allay my fears about the Improv, which also tends to book milquetoast comics à la Rob Schneider and Wayne Brady, at least at its Schaumburg location. “We can deny any comedian if we don’t like them or if it’s not for us,” she promises. “It’s our club. We’ve been talking to our producers to make sure we get some fun alternative comedians.”
Sketch fans, meanwhile, will be heartened to learn that Up, open seven days a week, will also function as a theater space for Second City’s ancillary products, such as original productions from visiting alumni, the Chicago Comedy Brunch—a matinee show akin to the Gospel Brunch at House of Blues—children’s shows and musical spoofs not unlike Rod Blagojevich Superstar. “We now have a home for some of our theatrical stuff that we squish in here and there,” Martinez says.
Is a Piper’s Alley takeover in the works? Martinez says no, although she does envision the old Fleet Feet space as a potential pre- and postshow cocktail lounge, not a bad consolation for Second City devotees who end up entering through the mall instead of through the famous entrance on Wells Street (although that box office will remain open for diehards). Martinez brushes off the Wells Street nostalgia factor. “It’s not like Jim Belushi’s sitting on the corner shaking hands.”
Second City’s Up Comedy Club •Piper’s Alley, 230 W North Ave (312-337-3992, secondcity.com) •Slated to open Dec 1