The effort to revitalize 35-year-old Second City took a big step forward with last week's opening of the improv company's 80th revue, Pinata Full of Bees (reviewed by Jack Helbig in Section One). For this newest production Second City's trademark skit-blackout-skit formula was dumped in favor of a format in which segments flow more smoothly. The new format also includes characters and plot points that recur throughout the evening, a tactic that Second City producers hope will keep audiences more involved.
"We felt there was a need for change," says the show's director, Tom Gianas, adding, "The old format had been imitated by many other groups and seemed sort of stale." One reason Second City began tinkering with the old approach is the concern that large numbers of local fans had begun to tune out. While Second City has long been a destination for summer tourists, it needs solid hometown support to survive lengthy Chicago winters. "We wanted to make the place more interesting for local audiences, and we knew we needed to break some rules," says Second City owner and executive producer Andrew Alexander. Unless there is a huge audience revolt, Alexander says, the changes initiated in Pinata Full of Bees will be carried through in future revues.
Many of the changes were first tested at Second City's outpost in Detroit, which was established in 1993. From the beginning Detroit audiences have seen shows that were different from the ones here in Chicago. "Because it's a new, larger theater we can do a lot more with sets and lights," says Second City producer Kelly Leonard.
Meanwhile Alexander says construction is about to begin on a theater in Toronto that will replace the cramped headquarters that troupe has been using for many years. Alexander continues to look for a suitable location in Chicago where a more spacious home for the Chicago company could be constructed.
Illinois Film Office director Suzy Kellett found out about the FBI report documenting alleged connections between organized crime and the Chicago film industry the same way the rest of us did: in the morning paper. "Without names having been named, this report appears to taint everyone in the business here," says Kellett. "This couldn't have come at a worse time, when we are trying to get film production going again in the state."
She and others in the local film business refused to make the connection, but reputed mob ties to companies that support movie and television projects by leasing equipment, renting studio space, and organizing transportation might help explain why the film production business has gone into a severe slump over the past eight or nine months (see Neighborhood News, Section One). During that time, Kellett says, "barely a handful" of feature films or TV shows have been filmed in the city or other parts of the state. She and others in the film business have routinely attributed the slump to the lower cost of doing business elsewhere, particularly in Canada, where the American dollar is strong. They've also suggested that producers and directors are looking elsewhere because Chicago was overexposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, boom years for local film production.
While film industry officials last week were reluctant to concede that organized crime interests might be involved in the local business, Chicago Crime Commission president Donald Mulack says organized crime has had a foothold in some of the local companies that serve the industry since the early 1970s, when Illinois and Chicago first started to court feature-film production. Mulack also believes film companies have stopped bringing productions to Chicago because so much equipment has been stolen from film sets in recent years, though he didn't offer any evidence that theft was in any way connected to the larger organized crime issue. Kellett insists theft is no longer a concern. "It has been taken care of," she says, adding that she met several months ago with local film production unions to discuss the matter and that union officials subsequently went to Hollywood to reassure studio bosses.
But even if that problem is resolved, Kellett is still left with the nightmarish task of trying to address and overcome the implications of the sketchy news on organized crime in the local film business. Late last week she hadn't received any indication from Daley or his aides that she would be allowed to read the report. "This is all news to me," she says, "and it's terrible, because we don't really know who might be involved." Mulack says that if a complete accounting of the FBI's report isn't forthcoming from City Hall, he may push for his commission to undertake and release its own report on the subject within the next couple of months.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.