Originally published in the Chicago Tribune on June 18, 2013
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get your mentors early. Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins was my first.
In 1950s Chicago, life in the middle class was pretty predictable. Moms stayed at home and dressed in suits, heels and gloves to go shopping on North Michigan Avenue. Dads left the house in the morning, showed up for dinner and occasionally took the family for a Sunday afternoon drive. That was my life as well in our town house on North Sheridan Road in East Lakeview.
Then the Sahlinses moved in. Bernie, his wife, Fritzie, and their daughter Lee. While Lee was immediately recognizable as a new playmate, Bernie and Fritzie were something else. In a world of full-skirted shirtwaists and business suits, his black turtlenecks and black pants and her black tights and tight skirts marked their “otherness” as much as Fritzie’s thick German accent.
While my mother was more than a bit aghast at the “bohemians” next door, I was thrilled … and greatly rewarded.
Bernie introduced me to worlds and ideas I would never have known.
Sunday afternoons were explorations of museums, of Washington Park, of the powerful art of Lorado Taft.
We spent other afternoons in rehearsal halls as Bernie and Fritzie mounted their lesser-known productions — like the staging of “Peer Gynt” in a small theater on South Michigan Avenue.
But the most important thing I learned from Bernie and Fritzie was that it was possible to live one’s life beyond the norms of the day. It was a privileged lesson that I have tried to impart to my children.
Bernie went on to co-found Second City, the improvisational theater troupe that changed comedy forever. And to be sure, Fritzie played an important part in its development.
While we now think of Second City as purely entertainment, in 1959 Second City represented a bold and radical statement. Second City and the few “coffeehouses” that sprang up in the city were centers of dissent, of an emergent culture that looked beneath the bourgeois trappings of Chicago and raised the questions that we, the youth of the era, would soon ask en masse.
Fritzie and Bernie divorced in 1968 and Fritzie died in 1991. Lee, herself an artist, died in 2012. And now Bernie, like his Second City partners, Paul Sills and Howard Alk, is gone. With him goes a powerful and extraordinary piece of Chicago history.
While Bernie will be long remembered for the commercial success that Second City is today, I will always see him as a man who helped me realize the importance of challenging my perceptions of what is and what can be.