Photo: Fred Kaz (far right) with director Bernie Sahlins and producer Joyce Sloane at The Second City, 1970s — Sun-Times files
Several years back I wrote an oral history of Second City that includes numerous portraits of now-bigshot celebrities before they were stars — Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Hunt and many more. But one man, a household name only among those in the know, outshone them all: the theater’s late and legendary musical director (the so-called “Captain of Cool”) Fred Kaz.
“When it came to all things musical,” goes his intro, “Second City musical director Fred Kaz ruled the roost. His ‘pianistic accompaniment marries mood to movement as expertly as always,’ wrote Chicago Daily News critic Sydney Harris in early 1974. At his stage-side piano (setting the tone, rigging the tempo) since 1964, Kaz was more of a driving force than ever as the theater morphed from local gem to national treasure starting in the mid-seventies. ‘There was a time when David Mamet used to sit at my elbow at the Second City keyboard,’ Kaz told the Chicago Tribune in 1982. ‘He was hungry to learn how we do it, and he just hung around long enough till he got it.’ And Kaz’s opinion mattered greatly — as much as, if not more than, that of [directors] Bernie Sahlins or Del Close. If they made Fred laugh, actors recall, all was right with the world.”
“I was under everything, or absent when it was the best thing to do,” Kaz said at the time. “Usually absent from the [onstage] action. But sometimes, if they got into a funk, or I knew it was going to take a long time to work out, I’d go out for a cigarette and scare the s— out of them. ‘Cause who else is gonna take the lights out? I pretty much did that.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 30, a little more than six months after Kaz died surrounded by friends and family on his beloved San Pedro, California-docked boat the Cadenza in March, Second City will host a memorial celebration for him at UP Comedy Club in Piper’s Alley. RSVP for the free event at eventbrite.com.