Joan Rivers spent early comedy years in Chicago

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Second City company from 1961: Bob Camp, Avery Schreiber, Joan Rivers, Anthony Holland and Bill Alton, via Sun-Times file.

Before Joan Rivers achieved fame and fortune as a stand-up comic, she spent some of her formative comedy days in Chicago in the 1960s.

Her Second City stint, which began in 1961 and lasted for less than a year, proved ill-suited to her talents, interests and sensibility.

“Joan was really a short-timer from New York,” director Alan Myerson recalled several years ago. “I don’t think she saw [Second City] as a major part of her life. This was a gig, and it had some real currency because of Second City’s new celebrity [it was founded in 1959]. But I think she always saw herself as this sort of brash New York comedienne who would return to New York and kill ‘em on the supper club circuit.”

Talking with author and playwright Jeffrey Sweet for his 1978 oral history Something Wonderful Right Away, Rivers discussed the challenges she faced upon arriving to replace the departed Barbara Harris.

“I tell you, it was a very closed and cliquish group,” she said. “I think I watched the show three nights before I joined them onstage, and during that time nobody spoke to me because I was the outsider. I remember going to the drugstore for something and realizing it was the first time I’d heard my voice for four days.”

Her work with fellow actor Anthony Holland was a high point of her Second City tenure. Speaking in 2008, the comedy theater’s late producer emeritus Joyce Sloane described a particularly memorable scene they did together called “The Tailor and the Model.”

“She stands on a chair and he’s fixing the hem on her dressed,” Sloane remembered, “and she’s saying she has to go to this family dinner. And she doesn’t want to go, because she’s going to be 25 and she’s not married and her sister’s married and has two children. And he’s looking up at her, fixing the dress, and they discover each other. It was quiet, it was sweet.”

Despite a largely unrewarding experience on Wells Street, Rivers wasn’t entirely soured by her first experience in Chicago, declaring her love for Second City in later years. When she next performed in the city, it was as a standup comic, and one of the rooms she played was the hip Mister Kelly’s on Rush. Owned by George and Oscar Marienthal, whose small nightclub empire also included the London House and the Happy Medium, Kelly’s was a much better fit.

“People came to see you because it was a comedy room,” Rivers told the Sun-Times in 2005. “They knew if you were there you were good and you were special and you were a little offbeat. You weren’t the Vegas circuit at that point, you didn’t play the Latin Quarter in New York. You played the chi-chier rooms, the smaller rooms, the boites, and that was a great badge of honor [because] Elaine May and Mike Nichols had gone through, Shelley Berman — they were all before us. It was a great group to be with, it was a very elegant group to be with.”

In the decades that ensued, Rivers faced many obstacles personally and professionally, from the 1987 suicide of her husband Edgar to her very public falling out with Johnny Carson. Through it all, she forged on with relentless devotion to her craft — determined, it seemed, to burn out rather than simply fade away.

“I look back now and I don’t know how I did it,” she told Splash (a Sun-Times sister publication) earlier this year. “I think of the strip clubs I played, how I was fired from my first job. I don’t know how that poor girl went back. I’d like to meet her and ask, ‘How’d you do it?’”

“I wanted it so badly,” she added. “I was — I still am — so driven. I just have to do it.”

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