When John Kramer first tended bar at The Second City in 1981, the co-founder Bernie Sahlins signed every check himself. And over a subsequent 40-year career pouring drafts and mixing specialty cocktails at least five nights a week, Kramer saw Stephen Colbert graduate from waiter to performer, Jon Favreau strive to be seen as something other than a night-side dishwasher and Jordan Peele standing behind the host stand, seating guests into the small hours of the morning
“Performers and night staff always hung out together,” Kramer said of his gig. “We were like family.”
That all has ended with hard feelings.
In October, The Second City told its roughly 90-strong staff of bartenders, servers, hosts and dishwashers that they were being officially laid off. Much of the crew understood the dilemma of a relatively small business maintaining a staff during a prolonged pandemic closure. But Second City was sold to the New York-based private equity firm ZMC in February.
And when the famed comedy theater announced it would be reopening, effective in May, it did not tell its night staff they were being rehired. Instead, it said it was outsourcing all of its evening catering operations to the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group.
If Kramer, 63, wanted his job back, he had to reapply. Despite 40 years of continuous employment.
“Nobody reached out. We were told we could get in line with everybody else,” Kramer said, explaining why he declined to re-apply. “I was like Dorothy in Oz at The Second City. But I will not step foot in that building again.”
In recent days, alumni of the famed comedy theater have been reaching out on social media to Kramer and other long-time employees who have not been asked back, a group that also includes the long-serving manager Alison Riley and the creative producer Beth Kligerman. Many have reacted with shock that the theater would no longer employ its own dedicated night staff, especially since numerous employees who started out washing dishes or serving drinks to tables eventually moved up the ranks (that group includes the longtime Second City executive Kelly Leonard).
There was further disquiet that the layoffs took place despite Second City receiving a federal Payroll Protection Plan loan of over $3 million, $2 million of which was allocated to payroll. And there were grumblings that Steve Johnston, the Second City president, was too cozy with Fifty/50, a privately held bar and restaurant company that operates such venues as West Town Bakery, Roots Handmade Pizza, Bunny Slope, Steadfast and Utopian Tailgate, already a joint venture with Second City.
“It was always a family at Second City,” said Trent Bowman, a host at the theater who also has lost his job. Like many on the night staff, Bowman says he moved to Chicago (in his case from Carroll, Iowa) specifically to get a job at Second City. Any job, it was widely felt, was at least a foot in the door.
“It’s disingenuous for them just to say that they are back,” Bowman said, “without acknowledging that they are a whole different thing now.”
A spokesperson for Second City and Fifty/50 declined to make executives available for interviews or to respond to questions, but provided a joint statement.
After praising the role of the night staff and referencing its “culture of caring,” the company said that it now was “committed to prioritizing pre-pandemic night staff members throughout the hiring process for currently open and future positions.”
“To this end,” the statement said, “prior to opening an opportunity to the general public, interviews will be made exclusively available to former night staff applicants for a 7-day period.”
The partners also said that “many of the benefits for night staff will be preserved under Fifty/50′s ownership, including a free Second City class and discounts on additional classes.” And they said that the decision to outsource the night staff has long been in the works.
“I am honored for my group to have the opportunity to play a part in the operations of what I consider to be a Chicago treasure,” said Scott Weiner, the Fifty/50 Group president, in an emailed statement.
Kramer says he looks back with affection on his time at the theater and the friendships he made there. The actor and former e.t.c. cast member Jack McBrayer, he said, calls him every year on his birthday. He also notes that working nights helped him take care of his special-needs son.
And, he said, he got to witness numerous only-at-Second-City experiences, ranging from the attendance of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign to the night Paul Simon showed up unannounced, only to be coaxed into performing an a cappella version of “The Sound of Silence.”
‘I’ve made my exit,” Kramer said. “The scene is over.”
On Wednesday, in news that it said was unrelated to the night staff controversy, Second City said that Johnston had announced his resignation.
“Steve will move on to a role as senior advisor to facilitate a smooth transition to the remaining management before pursuing endeavors outside of The Second City,” the theater said, in a statement.
Johnston did not respond to a request for an interview.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.