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CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Second City, the Chicago-based comedy theater troupe, marked its 50th anniversary this past weekend with an alumni reunion, the event drew as many stars as a Hollywood premiere.
With Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Bonnie Hunt, Harold Ramis and dozens of other former cast members in town for the event, there was plenty of laughter at the shows and panel discussions held to celebrate the milestone.
But the reunion -- and the sheer number of famous names it drew back to Second City's now sprawling home in the Old Town section of Chicago -- were also a serious reminder of just how mainstream the once scrappy group has become in an industry it once openly defied.
Formed in 1959 out of the ashes of a University of Chicago troupe called the Compass Players, Second City has become one of America's major laugh factories, launching the careers of everyone from Alan Arkin to Barbara Harris to Gilda Radner and Tina Fey. Along the way, its performers and performances have transformed the way the world laughs.
"It's something Chicago should be very proud of," said Robert Klein, who was a member of the troupe in the mid-1960s and went on to become a stand-up legend. "It's totally original."
Second City took a fresh, brainy approach to comedy, rooted in improvisation and ensemble sketches, powered by satire rather than one-liner jokes from stand-up comics.
Its fame and influence grew in the 1970s, when alums like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray became TV stars on the TV sketch comedy "Saturday Night Live" and when serious local actors -- inspired by its success -- founded groups like the Steppenwolf Theater that became cultural icons in their own right and solidified Chicago's reputation as an actor's city.
So last week's big celebration attracted dozens of alums and admirers like Fred Willard, George Wendt, Jeff Garlin and David Steinberg who have gone on to big careers in Hollywood.
"It's like the greatest high school reunion ever," said Keegan-Michael Key, a member of the 2001 cast who went on to become a cast member of MADtv.
Tickets for most of the events, including a Friday night reunion of the cast of the Emmy Award-winning "SCTV" television program of the 1970s, sold out in minutes.
"This is a special place," Willard said. "I've seen a lot of theater companies, a lot of sketch groups. This is the smartest, the best stuff."
Steinberg, a member of the 1964 cast who has gone on to be a director for "Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and several other shows, said the group's importance to his career could not be overstated. "No Second City," he said, "no career."
The troupe's emphasis on improvisation requires a level of brainy teamwork that only contact bridge players may understand -- and that creates bonds or enmities that do not die.
For Willard, best known these days for the work he does in filmmaker Christopher Guest's comedies like "Best in Show" or "A Mighty Wind," the highlight of the reunion was running into Alex Canaan, a member of the 1965 cast, who left after six months and ultimately went into the sporting goods business.
"It was just wonderful to see him," Willard said. "You don't know if he was going to be down-and-out and missing a couple of teeth. (But) There he was looking very smart and well to do."
What started as a guerrilla operation 50 years ago has now turned into an institution for comedy and a good-sized small business. Second City boasts annual revenues of $30 million and a staff of more than 350, including 120 full-time performers who entertain fans at theaters in Chicago and Toronto, in a touring company, and on cruise ships operated by Norwegian Cruise Line.
It's a business that has proven itself to be remarkably recession proof, according to Andrew Alexander, its chief executive and co-owner.
Enrollment in Second City's training centers has spiked as workers sidelined by the downturn, or just depressed by the steady drumbeat of bad news, look for diversion and a possible second career. Attendance at performances outside of Toronto, where a drop in tourism has hit that city hard, has held up, Alexander said.
"From a business perspective, we're doing very well," he said. "People want to laugh. Comedy is a scientifically proven stress reliever. If we could bottle it, I would."
The only part of the business that suffered in the downturn was the unit that helps corporations train workers and develop creative marketing. But even that has come back in the current fourth quarter of 2009, Alexander said.
"The first three quarters it was tough," he said. "But in 2010 I think we'll be back where we were in 2008."
Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte