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The new location for The Second City Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The Second City Toronto, while it remains one of Canada’s most legendary live hubs of improv and sketch comedy, has felt like it has been playing second banana to its older, sister organization in Chicago for a good long while now.

That wasn’t the case in the heyday of SCTV in the late 1970s and 1980s – when that Second City television offshoot made icons out of Toronto mainstage revue cast members such as John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy.

But, for the past quarter century, Second City’s Chicago operations have kept growing in terms of infrastructure and programming – and have become the better-known launching pad for a next generation of famous funny people such as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Keegan-Michael Key.

In the same time period, Toronto’s mainstage revues have been chased around town because of downtown development, and into smaller and smaller venues – from Blue Jays Way to Mercer Street to its most recent temporary home in the Comedy Bar on the Danforth – making it harder to build a new history or momentum in the same way.

That chapter is finally coming to an end, however, as the Canadian franchise founded in 1973 officially moves into the largest, most luxurious digs in its history on Nov. 30.

“You can’t get kicked out for condos if you’re already in a condo,” said Gary Rideout, who is director of business development for Second City, while giving The Globe and Mail a hard-hat, steel-toe tour of the company’s 28,700-square-foot complex in the One York Street tower as construction was being completed this fall.

Will this handsome new home help Second City Toronto find a strong second wind as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Canada under new American ownership?

In the sprawling space originally earmarked for a Target Canada (RIP), the comedy club and training centre has swooped in as an anchor tenant of this 35-floor Toronto tower with a 15-year lease.

It has built two professional stages on the site, plus a student stage and nine new studios for the in-person classes and workshops that are the financial backbone of the business these days.

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Construction in the restaurant at the new Second City Toronto location, on Nov. 15.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

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Construction on the stage of the new 1973 Theatre.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Audiences and comedians, students and corporate clients alike will now be able to walk to Second City from Union Station through the PATH network – and a prominent sign on the side of the building facing the Gardiner Expressway will entice all those stuck in traffic to pull off and lighten up.

Everything about the new place feels “Yes And” compared to its prior Toronto locations – and, indeed, that improv slogan is up in lights above one of its three bars.

On the day I visited, a windowed wall had just been installed in the full-service restaurant area (to be run by Oliver & Bonacini), overlooking the new Love Park that Waterfront Toronto is building where a Gardiner off-ramp used to be and, beyond that, Lake Ontario itself.

Zooming with Ed Wells, the new American chief executive officer of Second City, a few days later, he was in town and sitting near that enviable vista alongside the company’s Canadian head of creative Carly Heffernan.

“The view is fantastic,” enthused Wells, who was hired this fall to run the comedy company that, before the pandemic, had estimated of annual revenue of almost $80-million, based on a delightfully eclectic entertainment CV that includes executive roles at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, and WWE, the professional wrestling company.

“It won’t surprise you to hear that we’re incredibly excited about the new space.”

Well, maybe surprise isn’t the right word – but there has been a little relief in Toronto sketch and improv circles that Wells and ZMC, the New York-based private equity film run by Strauss Zelnick that bought Second City in February, 2021, are fully embracing the nifty and no-doubt pricy new northern headquarters.

After all, the planning for this expanded footprint in Toronto began in 2019 under the previous long-time ownership – comprised of the trio of Canadian expats, Andrew Alexander, D’Arcy Stuart and Steve Johnson. (They decided to sell in 2020, not because of the pandemic, but in the wake of allegations of systemic racism and a flurry of open letters from racialized and queer alumni.)

Wells said the new ownership’s commitment to the artistic side of the Canadian part of the unusual binational business is evident in the “considerable investment” being made into both the space and an accompanying increase in production budget (though he wouldn’t provide a dollar amount). “We have to be prepared to fill these stages with a variety of content and with the best talent that we can possibly find,” he said.

The CEO believes that Second City’s sparking new state-of-the-art HQ, so prominent and close to the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, will help the Toronto shows tap more deeply into the tourist market than ever before – and he noted the city is only continuing “to expand rapidly and become an even bigger global destination and global metropolis.” (Attendance, back at the single-stage Mercer Street location, was around 117,000 in 2019.)

The new leadership does have its eyes on other markets for Second City, too, however, and indeed the first big announcement of Wells’s tenure as CEO was in October that the comedy powerhouse will be opening up a theatre and training centre in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in the summer of 2023.

That was a surprise as Second City has defined itself since its birth in 1959 in Chicago by not being in New York, as its self-mocking name suggests. And the company’s attempts to expand beyond Chicago and Toronto have not had long-lasting success over the years.

Santa Monica, Calif., Detroit and Las Vegas locations have come and gone over the decades – and references to Second City’s Hollywood operations, a training facility that shut down its physical location during the pandemic, were just removed from the website this fall.

Wells said the current expansion plans are being pursued with “great intention” and, while he doesn’t want to tip his cards as to what might be next after New York, he does say that: “Part of our expansion strategy, beyond just geographical expansion into new physical markets, will be looking at ways to get back into the media space. I think you would expect us to be looking at opportunities in TV, streaming, audio, social, digital.”

That’s intriguing from a Canadian point of view – given how much SCTV played a role in turning Second City’s comedians in Toronto into stars back in the day and, indeed, contributed to the country’s enduring reputation as the funny-bone of North America.

Though Heffernan, who wrote and performed in four Toronto mainstage revues and also directed the all-female sketch show She the People that played for three years in Chicago before taking on her current role guiding creative across the organization, gently pushed back at the idea that the Toronto shows aren’t spawning stars as much any more.

“We’re so proud of the talent, who called Second City home, that we’re currently seeing on the Canadian airwaves,” she said, pointing to alumni such as Ann Pornel and Alan Shane Lewis, hosts of The Great Canadian Baking Show, Stacey McGunnigle of 22 Minutes and Tricia Black on Pretty Hard Cases.

As to what talent might call Second City’s new HQ home as it embarks on the second half-century of its existence, that invites a return to the subject of why the company changed hands during the pandemic in the first place.

Both Wells and Heffernan said the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion articulated by previous leadership, as the company wrestled publicly with a racial reckoning that echoed through many corners of the entertainment industry after the killing of George Floyd, remains firm.

A key takeaway about Second City Toronto finally have two professional stages to play on (Chicago has three) is that the extra space will allow for not just bigger nightly crowds but also for a greater variety and diversity of shows to play to more audiences.

“We’re still a bit of a skeleton crew here in Toronto, I’m not gonna lie,” Heffernan said. “But we will be incorporating and bringing on more voices at the table – and having those voices be in creative leadership roles as we continue in the future is of the utmost importance to us.”

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A rendering of Second City Toronto’s new location at One York Street.Second City/Supplied

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