Joyce Sloane: The mold is broken

February 8, 2011

Chicago media on Friday (Feb. 4) reported the death of Joyce Sloane, 80, the emeritus producer of The Second City. Within hours, word spread via email and telephone to Joyce’s hundreds of friends and former colleague across the country, many learning of her death even before the public announcement. Word reached me Friday morning in New York where I’ve been attending the winter meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.

The press, among them my Chicago Public Media colleague Kelly Kleiman, already have reported the details of Joyce’s truly unique career of 40 years at The Second City, and her related activities as a passionate and savvy board member of several Off-Loop theater troupes. Even after stepping down from her day-to-day work at The Second City, Joyce maintained her powerful Off-Loop presence. Just 10 years ago, she was the insider at Victory Gardens Theater who rallied the public and press when the Victory Gardens board launched an ill-considered plan to undercut the authority of longtime leaders Dennis Zacek and Marcelle McVay, and risk the company’s security by buying the Royal George Theatre. Thanks to Joyce, none of these things came to pass. Instead, Victory Gardens, under Zacek and McVay, went on to win the 2001 Tony Award as outstanding regional theater, and to buy and renovate the Biograph Theatre. Living well is the best revenge.

In reporting Joyce’s death, and for many years before, the media often (usually) described her as the “den mother” or “Jewish mother” or “Earth Mother” of generations of talent at The Second City. These descriptions are not untrue, but they don’t necessarily suggest a complete picture of Joyce Sloane, who also could be highly opinionated about a show or enterprise, and quite capable of putting anyone in his/her place with a few sharp words. In New York, coincidentally, I ran into a former Second City performer of the 1980’s now many years out of the business. He’d had a phone call early Friday about Joyce’s death. As we talked, he remembered a time in Joyce’s office, with other people around, when he said something that sent her into a rage. “She stood up and pounded her desk and turned purple. We thought she was going to have a heart attack. The next day, Joyce and I were hugging each other. That’s how she was.”

I remember yet another aspect of Joyce’s presence at The Second City: she was the go-to person for almost everything that was important. Over the years, The Second City has been the site of hundreds of benefits and special events, and Joyce was who you would ask. I produced three or four special events there for organizations as varied as the American Friends Service Committee and the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee. I sat down with Joyce, agreed on a date, explained what we wanted to do, worked out rehearsal time . . . and the place was mine. The backstage and front-of-house crews would be completely at your disposal. The house would be clean and ready when the audience arrived. The coatroom and box office would be staffed. And the deal always was the same: free. I never had to budget a dime for  renting the house, paying the sound man, etc. If Joyce and The Second City agreed to help, everything went with the deal, and what you took in at the box office went entirely to your organization or good work. The house took only the bar receipts (and one always reminded the audience to tip the wait staff), but there wasn’t a minimum. And there never was a contract. Classic handshake deal.
 
Joyce had been in frail health for a period of years. I saw her last in early November at the annual Joseph Jefferson Awards, and witnessed her take a nasty, small tumble while negotiating a three-step staircase. I turned to help her, but I couldn’t get near her. Many closer hands already were there to support her and lift her and make sure she was OK, repaying in small measure the genuine concern and fierce loyalty she had shared with so many over so many years. Joyce Sloane, one of a kind, the mold is broken.