iO Theater of Chicago is for sale, a sad week for Chicago comedy

At the end of what has been a stunning week for Chicago comedy and improvisation, the venerable iO Theater announced Friday that it, too, has put itself up for sale.



a group of people standing in front of a brick building: Theater-goers line up for the grand opening of the iO Theater, at 1501N. Kingsbury St., in Chicago in 2014. The theater had moved from its previous Wrigleyville location.


© Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Theater-goers line up for the grand opening of the iO Theater, at 1501N. Kingsbury St., in Chicago in 2014. The theater had moved from its previous Wrigleyville location.

The announcement came just days after news that its much bigger rival, Second City, declared itself also to be on the block.

The iO (once ImprovOlympic) only dates to 1981, as compared to 1959 for Second City. Nonetheless, both theaters are privately held, for-profit operations that share a parallel history, rivalry and centrality in the history of American comedy, along with associations with now-famous talents like Tina Fey, Mike Myers and Amy Poehler and reputations for making stars of the entertainment business. Each has been closed since March and thus starved of box-office revenue due to city and state regulations limiting the size of indoor gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both also have been buffeted by internal accusations of racial inequity and demands for change from some former students in comedy classes and also from past performers.

The iO news was not a surprise. Founder Charna Halpern said that she was closing the theater permanently in June, arguing that the combination of the internal attacks and an inability to open her theaters or her bar had given her little choice.

Unlike Second City, which rents space in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, iO owns its building at 1501 N. Kingsbury St., albeit under mortgage. The sale proposal, prepared by Malek Abdulsamad of Compass Commercial, references “a timber loft building in a prime location in the Clybourn Corridor.” Whereas the Second City sale focuses on intellectual property, a brand name and a big corporate training operation alongside the theaters, the iO sale focuses on real-estate.

Compass Commercial describes the property as dating from 1929 and offering a “turnkey” opportunity for a new owner, including “two main theaters with 140 seating capacity each, two cabarets with 65-80 seating capacity each, six classrooms, two event spaces with 200 seating capacity each, a beer garden with 120 seating capacity and a full bar with over 100 seating capacity in addition to accessory office and a full basement for dry storage.”

Comedy, presumably, is optional.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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