OLD TOWN — The Second City raised $86,000 during its annual 24-hour improv and music marathon this week, which will go directly into the hands of 10 Chicagoland families in the form of gifts and cash.
It's the 13th year the comedy club has put together the event to benefit the "Letters to Santa" program started by rock legend Steve Albini and his wife Heather Whinna.
Every year the couple receives letters written to Santa Claus and tries to make Christmas dreams come true. Then they drive to the home of each letter writer and deliver a computer, gift cards, gifts, toys and a large sum of cash to the families on Christmas day.
This year they will be joined by Saturday Night Live cast members Mike O'Brien and Cecily Strong, who are both Second City alumni.
Last year former SNL star Fred Armisen joined the gift giving and was instrumental, as many of the families the group surprised on Christmas day did not speak English and were hesitant to answer their doors.
Armisen was the only one in the van who spoke Spanish and let the families in on what was going on.
"He really saved the day," Whinna said.
Armisen wasn't originally set to join the gift giving last Christmas, but while performing during the 24-hour event at Second City he was overwhelmed by the giving and asked Whinna if he could tag along.
In the past Albini and Whinna would pick up the Letters From Santa from the U.S. Postal Service and pick through thousands of them to decide on 10 or so families to surprise.
In recent years they have received the letters from the Onward Neighborhood House due to changes in postal service policy, but were still left with difficult decisions, according to Whinna.
"It's the worst and the hardest part of this whole venture is picking out one letter over another letter," she said. "It's an impossible task."
While Whinna and Albini could spread the cash to a larger pool, the idea is to pick families in the worst situations and give a sum that could be life changing.
Aside from the computer that every family gets, and the gifts, the cash is usually in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.
"A lot of the times people are really stunned and they don't know how to react," Whinna said.
Sometimes that reaction doesn't came until the donors are leaving.
"As you are going back to the van you can hear people screaming and crying," Whinna said.
Two years ago Jeff Tweedy, the frontman for Wilco, joined the effort along with his family.
Tweedy is the driving force behind the fundraising, as in years past he had offered up private living room performances to be auctioned off during the 24-hour event.
This year, instead of home performances, Second City and Tweedy are hosting an intimate event Jan. 6 at the UP Comedy Club along with Second City alumni Aidy Bryant, Kevin Dorff, TJ Jagodowski, Beth Melewski, Mike O'Brien, Tim Robinson, Tami Sagher, Horatio Sanz and Cecily Strong.
Tickets start at $300 for the event, and about half are still available, with all of the proceeds going toward the Letters to Santa drive.
"It's an incredible event that will happen in a very small theater," Whinna said. "It may never happen again."