Zoology

Does the world’s most infamous fraternity deserve its reputation? C.J. Hughes ’92 offers a field guide to the history of Alpha Delta and its ties to the movie that made it notorious.

More than three and a half decades after it showed how cool it could be to belong to an unruly fraternity, the Dartmouth-inspired 1978 comedy Animal House still ripples across pop culture.

“Double secret probation” turns up in headlines. “College” sweatshirts pop up on folks other than John Belushi. Even Gen. Wesley Clark sported one on campus during his 2004 presidential campaign.

Now a musical version of the movie is expected to open on Broadway, possibly within months. (Imagine ponchos offered to the audience for the food-fight scene, and maybe Dartmouth discounts?)

That a movie has such staying power probably should delight alumni of the real-life Delta house—the college’s own Alpha Delta, whose Chris Miller ’63 (Pinto in the film) was an Animal House screenwriter. Instead, it’s been something of a double-edged paddle. Constantly being associated with underachieving hell-raisers such as Otter, D-Day and Bluto perpetuates a bad-boy image of the house, which has been particularly unhelpful in recent years as AD has dealt with the fallout from incidents involving underage drinking and racism.

“We’re probably the most famous fraternity chapter in the United States because of Animal House,” says John Engelman ’68, who has served as AD’s advisor since before the movie came out. “That’s sometimes a burden, because if something goes wrong the papers always have to add the line about how we’re the basis for the movie.” It has fallen on Engelman through the decades to handle any public-relations damage control.

Other AD alums agree that depictions of the house as hard-partying and boorish, on the silver screen and subsequently in nationwide college lore, haven’t done the place any favors. They contend that any frat-house hijinks should be put in perspective.

“When you’re 18 and 19 and 20, you’re going to do a lot of dumb stuff,” says AD alum Adam Cohen ’05, a derivatives trader in Chicago. “But a lot of good things happened there, too.”

Although that’s indisputable, a rebellious streak seems rooted in the fraternity’s origins. B.B.—before Bluto—there was the Adelphian Lodge, a no-nonsense book club that in 1799 broke away from the United Fraternity, one of four on campus in those days, because it didn’t hold enough literary debates, according to AD’s official history. Its first president, Cyrus Perkins, class of 1800, became a doctor who taught anatomy in Hanover and later a Dartmouth trustee. Despite attracting such model students, the new entity was quickly banned by the College because the administration wanted to limit the influence of fraternities on campus, and the four existing fraternities were deemed enough.

As if in Whac-A-Mole, though, the group couldn’t be kept down. Subsequently it popped up in different locations in Hanover, including Dartmouth Hall. Throughout the early 1800s it was known as the Antinomian. In 1846 it became Alpha Delta Phi, a national fraternity. In 1922 the fraternity took up residence in its current red brick building at 9 East Wheelock Street.

Turned sideways to the street because its lot is so narrow, the house, which cost $27,000 to build, has a front lawn that is technically owned by the College. Records show that wealthy Boston railroad president and AD alum Melvin O. Adams, class of 1871, prepaid all construction costs. A College trustee, he also helped rebuild Dartmouth Hall after it burned to the ground in 1904.

Adams was something of a separatist, though, as noted in remarks made at his 1920 funeral. One speaker recalled that Adams had frequently declared that his summer home, on Middle Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, was not part of Massachusetts but, according to his reading of old charts, its own country.

By many accounts, fraternities didn’t really become retreats where fun overruled study until after World War II. Even then, according to some alums from the era, AD was like many other Greek organizations: a place where men shot pool and the breeze but did not otherwise engage in much mischief.

In the 1950s, however, the fraternity began to take on its more debaucherous modern reputation, even if some of the stories, like fishing tales, probably become more exaggerated with each re-telling.

Still, it’s hard to disbelieve some of the anecdotes when they come from people who were actually there, many of whom are so true to an old-fashioned Dartmouth type they seem plucked from central casting.

Monk Bancroft ’57 recounts how, at one party, he strapped his sneakers into bear-trap bindings and skied down AD’s curving, snowless stairs. “When I hit the bottom I went clear across the room head-first,” says Bancroft, who serves on the ski patrol at Vermont’s Mad River Glen.

Candid about the old days in a way that might make others blush, Bancroft shares a story about how in the winter of 1955 he climbed up onto the Winter Carnival ice sculpture—an Eskimo riding a whale—and performed a scatological act we will refrain from detailing in a family magazine.

“We had colorful people, but they weren’t doing things for the sake of being awful,” Bancroft says. “We also weren’t all just a bunch of drunks,” he adds, pointing out that AD scored numerous wins over other houses in intramural basketball, football and hockey contests.

Stories from the next decade indicate that house activities started to get, well, wooly bully in the 1960s. But Animal House, set in 1962 and filmed at the University of Oregon, paints an incomplete picture, according to screenwriter Miller, because another writer, the late Harold Ramis, sprinkled in his own experiences at Zeta Beta Tau at Washington University. The third writer was the late Doug Kenney, who was in the Signet Society at Harvard.

A more Dartmouth-centric version of events can be gleaned from Miller’s 2006 memoir, The Real Animal House, which in often-vomitous detail chronicles his first two years in Hanover. (Attempts to reach Miller for this story were unsuccessful.)

Featuring cans, bottles and kegs of beer as well as a road trip to a Saratoga Springs, New York, brothel, the book also staggers its way through the Night of the Seven Fires, AD’s Odyssey-like initiation rite that was doused by the mid-1960s.

Mayhem is never far, as when Goosey Gander—many pledges were nicknamed for fauna, in true Animal House fashion—smashes a Hanover Inn window with ice chunks. “Loosen up. It was just a fraternity initiation,” Goosey tells the cops who arrest him, according to the book.

Even if many AD alums weren’t yet born when Dean Wormer first uttered the line, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son,” they may be familiar with Miller’s work. At least one of his magazine articles about his undergraduate daze is handed out to pledges annually. Outside of AD, students are familiar with Animal House, but Miller’s articles are a step beyond, says James Dobson, a lecturer in the department of psychological and brain sciences who teaches “The University in the Popular Imagination,” a writing class. He has assigned students to read Miller’s 1974 National Lampoon article, “Night of the Seven Fires,” and this year is asking students to view Animal House for that course. “In my experience most students come to Dartmouth having seen the film,” Dobson says. “Miller’s story, however, remains almost entirely unknown. Unlike the film adaptation, the story still has the ability to shock students, and the events detailed in this little narrative have provoked many important and timely discussions about fraternity life, hazing, drinking and student relations.”

As the counterculture bloomed in the late 1960s, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War, interest in Dartmouth’s fraternities waned, which forced some to shut their doors for good.

At the same time, in a 1969 dispute over who should pick up a $5,000-a-year property tax bill, the Hanover chapter of AD splintered from its national organization, becoming an independent chapter and shortening its name in the process. Many alums, worried that the break destroyed more than a century of tradition, opposed the move and stopped writing checks, Engelman says.

Though it survived, AD in 1970 had its smallest pledge class in recent memory, when just seven sophomores joined, he says. In those groovier, bewhiskered times, a mellower vibe seemed to dominate the house, encouraging serious students such as future Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon ’77 to join up in 1974.

Gradually, though, the Watergate Era gave way to a period of renewed interest in Greek life, and 20 to 30 new recruits joined AD each year by the middle of the decade. The release of Animal House may have sparked some of that re-appreciation, but for many it was merely a happy coincidence.

Gabe Kind ’82, who arrived in Hanover soon after the movie came out, saw it with friends at the Nugget before joining AD the following spring. “There was a point of pride in AD about Animal House,” says Kind, a plastic surgeon in San Francisco.

And it wasn’t just a bunch of Upper Valley teens who were drawn to it. Roger Ebert, the late, respected movie critic, gave it a four-star review. “It finds some kind of precarious balance between insanity and accuracy, between cheerfully wretched excess and an ability to reproduce the most revealing nuances of human behavior,” he wrote of the movie, which made $120 million during its first run and tens of millions more later. “Let someone else discuss the symbolism of Bluto’s ability to crush a beer can against his forehead.”

Notably less amused were officials at the College, which was in a transitional phase after graduating its first class of women in 1976.

Indeed, in November 1978, as toga parties were becoming a national fad, Dartmouth’s faculty voted 67-16 to abolish all fraternities, citing their sexism, racism and substance abuse. English professor James Epperson, who led the anti-frats charge, was worried the College’s identity was becoming too inextricably linked with the movie, according to news reports from the time.

In a backlash to the backlash, some fraternities, including AD, dug in their heels further, leading to a sharp us-vs.-them division with the dean of the College office that in some ways continues to this day.

“We were the right audience for the movie,” Kind says. “The whole theme about it was just because the administration says something, it doesn’t mean we have to go along with it.”

If Animal House may have brought fraternities back from the dead, it was high time it happened, Miller wrote in an essay in DAM in 1989: “It just seemed like fraternities were endlessly getting a bum rap, and it was time someone spoke up for good old irresponsible, sophomoric, hedonistic, over-the-top fun,” he wrote.

He also joked in a different DAM article a few years later that the anti-establishment message of the movie had gotten twisted all around, that those who often are the most gung-ho about Animal House are the types of people it ridicules. “No fraternity brother thinks he’s an Omega [the prestigious but rather stodgy frat in the movie],” Miller said. “They all think they’re like the Animal House brothers. But of course they’re not.”

As life imitated movies in Hanover and the 1980s go-goed forward, the design of the house morphed, in part to accommodate the surge in parties triggered by the presence of women on campus, according to alums.

Black coats of paint went up in the basement. A quote attributed to John Wayne—“Talk low and talk slow and don’t say too much”—was scrawled on a wall. A Jolly Roger pirate flag, in a possible nod to the Deathmobile in Animal House’s finale, began fluttering out front. The annual lawn party, or mudfest, which is a high point of Green Key Weekend, also had its birth then with bands wailing from the porch.

Initiation rituals, now indoors, shifted too. Pledges confronted a so-called Rack of Gnarl, whose plastic cups offered mixes of ketchup, dog food and mouthwash, with no puking allowed, according to a 1989 Miller article in Playboy.

But a hazing infraction that was revealed to administrators by an AD ’90 after he graduated resulted in the house being slapped with five terms of probation. Thinking that was too harsh for a long-ago incident, and with rush coming up, the house decided to separate from the College in January 1991—a move that might seem lifted from the Animal House script, albeit with fewer laughs.

Two years later both sides made up, in part because the College, while relaxing its probation rules, said students could not live in an unaffiliated fraternity.

Still, the house had a hard time staying out of trouble, in large part because incidents at AD come under more scrutiny than fraternity misdeeds elsewhere around the country. In the winter of 1994 a member was charged after shooting a pellet gun into a crowd on the house lawn and injuring a visiting Chi Gam alum who was treated for a head wound at DHMC. A few years later a brother reportedly yelled “fag” at a passerby from the front porch, prompting a series of sensitivity panels. Shortly before 2011 Commencement two students who had reportedly been drinking fell from the roof of the house. Although they recovered after hospitalizations, both were seriously injured. On two separate occasions in October 2012 alcohol was served to a pair of minors, which led to December 2012 indictments that resulted in a fine and the requirement of 300 hours of community service. The fraternity also agreed to court-issued terms that included alcohol counseling for its members and the establishment of a risk manager position for the house.

In May 2009 member Owen Jennings ’11 penned a personal account of life in the frat for The New York Times titled “Sober in the Animal House.” In it he wrote, “The fraternity is so much more than just a place to drink. I go to the house and we hang out, get dinner, listen to music and go to concerts. We have sports teams, literary contests and community service projects. We send school supplies to Kenya, we work on Special Olympics and AD recently helped fund gay pride week. So there is a lot more going on than just crazy drinking. It’s just that the drinking overshadows everything.”

Last summer AD again found itself in the crosshairs, thanks to a 200-guest costume party with a racially tinged Bloods and Crips gang theme. Faced with intense national criticism, AD’s officers offered an apology: “Our event was not just offensive to a few people who attended the party, but the party was objectively offensive,” read a lengthy statement. “While our actions that night were indefensible, AD is taking every possible measure to rectify our mistake.”

Hanlon visited the house in October and, over pizza, warned its brothers that, for better or worse, Animal House had put them in the spotlight and they needed to be extra careful, according to some familiar with the meeting.

The Crips incident was seen to be in poor taste and cringe-worthy, even for staunch alums. For Declan Lynch ’03, however, it masks a key fact that AD’s membership cares about doing right by the community. In fact, service is a rich tradition at the house, exemplified by the prominent bronze statue of World War I soldiers in AD’s first-floor Great Hall.

“What I remember about the house is that it was filled with very thoughtful and caring people,” says Lynch, who was in charge of setting up volunteer work for AD and joined the Marines after graduation. “The same kids who may have been slugging drinks in the basement were also engaging in leadership around campus.” Still, he knows first-hand how the Animal House stereotype can travel far and wide.

For an event marking the end of a training period, fellow Marines made him dance to “Shout,” the Isley Brothers frat staple featured in the movie, while in a tight-fitting uniform in front of 400 people. “They knew where I was from,” Lynch says.

Throughout its up-and-down history there remain constants of which they are proud, alums say. Chief among them is how high a premium is placed on having great music at its ragers. Indeed, in the 1960s cutting-edge rock bands played while other frats stuck with dance bands, says Bob Anderson ’61, whose AD moniker was “Otter,” a name given by Miller to one of his Animal House characters. Anderson, now a California lawyer and winemaker whose offerings include Otter’s Road Trip Red, recalls that Chuck Berry once agreed to play a gig, though he rolled up in his white two-door ’51 Ford after the party was over.

Decades later, in 1988, Blues Traveler jammed at AD before their music took off. Today electronic dance music thumps, spun by DJs in a Great Hall corner. And cheap beer is plentiful, even if the tap system was removed there and from other houses in 2000 in an attempt to curb drinking. Easy-on-a-budget brands through the years have included Milwaukee’s Best, Schaefer and Keystone. Around the basement’s perimeter continues to run a trough, for quick relief—for men, at least—during beery bashes.

Soccer continues to send droves AD’s way, as it did actor-turned-Internet-mogul Andrew Shue ’89. Rugby players are strongly represented, too.

Since the 1970s the house has also been known for its dogs, which have their own door. Their names have been in rotation, often a Vic or Harry—the names of the soldiers in that bronze WW I statue—or Jake or Rosie, both in residence now.

How much, if any, of this will wind up in the new Animal House musical remains to be seen. Directed by Casey Nicholaw, of  The Book of Mormon, the show will be produced in part by Matty Simmons, who was behind the original movie. “The feeling is it will sell out before it even opens because the movie has had such an afterlife,” says Simmons.

Back on campus, AD continues to be a top draw, with 35 new members last fall, which is among the largest pledge classes of the year, Engelman says. The house continues to be peppered with sports captains, student leaders and high-G.P.A. students, he adds.

Meanwhile, there are signs that famous film bragging rights may be fading a bit, headed perhaps toward irrelevancy, much like the freshman beanie. On a recent afternoon, amid crushed Keystone cans and a post-big-night odor, graffiti could be glimpsed atop the door to AD’s basement: “Is this the Animal House?” The words could be read as curious, maybe, but also ambivalent.

C.J. Hughes, a DAM contributing editor, is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. DAM intern Gavin Huang ’14 provided additional reporting for this story.

Portfolio

Alumni Books
New titles from Dartmouth writers (January/February 2020)
Art of Glass
Ben Wright ’98 is the new director of an uncommon art school.
Does Your Major Matter?

And other musings on a liberal arts education

Putnam Blodgett ’53, Tu’61
An outdoorsman on seeing the forest for the trees

Recent Issues

Jan-Feb 2020

Jan-Feb 2020

Nov-Dec 2019

Nov-Dec 2019

Sept - Oct 2019

Sept - Oct 2019

Jul - Aug 2019

Jul - Aug 2019

May - Jun 2019

May - Jun 2019

Mar - Apr 2019

Mar - Apr 2019