BY SOPHIE CRAIG
12 OCTOBER 2021
As its cast members like to remind us, The Varsity Show is Columbia’s oldest performing arts tradition. How this tradition actually started is no longer a mystery. The first Varsity Show – and every show after that for the next decade – was not a theater staple, but rather the bells and whistles of a Columbia Athletics Union fundraising campaign. As Columbia prepares for Homecoming weekend, let’s take a look back at the theatrical history of the Lions.
Best known for its comedic take on campus life and endlessly acclaimed alumni, featuring both Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Varsity Show has long abandoned its athletic roots. Over the past two years, with the athleticism on hiatus and the satirical skills of the lyricists directed at Columbia’s COVID-19 response, our final clue to this football-filled history is in the name of the show itself. .
First performed at the Manhattan Athletic Club Theater, the stars of its early performances were actually athletes. “Pony ballets” – an extravagant, once-beloved tradition and arguably the Varsity Show’s first claim to fame – featured “the biggest, beefiest men in the company “drag dancing.
Separate “trials” were held to recruit footballers for these scintillating choir lines, for which three years of “service” earned participants a silver crown. By 1924, these trials turned out to be so popular that the entire ballet consisted of football players, which sparked infrastructure issues regarding the venue and the event’s eventual cancellation of the show.
“It was decided at the last minute that a pony ballet weighing an average of one hundred and ninety-five pounds per man might prove to be too much for the stage in the Waldorf Grand Ballroom,” wrote a reporter from Spectator.
The show in question – a cover of the ever-popular “Half Moon Inn,” which premiered in 1923 and even ventured beyond the gates of Columbia for a regional tour – also contained the familiar tune of “Roar,” Lion, Roar, ”which will soon be adopted as the soccer team’s fight song.
Pony ballets defined the era of Varsity Show history where women were prohibited from joining the cast of musical satire. But the students were not completely absent: they were the dance teachers of the footballers and, sometimes, crowned “Varsity Queen”.
Named for its role as college sports’ fiscal cheerleader, the Varsity Show quickly grew into a show in its own right, so much so that it began to steal contestants from football games. An editor of Spectator tried to explain this phenomenon in a column from February 1929, under the title “Varsity Show vs. Football”.
“Our attention was drawn not so long ago to a curious situation, which may or may not be important in measuring [sic] Columbia Campus temperament, “the editor wrote.” It is that the candidates for the Varsity Show outnumber those for the Varsity football team, excluding in each case the candidates for the Pony Ballet. and the Junior Varsity team. “
So began the popularity contest between the Varsity Show and the varsity football team, two entertainment events located at opposite ends of campus life. One of the few theatrically inclined footballers, Brian Dennehy, CC ’60 – a two-time Tony Award-winning college football captain who died last year – once described the unspoken divide between comedians and comedians. athletes on campus.
“Back then, players had an artistic definition of themselves that didn’t allow a football player to be active,” Dennehy said. “I remember going there several times and clearly feeling unwelcome.”
Pony ballets disappeared by the middle of the century due to financial constraints or perhaps the refusal to downsize a “circus-type show” staged in art deco ballrooms and reviewed by major newspapers New Yorker. In 1958, a disappointed Spectator writer, Michael Shute, expressed his dissent in a much sought after and extremely alliterative article, “Spectacular Varsity Shows Have Sung Their Swan Song”.
“For better or for worse, pony ballet has been phased out and the Varsity Show is no longer seen as the premier entertainment that was once recognized in the New York press,” Shute wrote.
Fifty years after the end of the “varsity” crossovers, the Varsity Show has decided to pay homage to its early years of burlesque football through the IAL Diamond Award. Named after “The Apartment” screenwriter, who began a long collaboration with Billy Wilder after writing four consecutive Varsity Shows, this award is presented annually to an accomplished alumnus. However, only the 2004 winner, acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally, CC ’60, returned home with a “gold painted Ken doll dressed in a trail and mounted on a stand like an Oscar statuette”.
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