A Tribute to Animal House 40 Years in the Making

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The year was 1978. For some, it was to be remembered as “Peak Disco.” For others, (like me), it represented the beginning of the end for Disco. We kind of hoped the whole fad would blow over, but then that Beatles-wannabe group – the Bee Gees – went and made disco go mainstream with their soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever. For many fans, this was the low point of rock and roll. Thankfully, by the time Paul McCartney & Wings succumbed to Disco Fever when the band released “Goodnight Tonight” in 1979, the genre was already past its prime.

Music doctors officially called Disco on the night of July 12, 1979, when the Chicago White Sox hosted a Disco Demolition Night. The promotion featured an explosion of Disco records in between games of the twi-night doubleheader. Enthusiasm for the death of Disco turned out to be far greater than anticipated. The fans rushed the field following the fiery demise of those discs. The resulting damage to the playing surface caused the White Sox to forfeit the second game.

In the summer of 1978, that fiasco was still a year away. That summer, a different culture-defining event occurred. On July 28, 1978, National Lampoon released Animal House.

Fresh off his success with Kentucky Fried Movie the year before, John Landis once again took the director’s chair. Unlike that earlier film, which featured many cameos, Landis purposely built Animal House from a foundation of virtually unknown young actors. This made headliner John Belushi’s rising star shine even brighter.

But you’ve no doubt read the history of the movie elsewhere. This is the story of the history of the event, as told by one of the front-line soldiers.

I graduated from Gates-Chili High School (when they still used the hyphen). Despite the volume of students attending that school, I would hardly call my perspective “worldly.” In fact, I’m pretty sure my parents – my father especially – thought I had lived a too sheltered life.

“Sheltered” is a bit misleading. More like “monastic.” My parents didn’t try to protect me from the outside world. I chose to reject that world. I enjoyed my contrarian lifestyle then (as I still enjoy it today).

High school graduation, however, generally implies you’re now an adult. With my 18th birthday coming a few weeks later, I actually did become an adult. And I was going away to college. Far away. Too far for one of those “Hey mom, can I come home this weekend, and, oh, can I bring my dirty clothes?”

Nope. I was hours away by car. Still further by train. And you can forget the plane. I had no money.

Today when a child goes to college, the college usually provides a week of “freshman orientation” before the upperclassmen return. In 1978, we didn’t have freshman orientation. We had Animal House.

Although the film received mixed reviews, its advertising campaign successfully targeted its intended market – people like me. The high school classmates I hung out with couldn’t wait to see the movie. Not only would it show us what college was really like, but I would have just turned 18, which meant we could all freely enter establishments that served adult beverages. Now that I think about it, I guess I was the youngest in the crowd.

Here’s what I remember about the movie: Nothing. Except I enjoyed it. Shocking for its time, I wasn’t shocked. I can’t explain why not. It certainly wasn’t because I was “worldly” (but we already covered that). Maybe, deep down, when I saw those Delta House boys, I saw my father and his friends. Don’t get me wrong. The last thing my father and his friends would want me to call them was “college boys.” Then again, I don’t think the members of Delta House would take too kindly to that moniker, either.

It was a different world then. A world before disco. Heck, it was a world before The Beatles. But it was definitely after the world of greasers, fast cars, and raw rock and roll (that was the era my father and his friends belonged to). Animal House, however, wasn’t too far removed from that time. It seemed as if Delta House wanted to pay one last homage to that era.

You can be sure Bluto, Otter, Boon and the rest of the Delta House gang took one look at Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler in The Wild One and found their role model. They didn’t take to James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, but found Corey Allen’s tragic Buzz Gunderson’s character more honorable.

Let me stop right there. Here I am, some four decades after the event, waxing philosophical. I’m explaining my feelings from the benefit of both hindsight and vastly more experience that I had back then (am I now worthy of “worldly”?). Allow me to return to my naïve freshly-minted-high-school-graduate soon-to-be-college-freshman self.

At that point, I knew nothing. I didn’t know if Animal House was totally make believe or an accurate rendering of college life. Certainly, my high school classmates didn’t either. It turns out, neither did my fellow first-year college classmates.

I remember that first week of college. We honestly thought every weekend featured a toga party. At one point, we did see a toga-clad student walking through the quad late in the night. We wondered where the party was. We also wondered why we weren’t invited. We assumed it was because we were freshman. “Perhaps,” we thought (but not out loud), “when we were sophomores…”

While we spent four years guided by the philosophy of “WWBD” (“What Would Bluto Do?”), those toga parties never materialized. I donned a variety of costumes evoking a variety of TV and movie characters, but never once did I wear a toga.

That is, until Betsy and I were invited to a Halloween party. We owned no costumes (that wardrobe remained years away, necessitated by my taking the role of Cubmaster for Pack 105). We did have white sheets. Since I thought a ghost too typical, I decided to go as Caesar. Betsy wore a Doug Flutie jersey. It was his first season with the Buffalo Bills.

The year was 1998. Twenty years after the premiere of Animal House.

Add another twenty years and the film is no less inspirational.

Disco? That’s another story altogether.

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