A Memorable Week of Cottage Pranks

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The Cottage - Davenport College YaleBefore there was The Purge (2013). Before there was The Hunger Games (2008). Before there was Rollerball (1975). Heck, even before there was the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” (1967), upon which writer-director James DeManaco based his movie The Purge.

Before all these fictional dystopian fantasies, there was real-life Bladderball.

Bladderball was (notice the past tense) a massive (thousands of participants) game played at Yale from 1954 to 1982. It involved a large (6-foot diameter) leather “exercise” ball and a field varying in size from several city blocks to several football fields.

The game itself began as an athletic parody between four student organizations: WYBC (Yale’s radio station); the Yale Daily News; the Yale Banner (publishers of the annual yearbook); and, the humor publication The Yale Record. It had always existed on that thin line between “asking for permission” and “you’re in trouble now.”

Bladderball has been described as “a spirited and sometimes violent contest with a 30-year history of mayhem and mischief,” [New York Times, November 14, 1981] a “deranged, inchoate release of energy and its attendant pranks,” [Harvard Crimson, November 21, 1975] and “faster than ice hockey, more violent than rugby, and more intricate than ballet.” [Yale Daily News, Summer 1982]

Perhaps the starkest assessment of the event came from The Boston Globe, which in 1977 said “Bladderball has no rules, no scoring system, and – although impromptu teams regularly claim “victory” – no point.” Yale itself admitted “with a curious mixture of pride and apology,” that bladderball was “an infamous Yale aberration.” [Hartford Courant, October 23, 1979]

Nonetheless, students viewed it as a welcome release from intense study.

Like the infamous “Festival” in Star Trek’s “The Return of the Archons,” once the bladderball was released from Phelps Gate, “the masses swarm; suddenly, ordinary undergraduates – people you sit next to every day in class – become brute savages.” [Yale Daily News, Summer 1982] From its beginning, reminiscent of Rollerball, the rules stated “Injuries will not be cause for cessation of activities; There will be unlimited substitution.” [Yale Daily News, October 26, 1954] Still it was considered more of just a silly game, and it was this silliness that was adopted by other schools. For example, in 1978 the University of Texas at Arlington’s yearbook sponsored “Monty Python Day” which included “a silly walk contest, the twit Olympics and a bladderball push. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 16, 1978]

Over time, Yale’s Bladderball Game evolved from a pleasant diversion into a riotous mob where students “often spilled off campus and onto the streets of New Haven, shocking residents and infuriating officials.” [New York Times, November 14, 1981] Contrast the first game (1954), where the Yale Daily News reported tongue-in-cheek the “only casualty of the game” was “assaulted with a boomerang by a Record official”) to the last game (1982), where the New York Times reported “the contest was called off 20 minutes after it began when three injured students had to be carried off the field in stretchers.”

But this story isn’t about bladderball (although the “infamous Yale aberration” does play a supporting role), this is about a Cottage prank.

Yes, you read that correctly. Not merely a “college” prank, but, specifically, a “Cottage” prank.

You see, senior year I, together with four other classmates, had the honor to have won the privilege to spend our final year in a room called “The Cottage.” Separate from all the other dormitory entryways, it actually looked like a cottage above the spacious green courtyard.

Well, make that a two-story cottage. We lived in the upper story (and had direct entry to it from a raised terrace in the back. The bottom story – the Cottage “basement” – was an open conference room used for seminars hosted by Davenport, our residential college (because “dormitory” was too plebeian for Yale).

Knowing this would be our last hurrah, we spent a lot of time and resources coming up with ideas to entertain our classmates with “Breads and Circuses” (or, the modern lingua, “parties and games”). Somewhere in between resided “pranks.”

You can’t have college without college pranks, and senior year meant you had to have memorable pranks. The week of Halloween that year produce two such shenanigans. And they intersect in the quiet offices of the Yale Purchasing Department where I held my bursar job.

We needed a weather balloon and I didn’t know how to purchase one. I figured the Yale purchasing agent did, and I was right.

“I got bad news for you, Chris,” he told me after hanging up the phone. “The vendor can’t get you a weather balloon. He can, however, get you six weather balloons. That’s the minimum order.”

Why did I need one (make that six) weather balloons? Well, what would become the penultimate Bladderball Game was scheduled for the day before Halloween. We intended to (and eventually did) release the weather balloons as “faux bladderballs.” We wanted to “announce” ourselves to the broader campus and the university-wide event was the perfect venue. It was a brilliant stunt, always on the cusp of failure, it involved the police (in a good way) but, in the end, it remains one of those things you can remember fondly at reunions.

Allow me to interject. At that time, Yale’s Blue Book stated its official policy promoting free speech over all else. You can say or do anything you want with no repercussions. In fact, woe be those who tried to prevent you from saying what you wanted to say, for the full weight of the Yale administration would fall upon ye.

This is why, unlike past Bladderball pranksters who got expelled, we made sure our weather balloon deed stayed within the Blue Book rule. There was only one prohibition on expressive acts – you could not disrupt an ongoing class. Remember this last point.

Back to our story. When the Yale purchasing agent hung up the phone a second time after making the offer, he looked up at me and, smiling, asked me, “Is there anything else you need, Chris?”

I paused only for a moment.

“Yes,” I said tentatively yet hopefully, “Can you get me a human skeleton? A real one” I knew this came out of left field and was a long shot, but I figured what the heck. I was on a roll.

“A skeleton?” he said without skipping a beat. “Is it OK if it doesn’t have a head?”

“Are you serious?” That’s all I could come back with.

Why did I need a skeleton?

Let’s return to The Cottage basement. That fall, the College Dean (Jane Jervis) was teaching a seminar she had received national recognition for (when she initially taught it at RPI). It was a History of Science course titled “The History of Witchcraft.”

That just begged for a prank timed with Halloween. So, what did the Cottage boys come up with?

It was three days before Halloween and two days before the planned Bladderball escapade. Twilight began to fade that Wednesday evening in late October. As the blue escaped from the clear skies, so did the heat of the day. A chill crept into the air, and not only because Halloween loomed ahead.

Dean Jervis assembled her class as the darkness fell. The fact her seminar occurred in the evening below the Cottage didn’t bother her. After all, several Cottage members took the course, so that was fewer that could make trouble above her table of learning.

Unbeknownst to the jovial Dean, however, a crowd begins to gather outside the windows of her room. Sitting down as if to watch a drive-in movie, students from every class were told to expect “something” that night.

Directly in front of them lays Dean Jervis’ seminar room. Above that sits the Cottage.

Inside the seminar room, a Cottage embed complains about the room being too hot. He opens the window behind him.

As dusk darkens the environs, the students in the courtyard could see vaguely illuminated bodies within the Cottage place what appeared to be giant dark boxes into the open windows.

For a moment, all is silent.

Then, and suddenly, the stark eerie chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor blast from what are now clearly black speakers. The effect doubles as the music reverberates off the brick walls of the dining hall, leaving the audience immersed in an atmosphere of sound most suitable for what is about to happen.

In case you don’t remember, Toccata and Fugue in D minor begins with strikingly eerie chords piped from the kind of organ that evokes images of Phantom of the Opera. It’s been used in any number of movies (Disney fans will remember it from Fantasia), including Rollerball. At the time, it was associated with the popular 1972 movie Tales from the Crypt.

The lights in the Cottage go out and the spectators can hear the faint rustling of… what was that? Bones? Something is coming out of the Cottage window above the open seminar room window. Some in the crowd recognize the emerging figure. They begin to laugh.

Inside the room, the open window allows the noise to seep into the room. It doesn’t disturb the class. It merely represents the risk of holding a class next to a residential college courtyard.

But then there’s a tapping on the window, as if someone is hitting it with a large twig. But nobody’s there?

A few facing the window discover what it really is, as they see a skeletal foot lower down to the open window.

By the time the rest of the class sees it, the rib case is clearly visible. They giggle nervously, for Dean Jervis has yet to acknowledge the prank.

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