The Show Goes On
A century ago, students formed a drama society dedicated to the proposition that Big Game needed some Broadway. Ram's Head is still putting its best Gaieties forward.
Richard Fowler, '52, MA '56
ALWAYS FRESH FACES: The tech crew of 1949 surrounds the seated couple Kay Marshall and tech director William Kibby, who met working backstage and married in 1952.
By Karen Springen
Imagine if Leland Stanford Jr. had not died of typhoid—and, as a result, his parents had not founded Stanford University. Gasp! The premise behind the 2011 Gaieties on November 16-18 is that Cal students want to keep the teenage boy alive, but Stanford students know they must kill him off. Sticking loosely to this plot, student actors will "poke a little fun at ourselves and a lot on Cal," says director Brendon Martin, '13.
Now imagine if a group of seven students and three faculty members hadn't gotten together in 1911 in a meeting room that contained the taxidermied head of a sheep. Stanford's most enduring campus drama group, Ram's Head Theatrical Society, might not now be celebrating its 100th anniversary and the countless careers, friendships, original compositions and memories of Farm spirit it has spawned.
Since that first 1911 production, Gaieties has been Stanford's ultimate pep rally—in musical comedy form. Written and performed entirely by students, the show is the fall offering of the Ram's Head, timed to Big Game. A show of original one-act plays is produced in each winter quarter, and a musical—this year, it will be City of Angels—is the spring offering. Current leaders of Ram's Head also spearheaded a centennial celebration for the group at Reunion Homecoming in October.
Gaieties is always, consciously and unconsciously, symbolic of its era. "Every year is different from the others and represents that time at Stanford and that time as a college student," says Liz Stark, '12, executive producer of Ram's Head.
The earliest years were shows of vaudeville sketches and music and a male chorus line that delighted audiences with "the surprising grace of some of our 'roughs' in skirts," as a Stanford Quad writer noted in 1914. In the late '20s and the '30s, the shows grew more sophisticated—although there was still plenty of vaudeville and risqué humor. They stretched to as long as four hours because so many campus groups competed for best-skit prizes offered by Ram's Head.
In 1943, Gaieties had no Big Game to accompany, but soldiers training on campus joined student performers so the show could go on. ("Mister Soldier," a song submitted in that era, asks, "Oh, you who carry arms, won't your arms carry me?") Postwar, the productions became increasingly professional; a version of the 1958 Gaieties went on tour to Los Angeles—and was promoted on four television shows.
Interest in frothy musicals waned in the years of Sixties political activism. (Shows spoofed campus radicals as diligently as any other student stereotypes. Ron Maysenhalder, '69, remembers a Gaieties song about student interest in the communists of Russia and China that insisted Cardinal was the only true Red.) In 1971, Ram's Head, suffering both from this lack of interest and financial reversals, disbanded.
The years in exile were short. In 1976 students revived the Ram's Head name and production legacy.
Since the late '70s, the show has focused more on a "Beat Cal" narrative, transgressions against tastefulness and the inculcation of Stanford traditions. "The basic plotline in the modern era is that Cal has some evil plan to destroy Stanford, and a group of smart young Stanford students thwarts the evil Callies in some way," says Nicole Schuetz, '06, MBA '13, who directed the show her senior year. In her sophomore year, the Callies were going to travel back in time to cure Leland Stanford Jr., an effeminate boy in a sailor outfit who sang a soft-shoe number called "I'm Alive."
Sound like this year's show? Gaieties writers freely recycle ideas so long as they avoid plots that are too similar within a four-year span.
"Gaieties is really nothing more than one two-hour inside joke," says Vince Foecke, '81, MS '82, who worked on the shows as a "backstage guy" from 1977 to 1995. Without Gaieties how could freshmen thoroughly understand the Cal rivalry or dorm traditions? Typical: All the years writers worked the line "Branner sucks" into the Gaieties script.
Gaieties casts are known for their camaraderie, the perhaps inevitable byproduct of mounting any show. Things aren't always the crucible described in the 1954 report by technical director Albert L. Gibson, '55, but the details in his seven-page account of difficulties faced and barely surmounted are revealing.
—"There is really only one main cause of difficulty in producing a 'Gaieties,' the fact that the material and its running order are never set until the very last moment, and this means up to and including the final performance."
—"[A]ny T.D. must be prepared and able" to "spend twelve hours a day in the shop for the last two weeks."
—Props was "a thankless job" that required the acquisition of "two dummies: one human and one bloodhound, a jukebox with the record playing mechanism removed, but the lighting mechanism intact, a Christmas tree (silver), which proved rather difficult to find in the middle of November on about a week's notice, a window shade ten feet long, a telescope six feet long" and more.
—Costumes were slow to be built; the sound crew could never scrounge enough mics; the preset lighting had deficiencies that might have been "apparent to even the most untutored audience member," the orchestra played a volume that overwhelmed diction-impaired actors; ASSU purchasing procedures were maddening.
His report ended: "It was fun!"
Wally White, '51, remembers, "I loved working with other people." Initially crushed when he was not cast in the show his freshman year, he started submitting songs as a sophomore. Conductor Kirke Mechem, '51, encouraged White as he went on to write a dozen or so Gaieties songs, including "Big Red Machine"—a finale that became a football-game staple for a number of years. White became a New Yorker writer; Mechem is a San Francisco composer known for choral works and the opera Tartuffe.
Jason Richman, '09, participated in Gaieties all four years he was on campus and now works as an assistant at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles. Hired in January 2006 as the producer for that year's From Cal With Love, Richman loved the entire process, including the three-hour-a-day rehearsals all fall quarter. "It was my life for 11 months," he says. "It's this baby that you birth."
And rather as it goes with every parent's own baby, every generation thinks its Gaieties is the funniest. "The best show is always the show that you're in," says Marjorie Schuetz, '10.
Karen Springen, '83, writes the Cardinal Conversations blog at stanfordalumni.org/blogs. She played clarinet in the orchestras for the 1980 Gaieties and two spring musicals.
- You must log in to comment.
To let Stanford and Berkeley students rework the past, you could start with superluminal neutrinos recently announced as traveling between Cern, Geneva and Gran Sasso, Italy. If true, time travel would be possible. You could involve some physics students or Lenny Susskind, a professor in Physics who played in Brian Greene's PBS recent production. Sounds like fun. - Inga Karliner, Ph.D. 1974 Physics
Posted by Dr. Inga Karliner on Nov 15, 2011 1:00 PM
The plot of this year's Gaieties is remarkably similar to the 2003 Gaieties, in which Cal sent back Dr. Ted Kazinsky to give Leland Stanford, Jr. penicillin, and Stanford sends back the Terminator to finish the job. All will recall the hilarious tu-tu clad Leland Jr. singing with his ambiguously homoerotic friends in Italy, singing "I'm Alive...."
Posted by Mr. Michael F. Albanese on Nov 15, 2011 4:36 PM
Thanks for bringing back great memories! I worked backstage on Gaieties all four years at Stanford, '89 - '92, and never had a harder time getting a show out or more fun doing it. Sorry I missed the reunion, guys.
Posted by Ms. Erica Lynn Moon on Nov 15, 2011 8:02 PM
During my time at Stanford, '62-'66, I was in all three types of Rams Head productions: Gaieties, winter one-acts and spring musical. I loved it! It was so much fun.
During the Fall Quarter of my freshman year, 1962, Gaieties featured the involvement of Jane Stanford up in heaven, who tries to blackmail God into keeping "her" university on the straight and narrow - with no success, as the university winds up with free love in coed dorms (shades of what came to pass!) and beer running in all the taps.
My favorite line was when Jane complained about the restored inscription on the front of the church, which she referred to as having been built "in honor of our sons: MINE... and yours."
To which, God replies, "Well, I couldn't MAKE them put it back!"
I have gone on to write several original, full-length musicals for Bay Area Regional Mensa's spring Wine Country Gathering (Best Little Whorehouse in Mensa, From Mensa With Love and Turn of the Shrew), all much in the spirit of Gaieties. I later wrote high-tech columns for the Sacramento Bee and Prosper, a business magazine; have written several screenplays, and have two published novels available on Amazon (Nefertiti, Immortal Queen; and The Lost Queen - Ankhsenamun, Widow of King Tutankhamun).
I hadn't previously heard that Rams Head had been disbanded in '71, but I was cheered to hear that it was re-established before too long.
Long may it live - and let the Gaieties begin!
Posted by Mrs. Cheryl Fluty Leff on Dec 11, 2011 9:27 PM
The Streak that Nearly Snapped
Seeing at the Speed of Sound
Let Me Introduce Myself
The Effort Effect
Data is from the past two weeks.