Updated 7/28/08 10:43 a.m.
Thirty years ago today, just as the summer movie season of 1978 was entering its final phase, National Lampoon’s Animal House premiered for the paying public and became a hit on a scale which probably surprised most everyone involved with making it. But by the time I saw it for the first time, on August 4, 1978, at a special invitation-only premiere held for the local cast and crew in Eugene, Oregon at the old National Theater in the downtown district (long since gone), the movie was already a week old. So the Hollywood luminaries that were in attendance were giddy over the degree to which the movie’s good fortunes had already begun to roll. The only major player I remember being there was director John Landis, who addressed the audience, comprised mostly of the movie’s extras, local and university dignitaries, residents of Cottage Grove (where the parade was shot) and others involved directly or peripherally in the movie’s production, before the movie began. Landis’ typical exuberance was amplified on this night as he told the excited audience of the box-office records the movie had already smashed. My friends and I, fellow extras and some production people I had gotten to know whom I hadn’t seen since school finished up for the year that previous June, couldn’t have been more ready to absorb this movie. And then Animal House unspooled for Eugene for the very first time.
I have to say it was a disorienting experience. Having lived around two months under the umbrella of this production during my first semester of college the previous fall, I had plenty of time to think about what might or might not be in the finished film and what it might look like. Many things I imagined I would see I did not, and the things that I did see for the most part did not end up looking or sounding the way they did when I saw them being filmed. (My best friend Bruce and I made a lot of hay during the school year about what sounded like Karen Allen’s lame delivery of the line she uses to distract the police and save Boone during the parade-- “Officer! Officer! They’re looting the Food King!”-- but, miracle of miracles, it sounded just fine on the big screen.) There was a major gap between the movie that was still playing in my head and the one crafted for the world in Eugene and Hollywood, and over the next 30 years the version that everyone has gotten to know and love has crowded out much of my original notions of what Animal House might have ended up being. And that’s okay, because, frankly, even though it was at times a lot of fun (it was also, at times, scary as hell for a green freshman roaming relatively free in the big world for the first time) and the experience of being there was one I wouldn’t trade away for the upgraded report card I might have earned had I not been so distracted that first term, I didn’t hold out much hope that the end product would be very good. The comedy seemed too broad and the general atmosphere too chaotic to my eyes on the set—I couldn’t see how it could possibly all come together into a coherent package. (And I still marvel when I see footage taken on the sets of movies far more complex to engineer than Animal House, everything from Seed of Chucky to Magnolia to Hairspray, and think about the degree of difficulty involved in crafting a movie with aspirations to style and art and realizing a particular vision.) Also, there was the singularly strange feeling of seeing myself in a movie. I knew where to look, of course, and so I was able to spot myself several times with ease, and of course there were times I was expecting to see myself where I was either just out of camera range or—one big moment, especially, which I’ll relate in the next post— where I ended up, as they say, on the cutting room floor. (I would get a huge charge later that summer when Pauline Kael mentioned the movie favorably in the context of a passel of movies that came out that year and I couldn’t help but think, “She doesn’t know it, but Pauline Kael saw me!”)
But overall the whole thing just made me feel discombobulated. (It didn’t help that, as a guest of Universal, I accepted an invitation extended to everyone to stay at the National afterward and see the studio’s other big summer release, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, gratis. Talk about discombobulated.) I wouldn’t begin to get a real charge out seeing the movie in the real world until the Labor Day Weekend, when the Friday newspaper trumpeted a full-page ad which I still have in a trunk in my garage somewhere that was packed to the margins with blurbs from the rave reviews the movie was getting. And when my parents took me back to Eugene for my sophomore year in the fall they both wanted to see it. In fact, it was the first movie I am aware of that my dad sat through, screaming with laughter, twice in one night. And it wouldn’t be the last time he’d see it in a theater either, a fact I find remarkable—you would too if you knew my dad. Of course when I came back to school that fall, suddenly being able to say you were in Animal House was something that meant something to the rest of campus. Back in the fall of 1977, people just offered odd looks to the kids with the out-of-date haircuts roaming around classes. But now everybody wanted to talk about the movie, and see it multiple times too (sometimes dressed in togas even), and if you could say you were in it, well...
There are a couple of bits of celebration left to come in this Double Secret Probation Month celebration of the 30th anniversary of Animal House. I have a couple of stories left to tell, I’m still hoping for last-minute responses to interview requests which have not as yet materialized, and there is that special project I’ve occasionally hinted at which, if all goes well, should come together tonight for your enjoyment sometime Wednesday or Thursday. For now, however, I thought it might be fun to share some pictures I took in June 2006 when I was visiting Eugene. Bruce and I took friends Katie and Scott on a tour around campus—Katie and Scott are Corvallis residents who had never seen the University of Oregon, so we seized on the opportunity to show them some of the most recognizable locations that were used in the movie. Here then is the University of Oregon, well-known as the home of Steve Prefontaine and the Olympic Track and Field Trials, but also a movie star of some repute, its greatest role of course being its brilliant portrayal of Faber College in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Time to go back to school…
The Delta House, as seen in National Lampoon's Animal House, was actually a rundown halfway house that was still functioning as such at the time the movie began shooting in the fall of 1977. It was situated along East 11th Avenue just off campus, on a lot located directly in between the houses that were used as the Omega House, on its right (the name of the fraternity that actually lived there escapes me), and the Sigma Nu house on its left, which served multiple functions for the production. The Delta House itself, originally the home of pioneering Eugene citizen A.W. Patterson and at one time a fraternity house itself, was torn down in the '90s and replaced with this office building. This plaque, placed on the street at the front of the lot where the Delta House once stood, commemorates the house's history as well as the movie.
The Sigma Nu house, in addition to being the central hub for the production when filming was taking place on 13th Avenue, had two separate functions as a location. The interior of the house was used in the film as the interior of the Delta House (no actual filming took place inside the Patterson house that served as the familiar Delta House exterior). The exterior of the house served as the exterior of the sorority house of which Babs and Mandy were members-- it was through the windows of this house that John Belushi peeked while on his ladder. Bruce might have further details, but when I was last in Eugene this past February the Sigma Nu house looked as if it had been abandoned and fallen out of use.
I cannot remember the name of the fraternity that lived in the house that would eventually be known as the Omega House, but it still stands pretty much as you see it here.
The building which Dean Wormer called HQ was Johnson Hall, the actual site of the dean's office and other administrative offices on the University of Oregon campus. It was up these steps that Belushi, along with Bruce McGill and Stephen Furst, led Neidermeyer's horse to his final resting place. I tried to get Scott, Katie and Bruce to strike a Belsuhi-esque pose, but they chose this moment to access their modesty.
This campus building, Gerhlinger Hall, served as the exterior and interior location of Emily Dickenson College, where Otter put the moves on Fawn Leibowitz's roommate, Shelly Dubinski. Eeeewwww!
The Erb Memorial Union Fishbowl, a student recreation and cafeteria facility, looks, with only a little modification, pretty much as it did at the time of the movie's famous food fight scene. It was at the window table above (seen from outside) that John Belushi introduced his anthropomorphized acne bomb to the world.
The University of Oregon Library. On this quadrangle stood the statue of Emil Faber (beheaded in a lost sequence from the movie) which bore the logically indisputable legend "Knowledge is Good." In the movie this location is also seen when Katy and Boone walk with Pinto the home of Professor Dave Jennings and discuss Pinto's sex life.
This dormitory, known as Carson Hall, is where I spent my sophomore year and the first term of my junior year as well. (My room is the one furthest to the right on the fourth floor.) Carson Hall is the building (seen at night) featured under the title of the movie as it comes up during the opening credits.
UPDATE 7/28/08 10:43 a.m.: Take this quiz written by Rachel Sauer of the Palm Beach Post, wherein resides my good friend Larry Aydlette, which will tell you which Animal House animal best suits you. Thanks, Larry!