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Column: Memories of the Actual ‘Animal House’

  • The author holds a brick outside the demolished “Animal House” fraternity building in Eugene, Ore. (Courtesy of Paul Keane)



For the Valley News
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Most Upper Valley residents are aware of the connection between Dartmouth College and Animal House, the 1978 John Belushi film about the booze-drenched college fraternity scene: One of the movie’s screenwriters based the antics of the fictional Delta Tau Chi house on his own experiences as a Dartmouth frat boy at the Alpha Delta fraternity.

What many don’t realize is that the college where the movie was filmed is not Dartmouth, but the University of Oregon, in Eugene. It is not entirely an accident that more people know about Dartmouth’s role in the movie than the University of Oregon’s.

According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, a deal made in 1977 between the university and Universal Pictures stipulated that the school would allow filming to take place on campus in return for $20,000 and a commitment that the university not be named in the film.

I am more knowledgeable about these facts than the average person in part because I happened to have attended the farewell party for the actual “Animal House” just before it was demolished to make way for a dentist’s office.

It was 1985, and I was in Eugene for an extended stay to deal with a family situation. The room I was renting was just off campus, one block away from the buildings used in the movie — the dumpy Animal House building and two elegant fraternity houses.

The two nicer buildings were still being used as fraternities, but the rundown structure between them was by then a rooming house that had just been sold and was about to be torn down.

Back then I was unburdened by knowledge of the university’s original wish to be anonymous and I blundered my way straight into the horse’s mouth, so to speak: I tried to get an appointment, as a freelance writer, to interview the University of Oregon president about the movie.

There is a scene in  Animal House  where inebriated frat boys pull a prank on the dean of “Faber College” by putting an actual horse in his office. I wanted to see the office and find out if the scene as filmed was actually in the dean’s office.

I was brushed off to the president’s secretary, who surprisingly received me very graciously and revealed, yes, indeed, an actual horse had been brought into an actual university office. But it wasn’t the dean’s office. It was the president’s! (The same president who signed the $20,000 contract requiring anonymity?)

Perhaps the $140 million that the $3 million film earned in its first year changed the school’s desire for anonymity, because the president’s secretary was quite proud to show me the office and desk.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask if the horse was housebroken (or office-broken, as the case may be) but I gathered from the interview that there had been no “accidents” during the filming.

Next was the scene in the university cafeteria where Belushi, as Bluto Blutarsky, with a mouthful of mashed potatoes, claps his hands against his cheeks creating a fire-hose effect with the expelled food. (This scene might be second only to the pea-soup scene in The Exorcist as the most memorable film segment involving a mouth jettisoning its contents.)

The president’s secretary kindly arranged for me to interview the food service director in that cafeteria and yes, indeed it is true, the mashed potato scene took place in a real University of Oregon cafeteria, not a movie set.

But getting a sense of the Animal House, the building itself, presented more of a problem: How would I, a freelance writer, get to “experience” the personality of Animal House, which was no longer a frat house and faced imminent demolition?

The building was slightly less shabby than the one featured in the movie, but it was still a dump. I walked through it, but it had zero personality. It was just an old house with a bunch of rooms rented to “grunge”-era college kids.

I had given up on experiencing anything connected to the Animal House of the movie when I saw a poster advertising a concert by the punk rock band Poison Idea in the building’s basement as a kind of pre-demolition farewell.

I had to pay an admission fee, but it turned out to be exactly the kind of decadent experience in which Bluto Blutarsky and his drunken Delta Tau Chi brothers would have felt at home.

Poison Idea’s “idea” of performance wasn’t spitting out mashed potatoes, but it was close.

Very close.

The band had set up a small wooden stage on top of the basement’s earthen floor. Adding to the atmosphere were stone cellar walls and the furnace and plumbing odors of an old house. The band’s music, amplified by huge speakers, was so loud in the tiny space crammed with sweaty dancers that sign language was the only means of communication. Poison Idea’s vocalist screamed out lyrics while swigging beer and then spitting the beer onto his fellow musicians — just as Bluto would have done.

If that didn’t amuse the audience, he would come to the edge of the stage, swig down a mouthful and spit the beer out across the entire audience, including me.

It wasn’t mashed potatoes, but like Bluto, it was the contents of a drunk’s mouth, and the audience ate (or drank) it up.

So ended my experience and memories of Animal House.

Thirty-two years later, I still have a photograph of my younger self standing outside Bluto Blutarsky’s demolished fraternity building with a chimney brick in my raised hand next to a sign that reads “Animal House Bricks, $1.”

Back then, I thought the movie was hilarious. Animal House, according to  Oregon Encyclopedia, is 36th on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest film comedies of all time.

Greatest?

Last year, two students in American fraternities died when their “brothers” and others failed to get them medical attention after they had consumed too much alcohol. Meanwhile, Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta fraternity was derecognized by the college in 2015 and banned from campus after an incident in which it admitted to branding members. The antics of booze-addled frat boys don’t seem so funny these days.

Maybe the University of Oregon knew what it was doing when it insisted on anonymity.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.

Correction

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Alpha Delta fraternity.