Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Original Animal House

"For He's a Kappa Sig ... !"

Consider the following – despite what’s described on the “Animal House” website about Chris Miller and his days at Dartmouth. Despite what Miller - one of the film’s writers - “remembers” about his college days, and unrelated stuff he describes and later publishes in his book, “The Real Animal House (2006),” there’s a genuine influence for “Animal House” that must finally be acknowledged. What I’m saying is, during the years I was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Missouri, a full 10 years before the movie came out (in 1978), we experienced the actual events depicted in “Animal House,” the movie, co-written by Miller and Harold Ramis – who, according to at least one brother who saw him there - actually saw this stuff take place at Mizzou.

Ramis, a co-writer (and later very successful director), graduated Washington University, St. Louis, in 1966. He was a ZBT and had many friends at the very active ZBT house over at Missouri University, in Columbia, less than 2 hours away. (The website claims he based some of the pranks in the movie on his experiences at Wash U; there’s no way this is possible, not really. WU was a suburban St. Louis, white bread school for serious students). As a Kappa Sigma at Mizzou, with many brothers from St. Louis, we had a lot of friends who were Zeebs (and Sammies, the other primary Jewish fraternity), as we used to call them, and would actually party with them on occasion. Great partiers, too, just like us.

I graduated Mizzou in 1968; I was told years later that Ramis would visit the Kappa Sig house back then, and our weekend parties, when he would come to Columbia. And while I can’t personally attest to this, he must have. Here is what he saw, or would have seen – and these are all true, way-back-then events that I can attest to, because I was there, and saw all of them:

Toga Party. 15 years before the movie came out. We held ours at the Mizzou Motel the week before school started every year, where we crammed 25-some actives, and various disposable dates into a single room, all wrapped up in various sheets. Togas. Our “toga/toga/toga” chant traditionally ended with most of the togas on the floor. A couple of honorary pledges were always invited to these Toga Parties, held the weekend before school started. This is how I was introduced to the real Kappa Sig fraternity as a pledge: knock on the Mizzou Motel door, it opens, we walk in. First thing I see, a brother is screwing his date on the only bed in the room (under their togas). Round the corner into the kitchen, and there’s another brother, stirring his drink with his Johnson. Seriously).

“My man Otis.” Ours was Winston Rose (and the Aftones), a black R&B band who played many weekends at a black club in the middle of downtown Columbia, below street level. Jim’s Rib Station. It was actually laid out just like the club in the movie, bar on the right, bandstand on the left, dance floor crammed in the middle, and populated by many large, downtown dudes. And every so often a couple of us white brothers would descend the stairs down into what was then a very alien world. Winston actually stopped in the middle of a song one time, just like in the movie, but only because he recognized me from the last time I sat in with the band. The first night I was ever there was my freshman year, as a dorm rat (I pledged the summer before my sophomore year). We went in there and ordered champagne cocktails or some stuff and started interactin’ with the bro’s, not the brothers, the bro’s. And pretty soon here come’s Jim his ownself, and suggests we leave, now, with emphasis on NOW, and then escorts us all the way down the street to our car, just in case. This night, we took our dates out with us.

D Day’s motorcycle up the stairs. Terry Ranahan, who now practices law in California, wheeled his Ducati bike all the way up the front stairs into the frat house one night, just like D Day did. I was there, I saw it. Terry was chasing our housedog, Heidi, around the backyard; she was a St. Bernard, and she was terrified. She runs into the downstairs dining room to get way – and Ranahan follows her in. The look of absolute terror and surprise on her face was unforgettable. Then he rams his bike up the front stairs and all the way to the presidential suite - where I’m actually studying (I was GM, illegally, nine months after being activated). I dutifully threaten him with a fine, and he guides his Ducati down the back stairs, jumps it off the back steps between two parked cars, and lands it in the gravel parking lot, where he does a couple of doughnuts, spraying gravel around on everyone's cars.

Years later they rip up the old carpeting off the front stairs to replace it, and Terry's tire marks are still there! This is a true story; you cannot make this shit up.

Mazola parties. A major fantasy. But we talked about it all the time: the brothers, a bunch of fun-loving dates, a big plastic sheet spread out on the chapter room floor, and multiple bottles of Mazola Oil. Get naked. Pour! And mix it up. Repeat. Didn’t actually happen in my frat lifetime. But we all dreamed about it. And I was reminded of it in “Animal House” when Otter is shopping with Dean Wormer’s wife in the super market, and the first thing he reaches for … is Mazola Oil! A great tribute.

Pissing off the porch. The Kappa Sig annex was a dump of a rented house outside Columbia; several of the senior brothers rented it for … study hall. It was fronted by a railed porch. It was a zoo, especially on weekends. We honored the tradition of those who came before us by regularly pissing off this heralded platform – just like Belushi’s doing in the movie’s opening scene.

It was also at this annex that Brother Charles (Hoot) Gibson rigged a hole in the bathroom window from out on the porch, at … knee level. Shameless, and you had to stand guard when your own date was in there, if you cared. Amazing shots. At least we didn’t have to climb a ladder, like Bluto did at the Tri Delt house.

Food fights. The real deal. Once a year, minimum, in our dining room. And who cared? Pledges had to clean in up. And we could hose off upstairs, in the showers. Once the housemother even got nailed.

Dickenson College. In “Animal House” it’s an all-girls school near Faber. In Columbia, Missouri, it’s Stephens College, a quasi-notorious all-girls school attended by privileged young women from around the country. We called them Stephens’s dollies, and they were. The Kappa Sigs, whose brothers included numerous football varsity jocks, miscellaneous face men and all around dweebs and Blutos, would actually cruise Stephens Friday afternoons for dates, pile them into their cars and take them out to the Kappa Sig annex house, out on West Broadway, and … rock.

Your date’s dead. A classic at the Kappa Sig house. One example: one of the brothers (Gary Hilmer, the Lip) was worried about a blind date he was set up with at Stephens College, one of two all-girls schools in Columbia(!), so he sends over a fellow brother to check her out first, with the instructions to tell her he’s just been in a tragic car wreck if she shows up ugly. She did, and he did. Just like Otter did at Dickinson College – except they reversed the gag in the movie.

Spook trains. As rush chairman, I myself followed a long fraternity tradition by ushering undesireable rushees into a back room, all together, where one of our brothers would engage them in the theory of the slide rule or something. Another time I showed them a room upstairs, where we had a pledge lying face down on the top bunk. On the springs. Butt naked. Face down. Got it? Didn’t see this last bit in the movie. Funny thing, we used to call these rushees “geeks.” Little did we know that one day they would rule the world.

And without fail we would introduce ourselves to incoming rushees as Neil Downaneater, Michael Hunt or Dick Hertz – this last one a name you’ll see written on the blackboard in the student court scene in the movie.

Our Niedermeyer was, well, I won’t name him. But he was already a Vietnam Vet and back in the house, fully armed and dangerous. Once he shot a harpoon gun through his room wall, just missing a pledge’s head in the next room over. He used to fire his semi-automatic off the back fire escape, into the night air, “just to clear his head,” he would say. Then he re-upped, and would send photos of dead Viet Cong back to the house.

Annual Kappa Sig tradition: Keg party in the chapter room, followed by an exodus over to the Pi Phi sorority house, where we raised our beers, sang our “You didn’t win the skit Pi Beta Phi” song at the top of our lungs, and emptied our bladders on their lawn in their honor, en masse.

Two of my pledge brothers were locals, from Columbia. One of them dated an underaged girl from local Hickman High, a Kewpie – just like Tom Hulce’s Clorette. Ours was the daughter of Dan Devine – Mizzou’s head football coach.

This one wasn’t ours – but it happened at the KA house while we were in school. They had a drop dead gorgeous, 40-something housemother. Drove a Corvette convertible. Beautiful. The KA’s had some hunks, including Mizzou’s back-up quarterback. Yep, he did, just like Otter and the Dean’s wife.

Double Secret Probation. The entire three years I was in the house (I pledged my sophomore year), we were either on social or scholastic probation, or both. We called our Dean “Black Jack” for some reason, and had to visit him often. We were under constant threat of being closed down. My first duty as house president was to deliver a check to the SAE house because one of the brothers had thrown a boulder through their front window, drunk, and then sat down to wait for them to come out. The SAE’s were arguably the quintessential privileged white bread anti-frat Omega Theta’s epitomized in the movie. They were the first guys I ever saw that wore Khakis, with razor pressed creases, and Weejuns and no socks. The “OmegaTheta Pi’s,” and their squeaky-clean president, Marmalard – and his girlfriend Mandy – are carbon copies of the SAE’s at Mizzou back then.

The Delta Tau Chi’s in the movie get thrown off campus for 3 reasons: 1 – don’t remember; 2 – serving illegal alcoholic beverages to freshman pledges (Duh, who didn’t?); 3 – providing illicit “diet pills” to brothers (what they didn’t say was why: they kept you awake when you had to cram; our brother David Glenn had a regular business selling prescription Dexatrim pills to all of us during finals week, year in and year out. Dex. They could seriously fuck you up, and did).

Road trips were a long-standing tradition at Mizzou, even for dormies. Why? It was “illegal” to drink in the house (and definitely illegal in the dorm). So, you got some old guy to buy you a case of beer some Sunday afternoon, and off you went, a carload out to Clinkscales Road. The Delts did a road trip, too, and wrecked Flounder’s car in the process.

“I’m a zit.” Did it, seriously. Did it. Said it. In 1966. Mashed potatoes. And ketchup. Just like Belushi’s Bluto did. And I wasn’t the only one.

You cannot make this stuff up. And I’m not.

True, factual stories, every one of them. And every one of them in “Animal House,” one way or the other. Coincidences? I don’t think so. True greatness like this does not come by accident. It has to be earned. And believe me, there are many, many more stories, some of which will remain untold except at Kappa Sig reunions.

You’ll see on the Animal House website that their first choice for filming location was Missouri University, in Columbia, “College Town USA” (ended up shot at the University of Oregon; MU turned them down). No wonder.

Tim Arnold
Grand Master
Kappa Sigma, 1968
University of Missouri

Wake up Dems!

Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts was a stunner to be sure, a victory that caught Democrats completely by surprise in an election that they unfortunately had taken for granted, assuming it "would be a cakewalk," according to the NY Times (Jan 19, 2010, "The Massachusetts Election"). This Democratic debacle proves once again how astute Republicans are politically, if nothing else, and how naive Democrats are. According to many, Martha Coakley ran a lame campaign, even labeling Curt Schilling, a long-time Boston Red Sox pitcher, a Yankees fan; Brown, on the other hand, branded himself "the people's Senator" and came out of nowhere to turn it upside down in the final two weeks.

The Democrats failure in Massachusetts is especially telling since a) Brown opposes national health care reform even though Massachusetts already has near-universal health coverage thanks to a law passed when Republican Mitt Romney – was governor - legislation Brown supported! And b) Brown opposes same-sex marriage – which, yep, Massachusetts legislation has already legalized (NY Times, Jan 20, 2010, “GOP, in an Upset …).

Of course Republican pundits and the conservative media, are braying about how this is once again a repudiation of everything Democrat and White House, and who can blame them? (Of course the liberal media is bemoaning it, to be sure). And despite the latest CNN Poll of Polls (an average of current Fox News, ABC/Washington Post, CBS and Gallup polls) that show a national 51% approval rating for Obama's first year in office. (Recall President Reagan earned a dismal 49% approval rating after his first year in office, and somehow he went on to be considered by many as one of America's great presidents).

The Republicans, especially after their New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial victories, are labeling Brown's victory once and for all a "game changer." I'm not so sure. Or at least I think there are important factors working here that, if the Democrats can get brave and smart about, can be neutralized, if not even turned to their advantage.

Consider the following: Brown's biggest supporters came primarily from ultra-conservative national entities:

• Our Country Deserves Better, who are heavily aligned with The Tea Party Patriots.
• National Republican Trust PAC, who's mission is to "stop Obama's radical agenda," whose choice to picture Obama in sun glasses(!) on their home page says it all, and whose cause is so blatant that contributions to it are not tax deductible.
• Move America Forward - a "pro-war lobby" not-for-profit whose chairman, Melanie Morgan, suggested in 2006 that Bill Keller, NY Times editor, be "killed in a 'gas chamber' for alleged 'treason' after reporting on the US government's "spying on Americans." (
• The National Rifle Association - one of Washington's most powerful lobbyist forces, who in 2004 led the defeat of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban renewal and who continue to oppose any gun control whatsoever.
• National Organization for Marriage, whose mission is "to protect marriage and the faith communities that support it." Allegedly founded by the Mormons, NOM has been instrumental in rallying against same-sex marriage legislation in California, Maine and ... Massachusetts.
• Sarah Palin – whose support Brown claims by way of “a group that supported Sarah Palin.” (NY Times, Jan 19, 2010).

Republicans are brilliant in their ability to create doubt, fear and alienation in voters, fueled by groups like these, enabled by disinformation from various sources and driven by Rush Limbaugh’s “hope that Obama fails.” And as long as Democrats are unable or unwilling to confront any of it, aggressively, they are going to continue to lose voters, and elections, to the Republicans.

Wake up, Democrats!

Get this: half (49%) of Massachusetts’ voters are Independents! One-third (35%) are Democrats! And a mere 13% identify themselves as Republicans The Dems failed to win over the Independents. Hell, they failed to win over many of their own. A failure of colossal proportions. Especially knowing that Obama’s approval rating in Massachusetts, throughout 2009, was higher than the national average (67% vs. 57%; all according to Gallup, 2009 yr end survey).

These Republican victories in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, especially the latter two, may be no more than localized rejections of incumbents and their “failure” to solve all the economic woes they were saddled with – as unrealistic a proposition as expecting President Obama to have them all solved by now.

But for Democrats to assume this is all it is is to jeopardize each and every upcoming election. And they don’t have to. Despite these recent victories, Republicans remain a party in turmoil, confused about who their leadership is (and what the hell he’s talking about half the time) and what has happened to their more balanced core values of a few years ago.

And worse, many Republicans themselves are actually concerned about the influence of some of these ultra-right organizations, and their influence over what it is they think they stand for. They certainly don’t miss Ralph Reed and his kind. And witness New York State District 23rd’s congressional election last November, when Democrat Bill Owens defeated Doug Hoffman, a member of the Conservative Party, despite – or perhaps because of – the heavy-handed support of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, columnist NY Post Michelle Malkin and others of similar ilk. Even the Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, dropped out and supported her Democratic rival. Claiming Glenn Beck was his mentor surely didn’t help Hoffman.

NY’s 23rd District has historically been one of the most Republican districts in the nation; most of the area, including the largest town, Watertown, has not had a Democratic representative since the 19th century (Wikipedia, NY’s 23rd district special election, November, 2009). And yet a Democrat won.

The significance? It’s no coincidence that many of these same ultra-conservative outsiders descended on NY 23rd in November as they did in Massachusetts, including the National Organization for Marriage, the Citizens of the Republic, the Club for Growth, along with Sarah Palin and company, et al – only this time they supported the third-party candidate because they deemed their Republican candidate “too liberal” for their own extremely conservative selves. Hoffman held many of the same views as Brown, like opposing health care reform, cap and trade emission control and same-sex marriage. But there was no third-party candidate for more independent Republicans to run to in Massachusetts, and importantly, no Democratic uprising – no, it was worse than that: they were asleep at the wheel - so Brown won.

Right or wrong, health care reform, and Obama’s determination to pass it in some form, has completely over shadowed other, perhaps even more important issues, especially to voters. It has become Republicans’ clarion call, and it is touching a hot button despite the fact that more Americans favor it than oppose it (49% vs. 46%, Gallup, Jan 12).

Republicans know how to push the right buttons. I think the special election in Massachusetts is analogous to Bush’s re-election, inflaming many of the same emotions, fueling the same opposition to approaching problems differently, and it attracted the same types of voters who put him in office – especially the second time – because they want back what was the status quo, because he was “someone (they) wanted to have a beer with.” It’s no coincidence that Brown also opposes … cap and trade applications to emission control, citizenship for illegal aliens unless they leave the country first, taxes on big banks and restrictions on big bonuses.

But Republicans should be careful about what they ask for these days. Democrats have the opportunity to drive a wedge between centrist and conservative Republicans, like what happened in NY 23rd (it just happened, Democratic leadership had nothing to do with it) but failed to take hold in Massachusetts. Failed, because the Democrats and their candidate got outsmarted by the more cunning Republicans, and because they failed to draw attention to the kind of outside influence that crippled Republicans in NY 23rd.

Of course to regain the momentum, Democrats have to be willing to confront the overbearing and negative influences these ultra-conservative intruders are having on centrist Republicans and Independents.

Since Obama’s inauguration, Democrats on the national and local levels have frittered away an opportunity to carry out their vision, to deliver on campaign promises, to course-correct America after eight years of Republican devastation. And they only have themselves to blame.

It’s not too late. But you’re going to have to get up off your collective butts, get your courage and determination up and carpe diem!

Or you’ll only have yourselves to blame, and your increasingly disillusioned followers to explain your failures to.

Tim Arnold
New York
January 20, 2010


Hey Budweiser: This is what you did?

Let me get this straight:
somebody suggests Budweiser’s ad agency dig out D’Arcy’s “This Bud’s for You” campaign, immerse themselves in its strategy, its emotion, its ability to connect with beer drinkers and see if it doesn’t inspire something beyond your product-driven “Great American Lager” advertising and even breathe some new life into one of the world’s greatest brands – and this is what they come up with?
“It’s What We Do?”

I have to admit, being an old D’Arcy guy involved in that campaign, I took great pleasure seeing the headline urging DDB to “study D’Arcy’s campaign,” You know, imitation, or even inspiration, being some kind of flattery and all.
“It’s What We Do?” Actually, I didn’t think the beer was the issue. I thought it was Budweiser’s disconnect with beer drinkers that they were supposed to figure out how to fix.
I can’t imagine anything worse – in advertising - than a client telling me to check out another agency’s advertising to see how its done, but if Budweiser’s current agency could have gotten past the proverbial NIH disease, or whatever, here is what they could have learned from the classic “This Bud’s for You” campaign:

To co-opt a political rejoinder, “It’s the strategy, stupid.” The strategy behind “This Bud’s for You” was brilliant in it simplicity: celebrate the working man like only the King of Beers could do, and reward his hard work with a Budweiser. This was a direct path to connection. It was aimed at the heavy beer drinkers, the 20% of guys who drank 80% of the beer.

First of all, it’s hard to know who “It’s What We Do” is aimed at, except maybe guys who watch television. And the client. And think about this: instead of celebrating beer drinkers - one good way to connect with us - they’re actually kind of ridiculing us guys for all the stupid man-ways we’ve been greeting each other over the years, or somebodys’ fantasy of how beer drinkers carry multiple beers in ballparks (Hell, you can’t even buy that many beers at once, even at Busch Stadium, can you?), or simply dissing each other (“Hey asshole, you look like shit – but I’m only kidding.”). And then they make it worse by painting some kind of contrast that says, “But not us, we’re not that, like, shallow, or faddish, or goofy, or cynical. We’re still cranking out our beer the same way we have for more than 100 years. So what’s up with you, beer drinker?”

Besides, what is the new, ground breaking strategy anyway? We brew Budweiser the same way it’s been brewed since 1876? This has been a mainstay in Budweiser’s advertising for about a century and a half. And anyway, is this the core issue for anybody, besides the client? And the brewmasters?
Besides, beer drinkers buy the image, not the ingredients. They rationalize their choices - in focus groups - based on the ingredients, and its “quality,” or its brewing process, but nobody makes real beer choices based on rational reasons. Maybe the craft beer drinkers do (nah, maybe not), but not real, regular beer drinkers. (Bud Light has already discovered this, the hard way, with their “Drinkability” campaign). “The Great American Lager?” Without some kind of emotional context, who cares? Guys buy the beer whose label they want to sit behind at a bar. Because it stands for the kinds of things they do. Or wish they did. So you give them a “reason why” so they can justify their choices in focus groups and when they belly up to the bar with their buds, and their Buds. I mean, nobody’s going to actually admit they drink Budweiser because it reinforces their wannabe image of themselves, or their need for their friends to really really like them.

“This Bud’s for You” was an outright paean to the world’s heaviest beer drinkers. This was good business. It was only in the middle of the commercials that we suggested it was the “exclusive Beechwood Ageing process that produces a taste, a smoothness and a drinkability (there’s that word!) you will find in no other beer at any price.” The reason why. But the most of it embraced the beer drinkers we were after, in stories and music-driven montages (and the “This Bud’s for You’ music was uplifting, versatile, recognizable; it always played a major role in our advertising).
In other words: it’s about the beer drinker first. Then the beer. Connect with the beer drinker, get that right, then offer him your beer. Relate to him, reach him, humor him even; give him something to identify with. To aspire to, even. The badge to wear. Something … meaningful. Something positive.
“This Bud’s for You” took its direction from Miller, admittedly; they were the first to recognize those 20% of the beer drinkers who drank most of the beer. So we went after these guys, too. Genius! But there was a major strategic difference between “This Bud’s for You” and “Miller Time.” We were about the beer drinker. This Bud’s for You. They were about the beer. It’s Miller time. We won.

“It’s What We Do?” Same problem.

In some kind of perverse way, Bud’s new advertising actually gets the equation right: they do put the beer drinker first. Trouble is, they put him down. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but being reminded that we bro’d our way thru some goofy man-greetings over the years just ain’t gonna win me over. In life we should be able to laugh at ourselves. It’s trickier in advertising.

And one more thing, if you’re still with me and my rant: beer isn’t funny, or goofy. Beer drinking isn’t funny. It’s … cool, reparative, irreverent, satisfying, thirst quenching, rewarding, all about bonding and camaraderie. And hooking up. A good time, too, for sure; fun, but … not funny. (This was another major flaw in Bud Light’s “Drinkability” campaign). Yes, grab ass beer drinkers drink Budweiser, too, and Bud Light. But only because they aspire to be something else, like genuine Bud drinkers. Market to the real Bud/Bud Light drinkers, the mopes will come along, too.
The great DDB campaigns for Bud Light – Spuds McKenzie; “Yes, I am;” “I Love You, Man,” were beyond funny: they were irreverent, unexpected, wise guy attitudes that defied all sense of the expected.

There’s a fine line, and a big difference, between being almost funny or worse, goofy - and irreverent; between humoring yourself and connecting with your target. If I don’t like the guys in your commercials, I ain’t drinking your beer. In fact, no real beer drinker would take this kind of “kidding” in dumb silence. If some guy says, “Hey, I like your ‘stash, but where’d you dock your steamboat,” my answer is, “Yeah, and your girlfriend likes it, too. In fact she’s outside in my steamboat, waiting for me to give her a ride.”

Tim Arnold