SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
October 30, 1978
It's in the Big Ten, Ara coached there, Otto Graham was an All-America, yet Northwestern football is feeble, compared to the school's powerful drama department. But NU likes it that way—the gibes at the annual "Waa-Mu" show are affectionate
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 30, 1978

Waa-mu! Waa-who?

It's in the Big Ten, Ara coached there, Otto Graham was an All-America, yet Northwestern football is feeble, compared to the school's powerful drama department. But NU likes it that way—the gibes at the annual "Waa-Mu" show are affectionate

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

In accepting Pont's resignation, Strotz was very much in character. With a splendid, if gratuitous, dig at certain other coaches, the Northwestern president said. " John Pont has never embarrassed the university. He has never knocked over yard markers or hit a player, and he has never smashed a camera."

The moral note Strotz keeps striking in dealing with sport would certainly have pleased the God-fearing Methodists who founded Northwestern in 1851. These good men banned cursing and cardplaying and saw to it that the demon rum was kept out of the emerging village of Evanston. Evanston remained dry clear up until 1972, when the sale of liquor was finally legalized in hotels and restaurants, greatly vexing the Women's Christian Temperance Union, whose headquarters is a gabled, white frame house a block south of the campus. In an even more startling change, an influx of younger families has recently given long-Republican Evanston a Democratic majority. One enduring part of the Evanston scene is its ubiquitous matrons, who still dwell in lakefront mansions and conduct brisk infantrylike sweeps through the local millinery shops. Except that now milady may enjoy a brandy Alexander with her lunch.

A mixing of old and new has also taken place on the NU campus. The original campus is adorned with slightly stodgy Romanesque and Gothic buildings. But Northwestern, yearning for Lebensraum, began dumping earth into Lake Michigan in the early 1960s and wound up with some 84 acres of new land, nearly doubling its size. Graced with a space-age library and other buildings, this "lake-fill campus" sits cheek by jowl with the old campus, attesting to the university's institutional clout when it comes to getting things done.

As its Methodist influence waned—the last ties with the church were severed in 1972—Northwestern had trouble squaring its growing pretensions to academic excellence with its budding reputation for being a country-club school. Let students at other Big Ten schools go on their hayrides or paint their silos or do whatever they did for kicks; North-westerners hopped in their convertibles and drove off to quaff beer on Howard Street just across the Chicago line or to catch Odetta down at the Gate of Horn.

Unique, special and different Northwestern is now also serious Northwestern. Gone are the notorious, if unacknowledged, admission quotas that limited the number of blacks, Jews and Catholics. Today Northwestern's WASPs are close to becoming a minority; it is a point of pride that there is as high a proportion of blacks in the student body at large (14%) as there is on the football team. And NU students study, which may have something to do with the fact that 62% of them receive financial aid.

"Sometimes I think today's students are too serious," worries Jack O'Dowd, Northwestern's director of university relations. "This generation refuses to do anything for the sheer, damn, fun-loving hell of it. Before you could get college students today to swallow a goldfish, you'd have to convince them it was a health food."

But perhaps life at Northwestern is not all that much of a grind, either. Shunning Evanston's new drinking spots, many undergrads still hit the old hangouts on Howard Street, where the suds flow as always and the jukeboxes blare. They also party it up in their fraternity and sorority houses. As on other campuses, Northwestern's strong fraternity system declined during the protest turbulence of the '60s but has lately enjoyed a revival. Its coeds also nicely uphold Northwestern tradition. Over the years Northwestern women enjoyed a reputation for being pretty and so well-born that they easily could have afforded to wear dimes in their penny loafers had they so chosen. In the studied opinion of Scott Yelvington, a Northwestern split end who graduated in 1977 and is NU's director of student-alumni relations, Northwestern's women are still knockouts, largely because they include "a lot of foxy ladies out of the East."

One reason Northwestern attracts foxy ladies—from wherever—is its superb theater department, a longtime mecca for the stagestruck. As with the earlier partygoing, this may seem at odds with the school's churchly origins, but NU's alumni rolls are filled with the names of show-biz successes: Oscar winners Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman. And Tony Randall, Paul Lynde, Carol Lawrence and the late Edgar Bergen. And McLean Stevenson, Tony Roberts, Warren Beatty and Karen Black. And Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. And Ann-Margret.

The size of the theater department and the kind of talent it has attracted and developed make Northwestern a switched-on place. Everywhere on campus you see them, comely gals and well-scrubbed guys with an unmistakable here-I-come-world gleam in their eyes. In past years sorority girls gathered around pianos and belted out show tunes like so many Judy Garlands (she did not go to Northwestern) while fraternity boys rented hotel ballrooms for parties that featured lavish parodies of Broadway musicals. The would-be Barrymores took classes in which they pretended to be wallpaper or celery stalks, and they plotted their impending careers over coffee in the Hut, an off-campus delicatessen so scruffy that a number of sororities declared it off limits. That alone would have assured its popularity, but it helped that Hank and Irv, who somehow ran the place as partners for 15 years without speaking to each other, offered credit.

The budding singers and dancers in this crowd also starred in the student revue called the Waa-Mu show. Started in 1929 by the Women's Athletic Association and the Men's Union, Waa-Mu was a pastiche of knock-'em-dead production numbers, harmless comedy sketches and bouncy little tunes. There was a song called Wigwam Wooing of Wigawama that a pudgy Warren Beatty sang in the 1956 show clad in full Indian-chief regalia. There was also a number that Tony Roberts sang in 1961 by way of protesting that there was only one water fountain in all of Cahn Auditorium. As Roberts finished the song, entitled One Stinking Drinking Fountain, he leaped from the stage and raced out to the lobby for a drink of water at the fountain. The Waa-Mu show still runs for 10 sellout performances every spring, and NU's theater department recently broke ground for a new $6.7-million building.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6