30 Years Later, Dartmouth Celebrates 'Animal House'

August 13, 2008

Dartmouth College's relationship with its fraternities and sororities hasn't been entirely free and easy in the last decade. In 1999, the college's trustees, troubled by the perception that fraternities dominated campus social life in a negative way -- emphasizing alcohol and exclusivity -- declared a moratorium on the establishment of new Greek organizations in 1999 while contemplating an overhaul. Although the college ended the ban in 2005, perceptions that Dartmouth's leaders were anti-Greek continued to be among the issues raised by a vocal and passionate group of alumni who have pushed for a greater role in college governance.

Oh, for the simpler days, when fraternity members killed horses in the dean's office and disrupted the homecoming parade with a float designed to look like a giant cake shaped into the words "Eat me." Now those are the sorts of undergraduates that a fine institution like Dartmouth can really yearn for.

Of course, those and other incidents -- familiar to the millions of movie goers who have seen "National Lampoon's Animal House" over the years -- did not really unfold on the bucolic Dartmouth campus in Hanover, N.H. But the college's Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, to which the movie's chief writer, Chris Miller, belonged in the early 1960s, did serve as a model for the small-budget film that became the biggest-grossing college movie (and remains among the grossest, not a criticism from this author) of all time.

(Washington University in St. Louis can also stake partial claim to inspiring the movie's hijinks, as one of Miller's co-writers, Harold Ramis, contributed his experiences from the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity there.)

All of this is relevant (if not earthshatteringly newsworthy, we acknowledge -- how many

John Belushi in "Animal House"

opportunities do we get to run photos of John Belushi?) because Dartmouth is proudly promoting the fact that a new documentary (which premieres tonight on cable's Biography channel) explores the movie's roots there. The documentary follows Miller, who co-wrote "Animal House" with Ramis and Douglas Kenney, back to Dartmouth for get-togethers with the Alpha Delta Phi brothers on whom some of the movie's characters were based, as well as current Dartmouth undergrads and frat members. The documentary crew also captured footage of a party at Alpha Delta Phi (can anyone guess what kind of party?) and last May's annual spring concert that featured, yes, Otis Day and the Knights.

John Engelman, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1968, is alumni adviser to the Alpha Delta fraternity. He visited the fraternity as a high school junior while his older brother and Chris Miller, who graduated five years earlier, belonged to the Alpha Delta. While "nobody killed a horse in the dean's office" then or ever at Dartmouth, Engelman says -- "the movie is a satire, not a documentary" -- "what's accurate is the tone of the times and the overall attitude" of young people not only at Dartmouth, "but of that generation."

Depending on one's point of view, that might be enough to send a shudder down your spine. But much has changed since then at Dartmouth generally and among the fraternities (and, in recent decades, sororities) in particular, prodded by campus administrators seeking to bring the Greek organizations "more in line with the principles and values that Dartmouth College tries to promote," Engelman says.

Those efforts to "raise the aspirations" of Greek organizations have been controversial at times, emphasizing community service and diversity and other concepts that tend to make traditionalists bristle. But a full two-thirds of Dartmouth undergrads now participate in the Greek system, Engelman says, up from about half a decade ago.

"The changes have made them more appealing to a broader range of students, and that speaks well of the Greek system, of the administration of the college, and of the alumni who support the fraternities and sororities," says Engelman.

Of course, no amount of aspiration raising changes the reality that a bunch of 18-22-year-olds will, in the tradition of "Animal House," "still do stupid things and take risks they probably shouldn't take," Engelman notes.

To quote one famous line from the movie their predecessors inspired: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

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