May 7, 2004

A Day of Revelry, Drinking & Drag

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Fire-eaters, snake-charmers, Indians, cowboys, sailors, thousands of students and townspeople, and the “marvelous Mzupzi” and hundreds of students gathered side by side on the Arts quad on May 13, 1904. There was a parade, then a carnival, then a show. The University canceled classes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The festivities commenced with a parade that filed onto campus at the stroke of 11, allowing students to savor every moment of their officially-designated time off. At the head of the procession marched the Senior marshals and band. Following them were over 100 students dressed in costumes ranging from “gaily garbed fakirs and barkers;” to a “congress of beauties,” consisting of three students grotesquely attired as females.”

Indeed, “Drag was a very big thing … they found it enormously funny in those days,” said Cornell archivist Elaine Engst Ph.D. ’72. Drinking was also part of the festivities, but not the focus, according to Engst.

“They drank to get drunk, not to get oblivious,” she said.

When the parade hit the Arts quad, the carnival booths on the quad opened. One of the smaller tents featured a dog show. Some tents offered the typical little carnival toys and peanuts and lemonade.

The main attraction was the “marvelous Mzuzpi,” a monster who was a bit of a joke as monsters go, but students took it in stride as The Sun reported that “laughter … rose anew each time the monster was exhibited.” Also in the main tent were cowboy and Indian “stunts.” To see all three features cost 35 cents.

At 8 p.m., there was a benefit performance at the Lyceum Theatre. A cast of 63 students performed original cts, as did the Glee club quartette, dressed as women.

As described by The Sun on the 14th, it was the “largest celebration of the kind ever held.” The Princeton baseball team and the University of Pennsylvania’s track team were also in attendance.

By the end, students had “[blown] off enough surplus steam to last [another] year,” according to The Sun. This was Spring Day 1904, the first University-recognized Spring Day.

Spring Day started with humble origins. In 1901, the Athletic Association was nearly broke. To keep Cornell sports going, the drama clubs along with the Musical Clubs organized a benefit at the Lyceum Theatre downtown. Unfortunately, they had a great deal of difficulty selling tickets, inspiring Wally Childs to start an impromptu parade to stir-up business.

“The main features of the procession were Wally Childs, one dog, a brass band and some compets bearing signs,” according to a history of Spring Day in the 1922 program.

Students skipped class and joined in the parade as well as attended the show, making the event a success.

The next year, the groups decided to repeat the show. To rally the students, Ralph Kent, chair of the event committee, decided to make the parade an event in and of itself. In 1902, the groups sold balloons, hats, and rattles, and added tug of war competitions and booths to the parade. The carnival actually overshadowed the show and raised more money than the performance, making it a tradition in and of itself.

Along with a real circus in 1903, came the suspension of classes, and then the University’s official recognition of the event in 1904. After 1904, Spring Day only continued to expand. In 1905, the “Stunt” or variety show, featured sundry performances, from “Condensed Base Ball” to a Geisha Dance. The accounts in the program claimed the Geisha Dance was “The real thing from the real country given with real, realistic reels — really!!!”

In addition to the shows, Spring Day events extended into the entire weekend. A drama or variety show would open the weekend on Friday night, followed by a dance beginning around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. that lasted until three in the morning. The events kicked off Saturday morning with a parade featuring floats from fraternities, sororities and local businesses. In the afternoon, there was a carnival midway and a circus, which featured “sideshows and freaks,” according to one advertisement.

Since the day began as a fundraiser for Cornell’s Athletic Association, it’s probably not surprising that the sports competitions also followed this pattern of growth. The focus was on sports in 1934, with Cornell’s tennis, polo, and baseball teams all competing. Also, by that point, the regatta had expanded into the Carnegie Cup Regatta, with Cornell competing against Princeton University, Yale University and the Navy Team. The Spring Day Scoop declared “… the weekend promises to be one of the biggest athletic carnivals in the East.”

As the Spring Day events became more elaborate, planners began assigning themes to each year. Spring Day 1922 had a medieval theme, with a parade of Knights followed by jousting above Schoellkopf Field. In 1937, the theme was “Hillbilly Holiday,” with cow milking and “healthiest boy and girl” contests. 1939’s Spring Day had a somewhat similar rodeo theme, with student competing in donkey basketball and a greased pig contest.

Students from all over the Northeast would come visit the campus for Spring Day, to cheer on their school’s teams and participate in the various events. An advertisement told visitors to “jump on the Lehigh and speed on your way,” referring to the Lehigh railroad, which ran from New York to Buffalo.

Eventually even Spring Day came to an end. In the 1940s, it had a haitus for World War II, much like it had in World War I. After the war, it resumed in the 1950s, gaining the moniker “Spring Weekend.” At this point, it seemed like it focused more on dances than sports, with a Spring Weekend Queen and Chubby Checker playing at the 1962 dance. 1963 was the last mention of Spring Day in the Cornellian, and Engst speculated it ended in the mid-1960s with the rise in political action.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer
and Erica Fink
Sun Staff Writer