July 19, 2009

The Evolution of the Slope Day Tradition at Cornell

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Since 1901, the annual end of the year celebration evolved from Spring Day to Spring Fest to reach its current iteration known as Slope Day.
Spring Day was a celebration in which the Arts Quad hosted attractions like fire-eaters, snake-charmers, cowboys, Indians and sailors. A tradition since May 1901, Spring Day was deemed one of Cornell’s first excuses to cancel class in the name of mass debauchery.
The Hill’s springtime carnival-parade-drag fest actually started because of financial strains to the University Athletic Association. To save the Big Red’s teams, Cornell’s drama clubs and musical groups organized a benefit concert at the Lyceum Theatre downtown. The event struggled at the box office, and inspired an impromptu parade to stir-up business.
Thanks to the parade, the performance was so well-attended that the activities were repeated the next year. In 1902, tug of war competitions and booths were added to the day’s festivities, allowing the carnival before the show to actually overshadow the production (and raise more money), thereby starting a Cornell custom.
Over the years, Spring Day events began to extend over the entire weekend. A drama or variety show would serve as the weekend’s opening act, followed by a dance beginning around 10 p.m.
In keeping with its athletically-based origins, Spring Day started to include sports competitions in later years. The 1934 Spring Day Scoop forecasted that “the weekend [promised] to be one of the biggest athletic carnivals in the East.”
Spring Day went on hiatus during both World Wars. After World War II, the celebration gained the moniker “Spring Weekend.”
By this point, it started to focus on dancing rather than sports. It featured a Spring Weekend Queen and a Chubby Checker performance during Spring Day ’62. 1963 was the last mention of Spring Day in the Cornellian.
According to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, there were no classes held on the last day of school in 1969 and 1970 because of the political climate.
The next incarnation of Slope Day, known as Springfest, appeared in the late 1970s.
­­Murphy described Springfest as a “mellow afternoon on the slope with some entertainment,” where the University served alcohol to students.
More Slope Day changes occurred in 1985 when the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21. The “attitudes about alcohol use were different then,” with less focus on risk and liability, Holmes noted.
After the drinking age changed, the University stopped serving alcohol but “students decided that something would happen and they showed up [with their own alcohol],” Holmes said.
“In the years that followed … a number of students were treated for alcohol related emergencies,” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of alcohol policy initiatives.
In response to the accidents and emergencies, the University attempted to stop Slope Day in the early 1990s. As an alternative, a University-organized event was offered on North Campus, where Court-Kay-Baur and Mews Halls are now located.
Since 2003, Slope Day has maintained a new format that includes live entertainment, catered alcohol service, food served from Cornell Dining and other giveaways.
Each year, the Slope Day Planning Board works hard to select the entertainers, whose identities are kept a closely guarded secret until about a month before the big day.
For this reason, trying to guess the performer’s has become a favorite activity for many Cornellians waiting for classes to end.