Green Key weekend boasts rocky but illustrious history

by Sarah Betts | 5/17/02 5:00am

Many things about the College have changed since 1899, but there are certain aspects of the Dartmouth experience that remain permanent. Winter will be long and cold. Classes will be stressful. And when the long-awaited spring finally comes, it is absolutely necessary to celebrate.

Green Key weekend has been providing an outlet for Dartmouth students to shake off winter blues and revel in the return of sunlight for over 100 years, and though the events of the weekend have evolved over time, its purpose is constant -- get outside and have some hard-earned fun.

The celebrations began in 1899 when the Class of 1900 organized Spring Houseparties weekend, seizing the opportunity to make up for a particularly long winter with sporting events, fraternity parties and a prom, giving the all-male student body a chance to bring women to campus.

The weekend became a tradition until it was cancelled 24 years later by administrators, who cited the "wild behavior" of Dartmouth students and their dates as grounds to ban the parties and prom.

Just five years later, though, Green Key was back in business when administrators allowed the Green Key Society to hold a ball in 1929. The event continued until the late 1960s with only a brief interruption during World War II.

The end of the Green Key Ball came in 1967 when segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace spoke at the College on the Friday before Green Key. In protest of Wallace's actions impeding civil rights in his home state, Dartmouth students jeered the governor during his speech and then rioted, surrounding his car for several hours and preventing his departure.

The riot prompted the administration to cancel Green Key Ball once and for all. However, Green Key weekend survived as a time for partying, listening to live music and participating in various unusual competitions.

Green Key once incorporated numerous bizarre traditions, such as Hums, the Wetdown, the Chariot Race and a piano-smashing contest.

Hums was perhaps one of the longest-lasting Green Key traditions, dating from the original Spring Houseparties weekend in 1899. Groups competed in a serious singing competition judged by music professors and other College officials. The competition transformed into one between Greek houses, with each fraternity striving to provide the best rendition of a musical piece.

The nature of Hums changed in the 1970s when the selected songs became more humorous in tone, although this was often a matter of opinion. The winners of the 1976 contest, Theta Delta Chi, sang the derogatory "Our Cohogs," a song which poked fun at the newly admitted female students. Alpha Theta was reproved in 1978 for a song that criticized the Hums judges.

Another now-defunct Green Key tradition was Wetdown. Popular in the early 1900s, this interesting ritual involved clobbering newly elected student government officers with debris, beverages and food as they ran across the Green. The tradition became increasingly violent as students began to flog the officers with belts as they ran, finally resulting in Wetdown's replacement by the chariot race.

Introduced in the mid-sixties, the chariot race was supposed to be a safer alternative to Wetdown, but soon became a wild ride as the makeshift chariots fell apart mid-race. During the three laps around the Green, students pelted the chariots with food items in a nod to the old Wetdown tradition, and the race became an all-out war between fraternities who plotted to sabotage one another's vehicles.

A fight broke out during the 1976 chariot race between the brothers of Zeta Psi and Beta Theta Pi fraternities when each accused the other of demolishing their chariot.

Administrators responded by seeking a safer outlet for athleticism. The Greek games were instituted in 1984, but died out by the end of the decade.

Perhaps the most bizarre Green Key tradition was the piano-smashing contest. A piano was placed in the center of the Green and then attacked with sledgehammers in 1963 by members of Chi Phi Lambda and Pi Lambda Phi fraternities.

Green Key has always been marked not only by traditions but by colorful behavior on the part of participants.

In the days of the Green Key Ball, the weekend revolved around Dartmouth's female guests who came from far and wide as dates of students, a practice which inevitably led to questionable behavior.

Female guests found lodging in fraternity houses with chaperones to insure their propriety, but these precautions weren't always adequate. In 1931, Slippery Mountain Teacher's College student Lulu McWhoosh gave bystanders an eyeful when she rode around the Green naked on a bicycle one Sunday morning. The impromptu peep show caused College officials to cancel Green Key for the next three years.

In later years, a tradition developed for students and their dates to spend the night on the golf course under the stars. Town residents complained, though, that their children were being exposed to the "less puritan" aspects of college life, and one morning in the '60s, Hanover police woke the sleepers with sprinklers and bullhorns.Recent Green Key scandal has revolved around underage drinking at the many parties spawned by the weekend. In 1987, eight fraternities were victims of a police sting operation. Plainclothes officers accompanied an 18-year-old woman and closed down parties when she was served alcohol.

The alcohol consumption associated with Green Key inspired Alpha Delta brothers to artistic heights in 1995, when at their lawn party they performed a naked line dance on the roof to the sounds of a funk band.

Live music has always been a large part of Green Key weekend. Duke Ellington entertained students in 1926, and at the 1938 Green Key Ball, students danced to jazz legends Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. The Shirelles appeared at Dartmouth in 1963, and in 1978 the Grateful Dead held perhaps the largest rock concert in the College's history.

"Deadheads" came from all over the country to hear the sold-out concert in Thompson Arena that lasted over three hours

More recent bands have also graced the Alpha Delta lawn party, such as Anthrax in 1982 and Blues Traveler in 1988. The music scene at Green Key even received national coverage when Eric Konigsberg '91 wrote an article for Rolling Stone's college issue.

The article ran accompanied by a picture with the caption: "Drink 'Till You Boot: Green Key Party 1989."