Carnivals of Yesteryear

It all began with a field day in 1910. Fred Harris ’11 and his friend A.T. Cobb ’12, both avid skiers before skiing was popular, wanted a way to promote skiing and winter sports. As founder and president of the newly formed Dartmouth Outing Club, Harris created a field day complete with ski races, ski jumping, and snowshoe races. The competitions were popular among the community and the next year, students planned the first annual Winter Carnival.

The students soon decided that this winter sports weekend needed a social presence. The Outing Club Ball was one of the first social events that coincided with the sports competitions, and this social extension grew considerably over the years. A 1912 article in The Dartmouth implored the Sons of Dartmouth to bring women because Winter Carnival “will not succeed without girls. It is up to every man with a purse or a heart or a bit of enthusiasm . . . to make haste to procure that most necessary item.’’ This goal was certainly accomplished by 1939, when The Dartmouth exclaimed, “Hanover is set back on its collective heels as girls, girls, girls pour in.”

The event was immediately accepted by The Dartmouth community and seen as a perfect fit for the College. “The Winter Carnival of the Outing Club won a deserved success, and will undoubtedly remain a permanent feature of Hanover winter life,” wrote The Dartmouth in 1911. “This is how it should be. Winter is the characteristic Hanover season, winter weather is Hanover’s finest weather, and winter sports should be, and are coming to be, the characteristic sports of the Dartmouth undergraduate.”

The erstwhile Psi U Key Jump, courtesy of Rauner Special Collections.

The erstwhile Psi U Key Jump, courtesy of Rauner Special Collections.

Winter Carnival quickly transformed into an event centered on the one thing that Dartmouth students do best: drinking. In 1919, National Geographic called Winter Carnival the “Mardi Gras of the North.” Winter Carnival grew from a solely athletic competition to an entire festival complete with social activities. Fraternities hosted dances, attracting women from colleges all over the Northeast. Whereas Hanover was home to around 2,700 undergraduates and 3,000 townspeople, 1,700 visitors (almost all women), swarmed the College for the weekend. On Thursday evening or Friday morning, Dartmouth gentlemen met their dates at the White River Junction train station to begin 72 hours of drinking, dancing, athletic events, drinking, tobogganing, dinner parties, and more drinking. Women at colleges like Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, or Bryn Mawr excitedly made the journey to Hanover to meet their dates, who they had often never met, and join the revelry. These guests conveniently stayed in vacated College dormitories.

In 1939, Walter Wanger produced the film Winter Carnival to present Dartmouth in all of its bacchanalian glory. Although Wanger flunked out of Dartmouth in 1915, he achieved great success in the film industry that the College awarded him with an honorary degree. To show his support for Dartmouth and proclaim his pride, Wagner decided to make Winter Carnival. He hired F. Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg ’36 to write the script.

In order for the writers to gain an accurate perspective of Winter Carnival and the College, of course they had to do “research.” Before the pair left Los Angeles for Hanover, Schulberg’s father gave them two bottles of champagne, presumably so that they could arrive in Hanover in style. Unbeknownst to the elder Schulberg however, Fitzgerald was a recovering alcoholic, and he had just sparked a drinking binge that would last the entirety of the Carnival.

Because a bottle of champagne on the flight to New York was insufficient, Fitzgerald obtained a bottle of gin and continued to drink on the train from New York to Hanover. Schulberg, who was much younger than Fitzgerald, was an avid fan of the alcoholic writer and never protested to Fitzgerald’s ceaseless imbibing. Once the writers arrived in Hanover, they found that the Hanover Inn had no rooms available except for a small space in the attic furnished with a metal bunk bed. This sleeping situation was not a tremendous problem because the duo would be so inebriated that their quarters were not very important.

Although Schulberg attempted to organize meetings with professors in order to get material for a script, he recounts that when they arrived at the meeting “both of us looked disreputable. I don’t think, honestly, we’d changed our clothes since we’d left the airplane. And on top of all the other drinking, a favorite sociology professor of mine was a huge fan of Fitzgerald’s, and so to celebrate, at a moment when I was trying to taper Scott off, he came to the room with a bottle of whiskey and it all started all over again.’’

“Dartmouth Winter Carnival, with its merry-go-round of sports and social events not merely overlapping but overtaking each other,” said Schulberg in a 1955 article in Sports Illustrated, “is a 30-ring circus that makes Ringling Brothers look like a two-wagon job on a vacant lot in Sapulpa.”

“Tell me that birds don’t wear sweaters and don’t smile and all I can say is that anybody who exposes himself to some 20 indoor and outdoor events, laced with a plethora of cocktail parties, dinner parties, dance parties and some old-time basement drinking—readers, that fellow has earned his right to mix a metaphor or two, having mixed practically everything else over a tough 72-hour course.”

Needless to say, the writers accomplished no actual work during Winter Carnival, just as many students today are distracted during the weekend. They spent most of their time at Psi U or Alpha Delta, raging in a manner that would upstage even the most vinous of today’s frat stars. Schulberg and Fitzgerald most likely spent some time drunkenly flirting with the visiting girls, which The Dartmouth described as a “female blizzard.” Fitting for their visit, the sculpture on the Green was of Eleazer Wheelock brandishing a pint of beer above his head. When Wanger saw the plastered pair in Hanover, he fired them on the spot. Despite these setbacks, the film was still made, although Fitzgerald was not included in the credits.

1923 marked the beginning of the “Queen of the Snows” competition in which a woman was crowned “Winter Carnival Queen.” The tradition soon became a major event. Almost all of the women visiting vied to compete in the pageant, which was judged primarily on appearance. According to history professor Jere Daniell ’55, Hollywood starlets even visited to enter the competition.

“Early in the day, 15 selected Dartmouth students roam the campus to select 45 of the most pulchritudinous young ladies on hand for the carnival,” describes a 1952 New Hampshire Profiles article. “Gathered in the gymnasium just before the Outdoor Ice Show, the chosen group passes before a critical panel of five judges, made up of three students, a professional photographer, and a visiting dignitary. Their choice is always a difficult one, but the charm, grace, and photogenic qualities of previous queens is positive proof that the girl who receives the crown will be worthy of it.”

The competition continued until the time the College became coeducational. In 1973, Carnival Committee chairman George Ritcheske found that “prevailing attitudes indicate that contests which stress beauty as their primary or only criterion no longer have the widespread popularity they once enjoyed.”

Had Fitzgerald seen today’s Winter Carnival, well, he might have set his drink down for once in astonishment. His Winter Carnival, the “Mardi Gras of the North”, beauty pageant meets holiday ball is long gone, replaced by a campus-wide weekend-long fraternity party clashing with a community’s attempt to endure the cold. This mild winter we have experienced mirrors the lackluster attitude of the student body in regards to the once mighty festival. A ’15, when asked to comment on what will separate the Winter Carnival from other weekends in the term, responded, “Uh, I think there’ll be more drinking. I guess.”

But who knows, maybe the “Winter” will disappear along with the “Carnival” as all of the snow slowly melts away. A writer once remarked, “You know Winter Carnival is here when the Green is white”, Yet with a high of 39 degrees on Saturday, there is little hope for a white Green, and it is even possible for the weather to erode the uncomfortable ice patch the green has now become. Even the legendary Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival would be relatively powerless in this situation, forced to stand by as the Green thaws into a puddle ridden muck track. Perhaps the annual human dog sled race is going to look more like Green Key’s chariot competition this year. Our vote is for mud wrestling to be added to the event list.

In fact, the wrath of Mother Nature has been so meek that trucks have needed to be contracted to bring in manufactured snow from the Dartmouth Skiway. Such a great task will inevitably yield an incredibly impressive result. After a coliseum and castle for the previous two years’ constructions, what can we hope to see that could possibly upstage them? The theme of “Candyland: The Sweetest Carnival Ever” has been a promising theme, the game that captured the hearts of our childhood selves that encapsulated the wonder and grandeur of the unadulterated imagination is sure to deliver! What monument could the committee commission to encapsulate this incredible theme?

A cupcake!

Damn. Based after a model from King Arthur Flower, the icon of Winter Carnival 2012 is now the bastard son of the baked goods family. Oh, joy.
But who can really blame them? The smaller structure will apparently focus on the more intricate decorations a cupcake has to offer. And this can clearly be attributed to the drastic lack of participation by the student body in building the actual sculpture. In fact, participation was so grim in 2009 that two physical education credits were offered as an incentive to have students come out and help build. Unfortunately, the physically educated students saw the fruits of their labor destroyed as unseasonably warm temperatures saw the sculpture of the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge collapse prior to the Carnival, only to be salvaged by ingeniously turning the pile of rubble and snow into a sculpture of Mt. Moosilauke itself. Still, the sculpture has taken a hit from moderate weather and interest in its construction.

Even the smaller ice and snow sculptures, once a staple of each and every Greek house’s lawn are nowadays nowhere to be seen. Back in the day, judges would stroll house to house, judging each fraternity or sorority’s sculpture on a variety of …categories and crown champions. Alums recall working deep into the night to create a structure worthy of the judges’ praise, laboring and tiring to craft a work of art to garner esteem for their house. However, now it seems that with other events going on, there isn’t much time or snow to take part in the competition. Even with the resurgence of a similar competition, this time taking place on the Green, there isn’t much snow, or hope for the dead lining tradition. The allure of cash prizes may not even be enough to bait campus groups into the competition.

As far as other events, representatives for the polar bear swim are feeling confident that they’ll receive a record turn out this year based on the fact that the water might not actually be that cold. Since its inception in 1992, the annual tradition has been seeing greater participation, but this year presumably will be the best. It’s a fusion of wacky tradition and masochistic ritual, but what else would Dartmouth students participate in? Granted it’s all in good fun, aligning with the recent concerted effort to shift the Carnival from a proverbial socialite’s orgy to a more family friendly and community centric weekend. For instance, last year’s festivities included a tour of Baker Tower, from which participants caught beautiful views of the surrounding Upper Valley and an Occom Pond Party where marshmallows were toasted and hot chocolate was imbibed, not Keystone.

However, with these added events has also come the cutting of some of the more infamous Carnival events around the weekend. Most notably, students still mourn with heavy hearts the loss of the Psi Upsilon Keg Jump, permanently put down in 2000. For those of you not acquainted with the event, don’t use too much imagination; it’s fairly straightforward. On the side of Psi U’s house, competitors would skate down an ice path at break neck speed, then leap into the air attempting to clear a number of kegs laid out on the ground. The long jump of the Winter Olympics if you will. But apparently some safety concerns brought the end of the tradition at the turn of the century.

With the fall of the older traditions, a variety of numerous new-school events are hosted each year, but it is apparent that few students intend to attend. The showing of the movie Winter Carnival, once widely attended, is now only the choice of a sober minority. Furthermore, a drag ball usually held by the Rainbow Alliance is sure to draw only a small niche crowd. Most surprisingly however may be the Winter Carnival Ball, held by the Winter Carnival Council. Upon being asked if he was attending the Ball, a ’13 just laughed hysterically, unable to muster a response. The cost of a ticket is $8; someone could buy a tender queso from the Hop for that kind of money. Currently, the Facebook group has a whopping thirteen positive RSVP’s with a solid eighteen maybes. And Les Miles knows those are about as binding as a verbal commitment to LSU’s football team.

More old-timey traditions also ended or fell to the wayside as time wore on. In 1972, the first year women were accepted into the college, the Snow Queen competition was ended, and so did the flood of girls from surrounding areas into Hanover for the weekend. But now, after replacing the inundations of Eastern area socialites that once flocked to Dartmouth, what do the college co-eds have to look forward to? As some indication, a female ’15 recently brought up some tips she had learned for Winter Carnival from an informative flyer. “Well, it said to drink plenty of water, always travel in pairs, and to make sure you know where your drinks came from”.

Wait a minute, this isn’t pre-orientation; why does this sound like girls should be watching out for rufalin? This is a celebratory mainstay of Dartmouth’s proud culture. Now it seems that as old traditions fade away, new ones infused by drinking age in. Don’t let them jump over kegs? They’ll tap and pound them. Dartmouth students are incredibly creative at arming themselves to replace the old with the new lest the old traditions fail.

This set piece to the Review‘s Winter Carnival coverage was written by Michael T. Haughey and William R.F. Duncan.