The annual non-event known as Homecoming takes place this weekend in Ann Arbor for the students and alumni of the University of Michigan. It’s the time when the older classes migrate back to school, marvel at how much things (other than the foliage) has changed and how much has been unaltered – asking what happened to all the old retail landmarks now victims to the ongoing recession.
I’m going to make several assumptions that should hold true. There won’t be any kind of homecoming dance, no one will be crowned Homecoming Queen (or King), and various classes will gather the night before the game for drinks with bald-faced lies tossed like paper basketballs at the office. Women who continue to work out to maintain their girlish figure will be wearing the tightest outfits (just to let everyone know they still have “it”) and men with the Rogaine touch will be stroking their hairline all evening long.
Some annual traditions will never die – the Mud Bowl, the Alumni Band and cheerleaders taking the field, or perhaps a Saturday concert. The Alumni Association is holding a giant tailgate party at Oosterbaan Hall for the 34th straight year, but that is foreign to me because Oosterbaan Hall didn’t exist when I was in Ann Arbor (it was the women’s field hockey area back in my day) and no tailgating, as such. In fact, looking at a campus map, half the buildings were non-existent in the early 1970s. No one called it “South Campus;” it was just the main campus (North Campus was relatively new). Yes, things were SO much simpler back then … but that’s not the point of this story.
For Homecoming in 1972, the Student Association wanted to do something different by going “back to the future” (years before the movie was ever conceived). It was the time of Vietnam, Richard Nixon, rallies on the Diag to protest anti-marijuana laws and the imprisonment of radical John Sinclair. It was only a few months removed from the Chicago Democratic Convention riots and this small blip on the news called “Watergate.” It was, in reality, not a tribute to the past but something of a satire.
The entire weekend would contain a 1950s-theme with two concerts (Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen on Friday and Stevie Wonder on Saturday – each at Hill Auditorium), the regular activities (notably the Mud Bowl) … and this added event on Thursday night – a 1950s sock hop at the Michigan Union Ballroom.
It seems the reputation of a group of students, mostly out of Alice Crocker Lloyd Hall, who did lip-synching shows to songs from that golden era of rock ‘n roll, has been snowballing. What was an end-of-semester joke grew to a viable “band” – although no one played a single instrument and all music was recorded on tape – well before Britney Spears or Milli Vanilli ever decided to fake their way through concerts.
The male activists were known as Jimmy and the Javelins (of which I was a guilty party) because half of the major doo-wop/pop groups had some reference to cars in their names. Oh yeah, no one performing was named Jimmy; instead we had “cool” names like TOR, da Prince, Big Jocko, Penguin and The Kid.
Our schtick was simple – do routines or dance steps to classic songs for about three hours – just like you used to see on “American Bandstand,” “Tiger Beat,” “Hullabaloo” or “Shindig.” We usually did 3-4 sets, at 45 minutes each, and in between, partygoers would dance to MORE “stacks of wax from the backs of the racks.”
We performed at almost every dorm on campus, about every other weekend, and were paid enough money to buy nasty Omega pizzas for the next two weekends. It was nothing but fun for everyone and it caught the attention of the Student Association’s Homecoming committee.
They offered the challenge and we accepted, with some trepidation, because there was a massive difference between the basement of Mosher-Jordan, or East Quad, and the Union Ballroom, which used to hold major musical events dating back to the 1930s. We had no clue as to what would happen but we concocted some plans.
One was the crowning of the first Homecoming “Queen” since 1957 (if I remember) and, going along with the theme, it went to the trashiest appearing girl (who was very sweet and pretty in real time, was the daughter of a major GM executive, but who dolled it up to the hilt) out of a field of five (again, memory fades quicker than a Kodachrome color photo).
We even solicited the services of Detroit’s most famous disc jockey, Robin Seymour, who did the honors of crowning the “beauty” and introducing us to the crowd. And what a crowd it was! Somehow they jammed 5,000 into that ballroom; everywhere we looked there were nothing but students, trying their best to dress like James Dean (“Rebel Without a Cause”) or Marlon Brando (“The Wild One”). Stores reported empty shelves where the Brylcreem, Wildroot or Tres Flores Brillantine was stocked all over Ann Arbor.
In fact, we wound up outdrawing both Stevie Wonder and Commander Cody. The Associated Press carried a story on its nationwide tickers (published in the Detroit Free Press and New York Times) about this less-than-serious Homecoming crowning and event.
A year later, we held our “farewell” concert (graduation was taking its toll) at the same venue and it was one of the first activities to be taped for the fledgling campus cable TV station. Like a Roman candle, our time in the spotlight fizzled away – to be forgotten by succeeding generations.
In between the Javelins/Belts made an ill-fated excursion to a REAL performance venue – the Roostertail Club on the Detroit River – and we flopped (literally, one of us fell off the small stage provided and had to go to the hospital for stitches). That audience didn’t get the joke; those people thought we were legitimate.
We’ve remained friends for all these years, although no reunion tour will ever be planned. We’ve become investment bankers and counselors, lawyers, doctors and surgeons, professional assistants, research scientists, television reporters and retired newspaper publishers. Our children have long belly-laughs when viewing photos from our efforts – mostly at the girls’ hairstyles and the boys’ greasy, cheesy looks before anyone called themselves “The Fonz.”
But for one shining moment, we can say that we held the elusive spotlight at a University of Michigan Homecoming. Or as we would always conclude our shows, “Grease for Peace!”