The Archivist’s Nook: The Mysterious Case of the Utopian Ghost Car

The Ghost Car parked outside Gibbons Hall, 1953. Real specter or merely a photographic trick?

Question of the week – where’s the Ghost Car? As you ought to know. a mysterious foreign ghost limousine haunted the campus for a few days early this week, and then, just as mysteriously, slipped away to Valhalla. – Tower, October 30, 1953

Once upon a time, the Catholic University of America campus was haunted by a specter so otherworldly and so unpredictable that it moved from building to building with the aid of a society of followers known as the Utopes. What message did this ghostly automobile wish to convey? What was its unfinished business? Why, it was there to advertise the 1953 Hayshaker Brawl dance!

The Hayshaker Brawl was a dance hosted by the Utopian Club – later renamed to the SIgma Phi Delta fraternity – held every other year at Halloween. It was an informal dance – in the 1960 posting for the Brawl, guests were warned, “But whatever you do, don’t you dare wear a coat and tie!” Costumes were encouraged, and the night’s events were marked by the occasional square dance set.

Founded on March 14, 1923, the Utopian Club was among the many social organizations that populated the Catholic University campus during the early twentieth century. Among the various clubs were the Senators Club, the Abbey Club, the Dod Noon Club, and (by 1935) the Cave Dwellers. In 1945, the Columbians would join these ranks as the first all-female social club on campus. All these organizations acted as communal societies, organizing everything from formal galas to, well, Hayshake Brawls. A previous blog discussed the origins of their Homecoming and Thanksgiving galas, but there was so many shaking traditions! Often these organizations would even partner up for a dance, with the Utopians and Columbians working to establish memorable outings such as the 1956 “Cloak and Dagger Drag”, an espionage-themed dance!

Look if you dare! The only known surviving image from the 1953 Hayshaker Brawl.

Party favors were offered to guests, and there was a best costume prize awarded at the end of the evening. The 1949 prize went to,  “Ginny Bradley, dressed as a ‘Flapper’ of 1929,” who “received a homemade television set as a prize for the best costume.” We cannot say for sure whether a homemade television was a real treat or some Utopian trick!

But perhaps the trick of the 1953 dance was its phenomenal promotion. The ghost car was a hit with students. After the Utopians had placed it outside Gibbons Hall, the Tower reports, “various outlanders, enchanted by the old girl, entered the act, and unbeknownst to the Utopes, old Ghost Car made the campus rounds, ending up in McMahon lobby.” Understandably, there were a few people on campus unhappy with this new, indoor parking space and an exorcism of the ghost commenced, with the Ghost Car vanishing to be never heard from again.

Despite the disappearance of the Ghost Car, the 1953 dance managed to remain in the minds of the campus community. As the Tower acclaimed, “we hereby give [the Utopians] the prize for the most original, if not most aesthetic, contribution to the field of advertising, which has been raised to the status of a fine art at the university.” But the car was not the only form of promotion that was deployed. Utopians spread it via word of mouth and through local ads. One of which proclaimed:

The 1949 Hayshaker Brawl experienced its own strange scenes.

Hear ye, hear ye! Be it decreed to all campus kats and kittens that the coolest conclave of the sorcerers’ season, the 15th annual Utopian Hayshaker Brawl is this year set for the misty hills of Northeast Washington.

The 1953 dance became such a legend that its organizer, Michael Clendenin, was heralded in the Tower 3 years later when he was about to graduate. (Of course, being the Tower editor maybe had something to do with the praise…) Clendenin described “his work with…the Utopians as the most rewarding and socially satisfying” during his time at Catholic University.

As for the Utopians? Like the Ghost Car, they have faded from campus and entered memory. In 1956, in honor of its long-time mentor, Fr. Ignatius Smith, O.P, the Utopians changed their name to the Sigma Pi Delta Fraternity, which ceased to be active at the University by the late 1980s. The Archives holds a small collection of Sigma Pi Delta material from the 1960s and 1970s.

But if you find yourself in McMahon Hall on a chilly October night, listen closely. Perhaps you may hear the engine roar of the Ghost Car as it idles the ages away.

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