Posts with the tag: Halloween

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.

The Archivist’s Nook: Scaring the Craps Out of Campus

Kopmeier, Class of 1906

Imagine Catholic University in 1905, surrounded by unpaved roads, with no streetlights. Most of the structures commonly associated with campus are not present. Even the iconic power plant won’t be built for another 5 years. Electricity is sourced from a dynamo located in the basement of McMahon Hall, with power cut off at 10pm every night. The campus – and dorms – are left in darkness throughout the evening, with late-studying students permitted to keep reading by gas light (for a charge billed to their specific room). The perfect setting for a spooky scene…

Keane Hall, later renamed Albert Hall, was one of the earliest dorms on campus. As the third major structure on campus, built in 1896, it served as the residence hall for lay students. With the admission of undergraduates beginning in 1904, the Hall became the center of student life on campus. Demolished in 1970, it was located along Michigan Avenue. As is the case for dormitory life regardless of the period, tensions could mount over noise or light disturbances in its early years. Among such disturbances was a game of craps played by staff members outside the dorm’s windows. The students, not wishing to report it and risk the employees losing their jobs, came up with an unorthodox solution. As reported by Frank Luntz (class of 1907), in his book Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908:   

Keane Hall, ca. 1913 – Haunted Manor?

“In the biological laboratory in McMahon Hall there was a human skeleton which we rubbed all over with wet phosphorous so it could be seen in the dark. After dinner one dark night we wrapped it in a blanket, and, stretcher fashion, we sneaked it to a fourth-floor window directly over the spot where we were sure the game would be played. Except for the profs, everyone in Keane Hall, plus visiting day hops, crammed the windows on the rear side of the building. We waited until the crap game was at its height of excitement and then gently lowered the skeleton right in to the middle of it. Every spectator had been cautioned not to laugh or make any sound. Everyone had to gag himself with his hands at this moment in order to comply with this silence mandate. The crap shooters darted in all directions. Two went screaming against the building. It was quite a scene!”¹

Griffin served CUA as a Chemistry professor, administrator, and guardian against ghouls until 1922

Kuntz continues with the aftermath of the skeletal surprise:

“The two waiters involved refused to work for the University any more. However, when the joke was explained to them two days later, they returned to their jobs. But that was the end of the crap games. Meanwhile, the skeleton was sneaked back to the glass case in the laboratory. We Expected Dr. Griffin to scold us for taking the skeleton, but during class next day he went to the case, opened the door, and said to the skeleton, “If you don’t stop prowling around the campus during the dead of night, I shall have to put a padlock on this case and lock you in!” He closed the case and resumed his work with his students. The consensus of the boys that evening was, ‘Good old Doc Griffin! He’s a regular guy!’”²

While most campus legends center on Caldwell Hall, the University’s true tale of terror was located in the now-vanished Keane (Albert) Hall. Letting this skeleton out of the closet highlights the early character of the campus, including the landscape and the personalities that shaped it.

For more information on Keane (Albert) Hall, see the “Vanished Buildings” online exhibit: http://cuexhibits.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/vanished-buildings/buildings/albert–hall


¹ Frank Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908 (Catholic University of America Press), 68-69.

² Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 69.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Night the Martians Came to Campus

Martian tripod, crossing the Potomac perhaps?
Martian tripod, crossing the Potomac perhaps?

On the night of October 30, 1938, a startling message went across the airwaves of America: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Adapted from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, this Orson Welles radio drama stirred up quite the reaction in a nation worried about war and disaster. The infamy of this broadcast can be seen in the various headlines that followed on Halloween, 1938. Tales of a panic-stricken nation, mass evacuations and hospitalizations, and armed gangs hunting alien invaders are splashed across newspapers across the nation (and world). This broadcast not only has become a legend, but it staked out Welles as a master of dramatic adaptations.

New York Daily News headline, Oct. 31, 1938
New York Daily News headline, Oct. 31, 1938

Of course, the reports of mass hysteria have recently been questioned (see here and here), with the media hype playing more of a role in defining the legend than the actual response by listeners. Nevertheless, at the time of the broadcast, there is no doubt that many people were entertained and enjoyed the tension and terror the radio drama provided. There are even some people who had a bit of fun with the idea of a “Martian hoard” descending upon the nation.

For while it makes a good Halloween tale to imagine residents of Washington worried that they may soon be facing the aliens and their horrible tripod machines, we should remember that others did not give into fear but prepared to make a tongue-in-cheek stand against the “Monsters of Mars.” As reported by the Tower war correspondent, Paul Eldridge ’39, Catholic University students allegedly waged a pitched battle against the Martians.

In the broadcast, the military called on all observatories to watch Mars for further ships being launched. Unfortunately, Catholic University lacked the means to assist in this national scouting mission, with the campus observatory having been lost over a decade prior. Built in 1890, the Observatory burned down, coincidentally, on Halloween night, 1924. (The remainder of the telescope base can still be seen outside of Aquinas Hall today.) Without this warning system, Eldridge reports, the advance of Martian scouts into the Brookland neighborhood took the campus community by surprise. Fortunately, the Martians were distracted by “10 double-fudge sundaes” at a local diner. This gave the students enough time to mount a defensive perimeter, with the rear guard strategically placing themselves out of sight and “under each bed.”

Observatory, ca. 1910
Observatory, ca. 1910

With civilians evacuated to the chapel, Mr. Eldridge reports that the student defenders rallied and mounted several defenses. They mined the halls of campus buildings with mousetraps, located skates to create a mobile infantry, and erected barricades, constructed of “[l]ogic, history, Latin and Greek textbooks…because these were hard to get through.”

Fortunately, the invasion was swiftly ended, as the one-hour mark of the broadcast arrived. Despite the valiant efforts of the “Grand Army of Catholic University,” the invasion from Mars was ultimately halted by Earth’s bacteria (or the end of the broadcast). Welles informs us that the Martians were “slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth.” In the mocking report that Eldridge issued, he reveals a student body both prepared to defend its campus and willing to laugh at itself.

Study this example well, for you never know if the Martians may return someday…

The Archivist’s Nook: A Priest, a Werewolf, and a Bunny Walk into a Theater…

Yes, someone gave this movie the green light. And the world is a better place for it.
Yes, someone gave this movie the green light. And the world is a better place for it.

“A certain leeway with probability has to be allowed to science fiction but making monsters out of rabbits is a little too much,” wrote one reviewer to his colleagues in the USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB) regarding the 1972 giant-bunnies-run-amok film, Night of the Lepus.

The OFB – known until 1966 as the Legion of Decency – has all the makings of a Hollywood story. Big names, tales of morality, and the rise and fall of an organization. (Feel free to credit me in your script treatment.) As demonstrated in an earlier post, the OFB records contain correspondence between the organization and studios, directors, and Church hierarchy. However, if we are to fully envision the drama that is the OFB story, we need to further round out its primary characters, the reviewers themselves. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: A Priest, a Werewolf, and a Bunny Walk into a Theater…”