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Readers sound off

Readers write in about the school of Doc Films; the alumnus movie star we overlooked; Irish music; Bette Howland and her legacy; Themosticles, Thucydides; and more.

Deeper into movies

The Winter/20 issue’s focus on cinema was more than welcome—and made me realize anew how my Hyde Park years (1973–78) were shaped by the movies I saw there.

First, thanks are in order to Doc Films, the pioneering student organization that brought the world’s cinema treasures to campus. As winter arrived, the wind whipped and the Chicago campus turned shades of gray, the coziest and most exciting place to be on a Friday or Saturday night was Cobb Hall’s Quantrell Auditorium. Straw Dogs, The Story of Adèle H., Out of the Past, A Clockwork Orange, Blow-Up … I remember each of them vividly. Doc had a knack for programming classics with recent commercial films (before indie cinema and at a time when Hollywood was at its artistic high point). And while Doc showed only 16 mm films, many were in wide-screen—an impressive technical feat. After the movie, we’d trek to Jimmy’s and chew over what we’d seen, washed down by pitchers of beer and that trademark Jimmy’s popcorn designed to make you drink even more beer.

One Quantrell moment stands out: after a feature (can’t remember which), Doc showed a short film, obviously homemade, of cars barreling down Hyde Park streets, accompanied by the screeching violin crescendo from Psycho. No further information. I wonder if anyone else remembers that.

In 1978 I was in the audience when Frank Capra appeared at the Law School for a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. I was surprised to learn from him that this classic was initially a box-office dud.

In the spring of 1973, the big windup to the very limited social calendar at Lower Flint in Woodward Court was a dorm-sponsored trip to the big fancy McClurg Court Cinema in the North Loop to see Last Tango in Paris. This was a road show 70 mm screening, with reserved-seat tickets purchased in advance. Hard to imagine any of this happening now.

The U of C bookstore was also an important resource for cineastes. I bought my first Pauline Kael review collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Little, Brown, 1968), in its well-stocked film section. The bookstore also had a small camera shop, where I bought a Kodak Super-8 Ektasound movie camera. I was soon filming classmates in the Woodward courtyard.

My obsession with film has continued my whole life, but it was fueled during those formative years.

Oh, and my favorite film? 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yes, I saw it at Quantrell.

Ted Dupont, AB’77
Montclair, New Jersey

The Winter/20 issue was one of the most varied and enjoyable in some time. I particularly liked “Poster Perfect,” on Dwight M. Cleveland’s (MBA’87) collection of film posters. Introducing the collection, Andrew Peart, AM’16, PhD’18, writes about a rare poster for the silent picture Men of Steel, starring Milton Sills, AB 1903, EX 1904, and Doris Kenyon, actress daughter of a Methodist minister. It surprises me that the Magazine did not pick up on Sills’s close relationship with the University of Chicago.

A local boy from a wealthy background, he attended and graduated from the U of C in the late 1890s/early 1900s and even taught philosophy at the school for a while. Visiting the University as a lecturer, actor Donald Robertson convinced Sills to give up teaching and join his theater company. Success on the stage, including Broadway, spawned a still more successful film career. According to Jeanine Basinger in Silent Stars (Knopf, 1999), Sills was “the strong silent type” and ranked with the likes of John Barrymore and Thomas Meighan as “a major star.” Sills wrote the screenplay for Men of Steel as well as starring in it.

The year the picture debuted, Sills divorced English actress Gladys Edith Wynne and married Men of Steel costar Kenyon. Their son was born soon after. In 1930 Sills, then 48, died suddenly of a heart attack playing tennis with Kenyon at their Los Angeles home. A true Hollywood tale to be sure: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Jamie S. Scott, PhD’90

Hedy days

The cover of the Winter/20 Magazine reminds me of my days in the 1950s in Doc Films with Fred C. Smith, AB’54, AB’55, who visited me when I was a grad student at the University of Vienna and later became an Army officer, and Ernest Callenbach, PhB’49, AM’53, who later wrote Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (Banyan Tree Books, 1975). Our pattern at Doc was to run our budget down showing great films and then to build our treasury up by showing Ecstasy with its risqué Hedy Lamarr appearance, which the American Legion would picket, drawing record audiences.

My best friend, Ernest Hartman, AB’52, was a roommate of Marcus Raskin, AB’54, JD’57, who gave piano lessons to Philip Glass, AB’56, and went on to cofound the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. I’m in retirement near the University of California, Berkeley, where I volunteer and audit classes.

Donald R. Anderson, AB’57
Berkeley, California

Profit or loss?

I enjoyed Hannah Edgar’s (AB’18) “Jazz as Cri de Coeur” (Winter/20) because the writer clearly explained a complicated issue. However, one point of clarification regarding the film’s financial results: a profit of $2,300 against expenses of $8,600 wouldn’t be too bad, but total revenue of $2,300 would be a disaster. Is this what the writer meant by “income”?

Michael Krischer, AM’72
Portage, Michigan

Unfortunately, the $2,300 was not the film’s profit but its revenue. Nelam Hill reported this as “income” in various correspondence. We appreciate Krischer’s bringing the ambiguity to our attention.—Ed.

Remembering Bette Howland

Howland’s Gift” (Fall/19) was a sentimentally nostalgic tribute to Bette Howland, AB’55, a wonderful person, wonderful writer, and wonderful friend. Bette Lee Sotonoff and I entered the College in 1952. She was an early entrant three years younger than her peers, but more socially and intellectually mature than most.

She loved the mental challenge of the old College Core subjects and displayed early signs of her unique writing style in her fervently written essays. We became study friends and would struggle together through the mounds of reading materials to prepare for quarterly exams or comps.

Her greatest desire was to become an accomplished, acclaimed author of, hopefully, Nobel Prize–quality novels.

I was distraught after learning of her near death and was relieved when she called to invite me to visit her. As she recounts in the latter part of W-3 (Viking, 1974), my wife and I joined the multitude of old friends who attempted to reassure her of her ability to reenter the writing world and realize her goals.

Her unique style was exhibited in W-3; Blue in Chicago (Harper & Row, 1978); and other writings—but, alas, not as many as she, and we, hoped to see.

Jeffrey (Jay) Steinberg, AB’55, AB’56

There is a false statement in your recent article “Howland’s Gift” that has been circulating for years and needs to be corrected. The statement reads as follows:

“In 1999 [Howland] published her final piece of creative work, the novella ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,’ in the literary magazine TriQuarterly. The editor had to cajole her into it, he told the New York Times: ‘She seemed doubtful of the worth of what she had done and of what she was doing, and she was reluctant to be published.’”

The facts are that the editor of TriQuarterly in 1999 (and two years before) was my wife, Susan Firestone Hahn, not Reginald Gibbons, who had been the editor at one time but was erroneously referred to as editor in the New York Times. Moreover, it was my wife who obtained the novella through her personal relationship with Howland, and there was no reluctance at all on the part of Howland to have it published. No cajoling was necessary by reason of their relationship and the high praise my wife had for the piece.

I am not sure what can be done to correct the improper claim of credit for the publication of the novella by Gibbons. However, it is important to my wife, and to me, that the record be clear.

You may also be interested that the particular issue of TriQuarterly consisted of four novellas by women writers, something which, to the best of our knowledge, had not been done before.

Fred Hahn
Winnetka, Illinois

We have updated the story online to clarify that Gibbons was not TriQuarterly’s editor at the time.—Ed.

Hilleman’s gift

Catching up on recent issues of the Magazine while staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized how “By the Dozens” (Fall/19) was published slightly ahead of time. This article should be republished to remind people how vaccines help mitigate pandemics. Most interesting to me: “The 1957–58 flu pandemic killed as many as two million people worldwide, about 70,000 in the United States.” We haven’t heard much about that one, and how soon we forget. It would be nice to know if Walter Reed Army Institute is taking on Maurice Hilleman’s (PhD’44) tradition to develop a vaccine. Thank you for your writing.

James P. Stewart, MBA’89
Santa Rosa, California

It’s a trad, trad, trad, trad world

Thank you for the article about different cultures of Irish music throughout the world (“Reel Culture,” Winter/20). I have played in Irish trad sessions in different places in the United States, but I have never played a session in Ireland. People have told me that, while many Irish sessions in the United States are sticklers for a highly “traditional” approach to the music and resist less traditional instruments or styles, sessions in Ireland tend to be more accepting of diverse instruments and styles in interpreting the tunes. If this is so, it presents an interesting perspective on the question of Irish identity forged around trad music, in Ireland and abroad. Full disclosure: My favorite session is in Burlington, Vermont, where we are very open to diverse instruments and styles. Also, I’m neither Irish nor Irish American myself.

Deborah Cafiero, AB’89
Burlington, Vermont

I thoroughly enjoyed “Reel Culture.” My request: please ask Aileen Dillane, PhD’09, to recommend her favorite CD of traditional Irish music—something that may be easily available.

Robert M. Ward
Manchester, Michigan

Aileen Dillane responds

Thank you for your query, impossible as it is (like asking me to name my favorite child)! One of the best ways I can think about limiting my answer to a few CDs is by focusing on Chicago. So here it goes.

Local fiddle player, All-Ireland winner, and celebrated composer Liz Carroll has her recordings available online at lizcarroll.com. They are all great. I genuinely couldn’t pick one, though I have written about Lost in the Loop and Lake Effect as being particularly of Chicago in terms of performing place and identity. Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes lived in Chicago for a number of years and started up a musical friendship with Chicagoan and guitarist Denis Cahill. The Lonesome Touch is a beautiful album and is full of what James Cowdery referred to as the neaaa in Irish music, that sense of longing. Chicago band Bohola (named after a village in County Mayo) is really good and has numerous recordings under its belt. And if you want to connect with a highly skilled musician and local instrumental teacher, fiddle player Sean Cleland is well worth listening to.

Here in Ireland, I’d recommend anything from Raelach Records, including Ensemble Eirú, the band featuring the label owner and brilliant concertina player, Jack Talty. Also check out The Gloaming for their compelling band arrangements and This Is How We Fly for their innovative use of percussive dance as part of their contemporary folk music soundscape. All-female band The Henry Girls offer beautiful subtle arrangements and lifting sets. Finally, as an example of traditional musicians for these unprecedented times that is edgy and impassioned, Lankum will rock your world.

For more online resources, check out the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin and the podcasts from Templebar Tradfest, which I’m currently researching for a three-year project. Finally, in the spirit of your namesake, the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee has a wonderful online collection of music connecting Irish and Irish American heritages.

The great kazoo

I have an addition to the letters about the Themistocles, Thucydides cheer and the kazoo band (“Tales of Good Cheer,” the Core, Winter/20). I recall the halftime of one football game I attended. The marching kazoo band took the field. The “band” was a big wooden model of a kazoo (the one mentioned by Donald J. Bingle, AB’76, JD’79, Former Keeper of The World’s Largest Kazoo), about the size of a canoe, plus anyone in the audience who had his or her own actual kazoo and decided to walk onto the field—and probably even anyone who didn’t have a kazoo but wanted to participate. (I forget, but perhaps a few actual kazoos were handed out.) The announcer, or maybe the bandleader, then said that the “band” should illustrate Brownian motion, and the band members tooted their kazoos and milled around in random directions, as did The World’s Largest Kazoo.

Paul R. Birnberg, AB’72

Rah to the nth!

Tales of Good Cheer” reminded me of a song we performed in the 1950s at one of the annual beer parties organized by Saunders Mac Lane, AM’31, chair of the graduate math department:

 C stands for C-star Algebra;
 H stands for Hilbert Space;
 I stands for Integration, a course that we cannot face;
 C stands for Category;
 A for Associative Law;
 G but we’re weary of Galois Theory;
 O, orthonormal; oh, we’re Conformal;
 Oh, what a school we’re in!

The mathematical terms can be found on Wikipedia.

Morris “Moe” Hirsch, SM’54, PhD’58
Cross Plains, Wisconsin

Bring it on

Since thorough research and factual accuracy are among the hallmarks of a U of C education, I feel compelled to belabor discussion of a topic (one that has already garnered more than enough coverage) with a firsthand account—namely, the “alleged” Themistocles, Thucydides cheer.

Coming from a woefully traditional environment in the western suburbs of Chicago, I was the first graduate of my high school to attend the College (1959–63) in many years. Finding the campus culture stimulating but rather intimidating, I compensated by engaging in familiar and more mundane extracurricular activities.

Intercollegiate sports were still being downplayed during the post-Hutchins era, but Coach Joseph Stampf, AB’41, had assembled a basketball team that would make it to the 1961 NCAA College Division national quarterfinals. When someone decided formation of a cheerleading squad was in order, I tried out and (with relatively little competition) was chosen. Perhaps even more astonishing, the University authorized funds for bona fide cheerleader uniforms: white sweaters emblazoned with the “C” logo and pleated maroon-and-white skirts! (It’s questionable whether these uniforms were ever reused, though, since the half-dozen members of our squad ranged in height from 4'11" to 5'2".)

Nevertheless, as the basketball team enjoyed its wildly successful seasons, our height-challenged squad bounded and cheered on the sidelines, including “Themistocles, Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War.” So, just to correct the record, this suitably erudite chant actually made its appearance in the early ’60s, as opposed to later in the decade.

Barbara Yerges Wilson, AB’63
St. Louis

I first learned and chanted “Themistocles, Thermopylae, Peloponnesian War / H2Y2 H2SO4 / Who for, why for, who you going to yell for?” as a first- or second-year student at Shimer College in 1956–57 or 1957–58.

At that time, Shimer offered the Hutchins BA: our placement and comprehensive exams were read at UChicago; the curriculum was set at UChicago; Shimer admissions were coordinated with the UChicago admissions office; and some of the Shimer faculty had been sent to Mt. Carroll, Illinois, to initiate the Hutchins curriculum and test its workability in a small-college setting. There was a lot of informal contact between the institutions too, because many Shimer students (particularly the early entrants) transferred to UChicago or went there for graduate school or to complete a UChicago concentration before applying elsewhere. I don’t know whether the chant was a UChicago chant adapted by Shimer students, or a Shimer chant that infiltrated the mother institution, but I’m guessing it was one or the other.

I transferred to UChicago for the 1958–59 academic year. I attended no sports events , so I don’t know whether the students used the chant at Chicago in the late ’50s.

There were also some songs I learned at Shimer that were closely tied to the Hutchins Core curriculum and might have originated at the U of C. One was sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and began, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the triumph of the id.” The chorus was, “Sociology forever / Anthropology forever / Sensuality forever/ The ego marches on.”

Rosalind Conklin Hays, AB’60, AM’61, PhD’64
Oak Park, Illinois

Quarantined at home during the pandemic, I was delighted to receive the Winter/20 Magazine in the mail together with the Core. The articles and pictures in the Core brought an automatic smile to my face as I realized that the U of C’s oddball intellectual humor has continued on through the generations, blossoming into “Themistocles, Thucydides” and beyond.

The picture of Big Bertha sparked happy memories of the Philosophy Bowl, the one-time intramural football classic—pitting the Aristotelians against the Platonists—sometime during my days in the college between 1947 and 1951. (Can someone date it for me?) I was on the track team, but I served as a football cheerleader (white pants and Maroon “C” sweater) and got to beat on Big Bertha. The drum had been in storage for years on a balcony in the field house, and we brought it down for the occasion. I think it was sold shortly after the Philosophy Bowl, so I may have been the last person to play it at the U of C.

Thanks for the memories and for your talented writers and interviewers. All the best through these trying days!

Hugh Brodkey, AB’51, JD’54
Evanston, Illinois

I’ve just received the Core with its story regarding the University of Chicago’s football teams, and there seems to be a glaring absence of mention of an attempt to bring the sport back to the University by a group of people who were students at the time, in November 1949, when we held a Philosophy Bowl game. And it comprised members of the undergraduate schools who were interested in bringing back football, if only for a brief period of time. I wrote a story about this in 1961 for Illinois History>, published by the Illinois State Historical Library. Interestingly enough, I’d like to bring to your attention the fact that the actor Ed Asner, EX’48, was a member of the team on which I played at that time.

Bernard Wax, AB’50, AM’55
Brookline, Massachusetts

For Bernard Wax’s full account of the Philosophy Bowl, which, as he notes, took place in 1949, visit mag.uchicago.edu/philosophybowl.—Ed.

The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space, clarity, and civility. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage letter writers to limit themselves to 300 words or fewer. While the Magazine staff works remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, please send letters via email: uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu.