February 18, 2005

President dropped Lascivious Ball in 1984

In a recent "Uncommon Interview" with the Maroon, Greg Wendt, A.B. '83, encouraged the return of the Lascivious Costume Ball (LCB), prompting an inquiry into the history and current opinions of the notorious event.

Formerly held at Ida Noyes Hall, the LCB began in the late 1960s as a student-organized replacement of the Washington Promenade, a formal dance held in the winter since 1903, which annually crowned a Miss University of Chicago.

In the midst of the countercultural era, a campus group calling itself the Student Project on Equal Rights for Men (SPERM) demanded the same contest for the opposite sex, claiming it would finally objectify the male. This "Mr. U of C" event became incorporated into the LCB and remained its highlight among a number of more controversial events.

"The UC Students' Guide to the Lascivious Costume Ball," a program printed for the 1970 social and permanently archived at the Regenstein Library's Special Collections, describes not only dancing and costume contests, but also X-rated adult films and a pool-beach party for those "willing to bare it all." Student response was huge; a crowd of nearly 1500 filled in that year, three times the number expected.

The 1970 festivity also featured an emcee from the campus group Students for Violent Non-Action who announced efforts to institute a weekly nude "swim-in," leading the crowd in cheers of "I am Horny," and reading passages from a pornographic novel.

In its early days the Lascivious Costume Ball (LCB) poked fun at academia by promoting itself as a "celebration of the libertine arts," which, with the introduction of "exotic dancers from the ‘Greek neighborhoods' of Evanston," would be of "particular interest to graduate students in anthropology," according to a Maroon article in 1974.

The ball's organizers encouraged nudity for attendees by setting admission fee proportional to one's attire, waiving the fee for those wearing nothing. Throughout the years the ball was also known to hold amateur strip competitions.

Though sexuality was by definition a primary component of the LCB, it was not an immediate factor in the gala's 1984 termination. "In the opinion of many at the University [the ball] became more and more problematic as more people went to it," recalled Edward Turkington, at that time associate dean of students in the University. "We believed it was harmful to participants and the community."

Herman Sinaiko, then dean of students in the College, opposed the cancellation, maintaining, "Any homegrown tradition ought to be preserved." Nevertheless, he agreed with Turkington that the major problem with the LCB was the students' excessive use of alcohol and other substances before arrival.  Fighting and subsequent hospital trips, both Turkington and Sinaiko said, were yearly occurrences.

Another difficulty was the imposition of outsiders, said Jean Treese, associate dean of students in the College, who was formerly among Sinaiko's staff.  "What began to happen was that people from all over the city would try to get in," Treese said.  "It became a voyeuristic, nasty event."

Presiding over the University in 1984 was Hanna H. Gray, who remembered the Lascivious Costume Ball as "a wonderful and funny thing in its origins [that] degenerated into something different."  Gray, who in 1985 famously said of the school, "There was a perception that life here was—I won't say gray, that's hard for me—but beige," thinks now that the campus tone has brightened with the increasing undergraduate enrollment.

The proposal to reestablish the LCB meets with mixed reviews from the veteran administration. Both Turkington and Treese, having witnessed the revelry as chaperones, are not in favor of its return.  Sinaiko, considering the studiousness endemic at Chicago, believes it would be beneficial to the undergraduate reputation.

Current students are similarly divided. Sida Xiong, a fourth-year in the College and editor-in-chief of Vita Excolatur, foresees its positive effect. "If the LCB comes back, it could make for a really interesting experience for the student community," Xiong said.

"After all, exhibitionism and crazy, sexy fun make for a great awareness event."

First-years Claire Elderkin and Karen Kinsley agree. "I'm all for U of C students showing off their hot bodies," said Elderkin.

"[It] would be a great idea," added Kinsley. "Contrary to popular belief, our university possesses powerfully sexual people."

One could use the same institution to argue the opposite. "I don't think I have any investment in seeing acre upon acre of pale nerd flesh," said fourth-year Dan Clinton.  "If they do bring it back, I have this suspicion that people would be showing how unrepressed they are.  I don't need to watch [that]."

Nevertheless, the possibility remains open if only students would resurrect the Ball, as it was known in its earlier days. "I like that the LCB had the smarmy, self-deprecating U of C tone [found] in so many of our other events, like Scav Hunt," Xiong said. Treese and Gray both praised those students who had worn creative costumes.

It is an implication that, in its initial years, the event was truly a Ball—however salacious—and not a Bacchanalia.