‘Forget it for a weekend’: Spring Weekend offers 64 years of light-hearted celebration

Lauryn Hill performing at Spring Weekend 2014. Photo by Tom Sullivan.
Lauryn Hill performing at Spring Weekend 2014.
Photo by Tom Sullivan.

In March 1950, Mike Handman ’51, co-chair of the first ever Spring Weekend committee, told The Herald that the weekend of April 28, 1950, would be “by far the biggest and best social event of Brown’s history.”

The weekend would feature a performance by jazz musician Elliot Lawrence and his orchestra with vocals by Rosalind Patton during the second annual Hilltopper’s Ball in Sayles Hall. After Friday’s dance, Brown men and their dates could attend an assortment of movie screenings, fraternity parties and athletic events throughout the weekend. The Page Cavenaugh Trio would give another musical performance Saturday with a $5 admission fee, followed by a regatta in Seekonk, Mass., to round out the weekend’s Sunday afternoon.

“This is the first time in many years that two name musical organizations will be playing on The Hill on the same night,” Handman said in a March 29, 1950 Herald article, marking the distinction between Spring Weekend and its precursor, the All-Campus Weekend, which took place only once and replaced Junior Week and Junior Prom.

A week before the festivities, all available tickets for the ball had been purchased  — making the first ever Spring Weekend show also the first to be sold out.

Sixty-four years later, Spring Weekend lives on as a mini music festival that offers a swath of other forms of entertainment for the Brown community. Through the years, the concerts have featured music legends including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

And the weekend has developed some iconic traditions — interspersed with the occasional scandals — of its own: a final Sunday performance from musician David Binder, a dinner on Saturday night in the Sharpe Refectory and occasional blunders and forgeries to do with ticketing.

A celebration of spring

Ronald Grelsamer ’75 recalled his fondest Spring Weekend memory from his freshman year in spring 1971, when a friend suggested the two go to the roof of a building on the Main Green.

“I don’t know how he knew that we could even go up there. I don’t even know if we were allowed to go up there, but we did,” he said. “It was a beautiful view” of Narragansett Bay that contrasted with the array of colors on the Main Green, picturesque with “lots of balloons, lots of beads and colorful garb” and men and women who all “wore the same unisex jeans.”

“It was the hippie era, even though it was no longer the 60s,” Grelsamer said, adding that the feeling of the decade did not end in 1969. According to a Brown Concert Agency list of Spring Weekend acts, that year’s line-up featured Gordon Lightfoot, Sha Na Na, Laura Nyro, Boz Scaggs and Poco, “still by and large the music of the ’60s,” Grelsamer said.

Mary Miller ’81 attended the festivities a decade after Greslamer.

“My biggest memories of Spring Weekend don’t have to do with the big indoor concert,” Miller said. Until 1988, the headlining concert was often held in Meehan Auditorium, which is still used today as a rain location. “I’m not even sure we ever went.”

“It seemed like the first really nice weekend” of the semester, she continued. “All the other weekends at Brown seemed cold and rainy and gray.”

“Everybody was out, enjoying life, hanging out, bumping into friends,” Miller said. “The community just really seemed to come together.”

Though the weekend is known to many as a pleasant time to enjoy the first glimpses of spring on campus, it also has had its fair share of controversies in the past 64 years.

Debauchery and debacles

Two years after Spring Weekend’s inception, President Henry Wriston threatened to cancel it.

During the first ever fraternity pledge night April 6, 1952, 20 students were arrested for causing a “riot” that incited a response from the Providence Police so large it “left the rest of the city virtually unprotected,” The Herald reported the next day.

Wriston’s office announced that all events in the coming weekend would be canceled, including those featuring contracted musicians, The Herald reported April 8. Students would have until the Thursday prior to the weekend to convince the administration why the weekend festivities should continue.

By April 15, Wriston retracted the cancellation on the condition that fraternities take stricter measures in admitting students to parties — only guests with a written invitation from the fraternity would be allowed to enter.

While it was perhaps the first scuffle between students and the administration over Spring Weekend, it would certainly not be the last.

Members of fraternities grew “very creative through the years” as alcohol restrictions during his concert became stricter, said David Binder, an annual staple who has played a concert on Wriston Quadrangle each Spring Weekend Sunday since 1987. After the University banned kegs at Binder’s concert, one fraternity dug a keg-sized hole in the quad, cut a hole in the base of a couch to be placed on top of the keg and hid the entire ensemble with a couch cushion, Binder recalled.

A 1969 concert headlined by Janis Joplin admitted 180 students with forged tickets, The Herald reported April 28, which led to a futile investigation by the Spring Weekend committee and the University to find the source of the fake tickets.

In 1987, due to a bottleneck in ticket sales, 700 students waited on the Main Green — some more than 24 hours — for tickets to Elvis Costello. Instead, many of them received vouchers that would “guarantee them a space in line to buy tickets Friday or Monday, depending on their number.”

A number of students dubbed the incident the “Elvis Ticket Debacle,” but the show, The Herald reported, was still a hit.

It “was anything but predictable,” David Temkin ’89 wrote in a April 29 Herald review. “It seemed like Elvis had spent time considering exactly how to confuse the audience. He opened with a brief, narrated slide show, peppered with jibes at the Beastie Boys and other hallowed American institutions.”

Bob Dylan plays Spring Weekend in 1964. Herald file photo.
Bob Dylan plays Spring Weekend in 1964.
Herald file photo.

The art of booking

The list of acts BCA has brought to Brown since the group’s creation in 1960 reads much like a record of now-famous artists who were on the cusp of musical fame in the years they performed. But booking a lineup whose artists might one day rival the fame of Spring Weekend headliners past requires the careful navigation of several obstacles.

BCA must balance a finite budget, determined annually by the University Finance Board, to fund a two-headliner music festival that pleases a student body with diverse music tastes, while also combating rising prices of booking musicians for live shows. In recent years, another variable has come into play, with the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival occasionally interfering with scheduling potential performers, The Herald has previously reported.

The degree of positive or negative feedback BCA receives each year seems to be “directly correlated with budget,” said BCA booking chair Micah Greenberg ’14.

“People’s expectations get higher and higher” every year, said Emma Ramadan ’13, former BCA booking chair, and sometimes “you see this unfortunate thing where our budget can’t keep up” with the inflation of live show booking prices.

The process of booking typically begins with scouring prospective headliners and sending their names to agency-employed booking agents, who determine if any artists from the list are feasible based on factors such as the group’s budget and the artist’s asking price and availability, Ramadan said.

“The first round of names that the students and the concert agency are interested in are prohibitively expensive,” said Jack Reich, one of BCA’s booking agents who has worked off and on with the group since the 1970s.

Such groups quote between $750,000 and $1,000,000, around four times BCA’s budget in recent years, which was set to be about $300,000 for the 2014 concerts, The Herald previously reported. These same artists probably cost as little as $200,000 a decade ago, Reich said.

BCA employs several strategies to maximize the lineup quality for the price, Ramadan explained, such as seeking out artists who are “a little bit under the radar but hopefully will be bigger by the time April comes around.”

BCA did just that by snagging 2013 headlining act Kendrick Lamar with an early bid.

“Getting Kendrick was a coup. He’s quoting eight or 10 more times than last year,” Reich said. “We got him just as he was peaking. He’ll be too expensive for us to ever come again.”

The band Vampire Weekend cost BCA about $10,000 in 2008, Reich said. “This year, they wanted almost the entire talent budget for the seven acts,” Reich said. “And that’s why they weren’t at Spring Weekend.”

Another alternative is to find a “throwback” artist who may be making a comeback or is still popular, Ramadan said, citing 2014 act Lauryn Hill and 2010 headliner Snoop Dogg as examples.

BCA’s current booking strategies seem to mirror those for concerts of the past — Springsteen, for example, played many colleges including Brown as the 1974 headliner before becoming famous, Binder said.

“A lot of these acts will start out playing college … on the way up” in popularity, Binder said. They start as indie names in music, “then all of the sudden they’re huge.”

A microcosm of Brunonian history

As an annual event with details coordinated almost entirely by Brown students, Spring Weekends throughout the years have reflected important historical changes in the Brown student experience.

One of the most important events in Brown’s academic legacy — the adoption of the Open Curriculum — owes its success, at least in part, to the momentum and organization that came out of an especially successful Spring Weekend in 1967.

Co-author of the New Curriculum Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, who later became student government president, decided to spearhead an initiative to organize “concerts on campus on a scale that had never been attempted before,” Magaziner wrote in his essay “Talking ’Bout My Generation” in “The Brown Reader,” a book the University published for its 250th anniversary.

Magaziner and other organizers booked a vast nine-act musical lineup that included James Brown, The Doors, Ian and Sylvia, Dizzy Gillespie and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Comedian Jean Shepherd and poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were also invited to perform. It was the “first large-scale Spring Weekend ever attempted in New England” with thousands of attendees, Magaziner wrote.

“This wildly successful Spring Weekend, and the organization it took to pull it off, was a precursor to the organized effort we created” to pass the curricular reform, which required the meticulous organization of students and the lobbying of faculty “to pass fundamental reforms” by spring 1968, Magaziner wrote.

Phil O’Hara ’55, who served as a student activities office director from 1987 until 2010, observed the relationship between the student body and the variety of Spring Weekend festivities as both an undergraduate and as an administrator who helped students coordinate the events.

“Brown is a very diverse campus and very different from when I was here in the 50s,” O’Hara said, adding that when his sophomore class included an Irish student, a Jewish student and Italian student, the group joked it “was a little U.N.”

As O’Hara watched Brown’s student body evolve, he observed the entertainment of Spring Weekend change with it.

Because the weekend is “essentially student-run,” over time it has brought in a variety of acts from many different genres that appeal to students with different tastes in music, he said.

“Not only do you select your own courses,” O’Hara said. “But you can also give voices to your interests and desires, culturally and entertainment-wise. I think that’s really unique to Brown.”

One of the best examples of student-driven entertainment began in Spring Weekend 1987, O’Hara said. The Sunday act would feature musician David Binder, who at the time was unheard of to most Brown students but would grow to be a cult fascination for the Brown community.

Binder’s annual performance, which features an amalgam of classic rock songs and children’s sing-a-long songs, has remained largely unchanged since his first concert at Brown, Binder said. “I totally wing it,” never using a set lineup of songs going into the concert, he said.

“What you have to realize is that back in 1987, I was playing a lot of the same kind of songs, but they weren’t such classics at that point,” Binder said. “My ’80s medley was just current tunes back then,” he added, rattling off common songs he brings to his annual set such as “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison and “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty.

“Dave Binder has been an attraction that has helped people maintain friendships over decades rather than just the four years you are here,” O’Hara said, pointing out that Binder’s performances at Spring Weekend and his later annual booking for Senior Week brings students together and provide a place to gather during reunions.

“Times have changed, attitudes have changed, and maybe acts have changed, but the feeling of Spring Weekend is still about freedom from books and things you’re supposed to do, and you forget it for a weekend,” Binder said. “And I don’t think that’s really changed.”