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Red Carpet on Holyoke Street

I recently accepted an invitation from Harvard College’s renowned (judging from their press release) Hasty Pudding Theatricals to attend their annual Man of The Year award presentation. The honoree, Martin Scorcese, was a tough draw to pass up. As for ‘The Pudding’, I had heard of them, or it, sure. But a theater troupe with press that reads a bit like someone speaking of himself in the third person is not something I would normally bundle up to witness.

However, as typical award presentation fawning gave way to undergrads teasing an iconic film director for a black-tie audience, with his willing participation, I realized that the Pudding’s air of notoriety might not be misplaced.

The Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and the awards accompanying their annual production (see the review of “It’s A Wonderful Afterlife” below), are a unique piece of Harvard’s creative history. Over 200+ years, this group has evolved as a true cultural original, with ties to incredible talents-from the undergraduates who have produced 155 seasons of high-caliber original shows, to the internationally accomplished professionals who have enthusiastically received its awards.

A bit of ‘official’ Pudding history:
In 1795, twenty-one Harvard students crowded into a dorm room to celebrate the establishment of a new on-campus society. Members pledged to maintain the club’s secrecy and “to cultivate the social affections and to cherish the feelings of friendship and patriotism.” Most importantly, they mandated that the “members in alphabetical order shall provide a pot of hasty pudding for every meeting.” So The Hasty Pudding Club found its namesake, and the theatrical organization of today found its simpler roots.

The turn of the century saw the introduction of a new tradition into club meetings. In response to increased rowdiness and anarchy, a mock criminal court was improvised to try club members for “insolence” and “contempt of the club.” These trials were a great success, and the club constitution was amended to incorporate these dramatizations into every club meeting. Through the years, these productions became more elaborate, with the addition of costumes and eventually scripts.

In 1844, Harvard senior Lemuel Hayward broke with tradition and secretly arranged the production of an opera, Bombastes Furioso, instead of the expected mock trial. Thus, the first Hasty Pudding Show was born, starting a tradition that has continued for 155 productions, interrupted for only four years by the two World Wars. The first productions were adapted shows from the professional theatre of the era; by the 1860s, the Pudding was producing student-written shows.

Productions were initially performed exclusively for club members, but as popularity grew, audience exclusivity waned. In 1882, the club produced a landmark show that attracted national attention. Dido and Aeneas was a comedic adaptation of Virgil’s classic text and was so popular that the Pudding was offered the opportunity to tour New York and Philadelphia.

The national attention and financial success allowed the Pudding to construct the current clubhouse in 1888, and set the gold standard for all Pudding shows that were to follow.

The modern Pudding show has evolved into a spectacle beyond anything ever envisioned by the founders of the original secret society.

Undergraduates are now provided guidance by theatrical veterans in all aspects of the production, while sets and costumes rival those of professional shows. Still, the show remains at its essence a no-holds-barred drag burlesque, with men playing both the male and female roles. Women are involved in all other aspects of the show, from technical staff, to the band, to authoring and producing the show. With the introduction of the Woman of the Year celebration in 1951, and the Man of the Year in 1967, the Pudding has gained a truly international audience.

The renown of the Pudding was certainly evident a few weeks ago. On opening night of “It’s A Wonderful Afterlife”, the group presented Scorcese with the ceremonial Pudding Pot for his “lasting and significant contribution to the world of entertainment”. The two undergrad hosts also presented an extremely funny send-up of the auteur who brought the world “Taxi Driver”, “Goodfellas” and Michael Jackson’s epic music video, “Bad”.

Taking the stage with fake bushy eyebrows, the hosts first ran Scorcese through a grammar lesson, slapping him with a ruler until his immortalized mobspeak “You talkin’ to me?!” was polished into “To whom are you speaking?”. From there, it was Scorcese breakin’ his way in a dance-off to “Bad” against some thuggish Yale undergrads who threatened to steal “little Marty’s” lunch money. Through the 20 minute roast, Scorcese was clearly having a great time making Pudding history first hand.

Scorcese’s enthusiasm was there in the press conference afterward as well. Speaking through a cold, he wore a smile throughout and answered questions with a genuine appreciation for the talented history of Hasty Pudding, and in admiration of Boston and the Harvard community. In the end, Scorcese is still his own draw. But I guess from the beginning, he and I were both there for the Pudding. (All historical information reprinted from the HTP 2003 Press Release).

March 3, 2003
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