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Play It Again, Sam


By Robert Decherd

AN INTERCEPTED communication to Woody Allen from M. Deacon Dake '73, First Class Marshal:

"Dear Mr. Allen:

"Please do not discard this letter. It is not a fan letter, so I will appreciate it if you read through to the end.

"I am writing on behalf of the Harvard Class of 1973 to ask you to be the keynote speaker at the annual Class Day Ceremony on June 13, 1973 in Harvard Yard.

"You may be wondering why we are asking you to be the speaker on this austere occasion. Hey, hey, well, frankly I am not sure myself how you came to be selected. I suppose my classmates are great admirers of your acting and writing talents. Also, as I remember it now, your name was listed first on the ballot because your last name begins with 'A'..."

And that, probably, is why the First Marshal of the Class of 1973 sent off the Class Day speaking invitation to the wacked-out Mr. Allen a couple of weeks ago. There would seem to be no other rationale for his selection by the Senior Class other than order of call on a preferential ballot for Class Day speakers.

Judging from the overall outcome of the balloting, though, the minds of seniors are working in some bizarre patterns. Following Allen in the balloting were television commentator Walter Cronkite, comedian Bill Cosby, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, and wonder boy comedian Dick Cavett. Madame Binh, Class Marshal Dake reports, finished seventh.

As of yesterday, there had been no response from Woody; Paul Good of the Alumni Office was trying to contact Allen's agent. For the sake of Class Day austerity, though, may we all hope that both Allen and his agent have dropped off the face of the earth.

Just how Allen came out atop the poll of seniors is unclear. Not even half of the class voted. I, for one, never saw a ballot--certainly not one headed by Woody Allen, Walter Cronkite and Madame Binh--and I eat most meals in the dining halls, where the voting took place.

It was, of course, magnanimous of the Class Committee to hold a preferential ballot; until recent years, the Committee chose the Class Day speaker on its own. Unfortunately, though, as one Committee member said last week, "I'm not sure that people took the poll seriously."

That may be something of an understatement. Allen won the preferential poll by such a wide margin (688 to 381 for Cronkite) that the Class Committee felt compelled to brush aside its reservations and abide by the ballot. Generally, one Committee member confided, "most of the idiots got the votes." So much for the democratic process.

Perchance, if Providence is kind, Woody will be tied up on June 13 making his latest film, whatever and wherever it may be. Make no mistake, Woody Allen can be a marvelously absurd figure, ordering 1200 hamburgers to go for his revolutionary cadre in the middle of a Brazilian rain forest and then running the check. And not many humorists would undertake the filming of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*.

As a Class Day speaker, however, Woody leaves a little to be desired. Usually, the Class Day address carries with it some political or social import. Somehow, Woody does not fit the mold of past speakers. The last five years provide a good contrast.

Mrs. Martin Luther King spoke in 1968, just three months after her husband's assassination. Allard K. Lowenstein, the man who fashioned the Dump Johnson Movement in 1968, gave the address the following year. Herbert Holloman, the former assistant Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and now President of the University of Oklahoma, was here in 1970. The speaker in 1971 was Jimmy Breslin (the nearest thing to Woody Allen but still an outspoken political figure), and last year it was New York Times columnist Tom Wicker.

But in 1973, Woody Allen's personality crisis may be served up for seniors, parents and visiting dignitaries.

"Now let's see, Junior. Today is Class Day. What's going to happen there?"

"Oh, not much, mother, just some speeches and awards."

"Well, who's speaking, so I'll be prepared?"

"Woody Allen."


"Woody Allen. You know, the guy who made the movie where the gigantic breast chases him and his girlfriend around outside the mansion of a sex-crazed doctor."

It just doesn't mesh. What is perhaps more astonishing than the results of the Class Day poll, however, is that the 49 members of the Class Committee, and the Class Day subcommittee, could come up with a ballot that included 16 entertainers--from Peter Bogdonovich and Katherine Hepburn to George Harrison and Garo Yepremian--in a field of 34 persons.

One reason for the tenor of the list, Dake says, is that the Class Day subcommittee thought it should try to balance the as yet undetermined political figure being sought by the Associated Harvard Alumni for its afternoon ceremony.

The AHA apparently decided that it wanted the spotlight for a change this year, and so bumped the Class Day ceremony to the morning from its traditional afternoon time slot. Moreover, the AHA is pursuing the biggest name possible, with funds and active recruiting, in order to draw attention to its Commencement activities.

Still, there were a few serious candidates on the seniors' list (Leonard Bernstein, Julian Bond, Shirley Chisholm, Erik Erikson, Francis Fitzgerald, Margaret Mead). But the Class of 1973, like gleeful high school seniors, went for the funny men and the celebrities; and the makeup of the ballot invited just such a result.

Obvious choices, notably Sen. George McGovern, were passed over--people who could deliver an address worth the time spent listening. There are many: Elma Lewis, the founder of the Boston Afro-American Cultural Center who received an honorary degree from Harvard last year; Saul Bellow, another honorary recipient in 1972; J. Anthony Lewis '48, the Times columnist who is returning for his 25th Reunion this year.

Others would be people like W.H. Auden, William O. Douglas, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Earl Warren, Lady Bird Johnson, one of the Berrigan brothers, Ramsey Clark, Sissy Farenthold or Joseph Biden, the youngest man ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

So, if Woody Allen does say "no" to the Class of 1973, perhaps the Class Committee can start from scratch. It can run another referendum with a new slate of names, or (experience tells) it can go out on its own and enlist a speaker who will address the important issues of the day as the Senior Class heads for the world outside.

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