Fifteen Minutes: The Pudding is Dead...long live the pudding?

Four U.S. presidents and more than 200 years--gone. The Hasty Pudding Club, Harvard's oldest social organization, has fallen on an

Four U.S. presidents and more than 200 years--gone. The Hasty Pudding Club, Harvard's oldest social organization, has fallen on an era that doesn't want it. Mired in debts, the club is getting squeezed by a University anxious for real estate and utterly opposed to the elite living that the Pudding has come to epitomize. Trouble had long been brewing: club members, confined to smaller quarters and deprived of liquor, increasingly scoffed at the prospect of paying high dues and remaining in the club. In the end, the club's trustees agreed to a Harvard buyout, in the hopes of saving the decrepit building. The annual musical review will remain, along with the singing groups that make their homes in the Pudding's 12 Holyoke St. clubhouse, but the outfit will never be the same.

n the first of September of 1795, when Harvard was only a college and America was barely a nation, a gang of juniors relaxing in Nymphas Hatch's dorm room decided to form their own special society. After a successful year of Yankee-doodling congregations, the group decided their society should live on after their graduation and they elected "to admit seventeen of the most worthy members of the junior class." They wrote a constitution establishing weekly dinners and annual celebrations in honor of George Washington. The club's productive signature soon developed: the musical comedy with the male cast that has featured the likes of William F. Weld '66 and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Class of 1861. The social side grew to be the center of chichi life at Harvard, and soon anyone who wanted to be anyone counted Pudding membership as an existential prerequisite.

     But the Pudding, as a club, appears to be have reached its end. After a year of intensive talks, the Pudding's board of trustees, Harvard Planning and Real Estate and the University came to an agreement Tuesday morning about the future of the aged building and its antique inhabitants: Harvard will take over, renovate and use the room for student space. This decision effectively saves the building and three of the student groups that use it--Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the Krokodiloes and the Pitches. But the future of the social club is black. "Upstairs at the Pudding," the restaurant that provides the club's lunches, will leave as soon as its lease runs out in order to give regular Harvard student groups room to meet. To operate with any kind of official recognition from Harvard and the ability to remain in the building at all, the club would have to do away with its membership fees and its entire selection process. "Punching" does not jibe with the College's vision. For the Hasty Pudding Club, there isn't much left.

     The death spiral began decades ago. Beset with money troubles, the club has long had to think creatively since its own wallet has come up surprisingly empty. In the early 1980s, the club restaurant, where members could buy a steak dinner for less than $10, dwindled in popularity. With no one patronizing the expensive venture, the club decided it was in its best interest to lease the space as a public restaurant, inaugurating Upstairs at the Pudding. As financial ruin loomed, the Club looked to Harvard for a lifeline, and in 1986, the University purchased the land--but not the building--that the Pudding calls home. Since then, Harvard has acted as the building's protective landlord by leasing the building to the Institute of 1770-Hasty Pudding Club, the umbrella organization for all four affiliates. Even with this additional help, the club remains stunted by monetary woes and continues to allow the building at 12 Holyoke St. to fall further into disrepair--broken chairs in the theater, run-down wiring and dilapidated facades reveal the desperate need for renovation. Behind in payments to HPRE, the club knew Harvard would not allow the relationship to continue in this manner. "The club owed HPRE a lot of money," Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth '71 explains. "In the agreement, the club was supposed to do a lot of maintenance work that hasn't been done." And so, he says the settlement appeases both sides. Harvard will have space and the club will retain its historic character. The question of the club and its 200 members, however, remains.

     The decision to give the building over to Harvard translates into extensive resources for renovation. "The first thing that's going to happen is that the theater is going to be restored, then the rest of the building is going to be restored--plumbing, heating and wiring," Illingworth says. "It's going to be expensive. We don't know how expensive." HPRE's Scott Levitan puts the pricetag at over $5 million. But the College's involvement revolves entirely around the significance of the theatre. Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one of the most successful and well-known student groups at Harvard, provides both good P.R. and top-drawer theatre experience, facts not lost on the administration. "Everyone agrees the theatre is more important," Former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says. "It's more consistent with the College's purpose. The College's interest is enhanced because of the theatre."

     Although the graduate members presumably stand up for the future of the entire Institute, many have closer ties with the theatricals. And while most were also members of the social club, the organization has transformed so much over the past 30 years that practically every member experienced a different form of club life--all of which are different from the current state of the club. "The loyalty of the alumni is to the theatricals," Epps says. Although the theatricals and the social club have been separate entities for decades, there was always a considerable amount of overlap between the groups. Now, an intersection is rare. Alumni reminiscences of club life often mention the theatricals. Trustee Bruce H. Minevitz '75 was both a member of the club and co-producer of the 127th show, Put Up Your Dukes. He recalls his fondest memories as ones involving the Man and Woman of the Year celebrations and the trip to Bermuda. But deciding whether or not he would join the social organization today, he had to ponder the question. "I would join the Hasty Pudding Club because of its connections to the Hasty Pudding Show," he tells FM, after long contemplation. "In retrospect, my participation with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals was clearly the most important non-academic activity in my Harvard experience." Although the club and the theatricals boast a good working relationship, their ties are tenuous.

     Membership Coordinator William B. Decherd '01 concedes that while graduate board members must deal with all four organizations under the Institute's umbrella, their loyalties are evident. "It's my impression that the graduate board is mainly concerned with the preservation of our greatest Hasty Pudding Tradition, which is a long history of great performances, both musical and theatrical," he says. "But the graduates also recognize that an important element of the Institute is its social presence on campus."

     The outcome of the discussion has exposed the biases of both the graduates and the University. Harvard recognizes the entire Institute, including the social club, making it the only hold out of the clubs that retains some University ties. But as a purely social organization with little reason for existence, the Pudding would have little place in a University-run building. It would be unlikely that Harvard could continue justifying this relationship with a club, especially one with a perceived elitist attitude. Asked what would happen to the social club if Harvard were to take over, acting Graduate Board director John L. Dotson '82 replied simply, "I don't know." Illingworth gave a darker picture of the possibility of continuing the club in a form comparable to its present operation. "I have had a preliminary talk with the officers," Illingworth says. "We're in a conversation with them about if they want to remain private and change location or maybe become accepted as an official student organization." The details of what the club would have to do in order to maintain a space in the building remain fuzzy, but the membership process would certainly need some tweaking. "How people join and membership practices need to be more open than they are now," Illingworth says.

     At midnight Wednesday morning, about 50 members of the social club convened to discuss the agreement and its ramifications for their future. For legal reasons, the graduate board had not been able to tell anyone, including the club's officers, that they had been in negotiations for 18 months about possible changes. "We knew the organization was going to undergo some transformation from how things were going, but we had no graduate board confirmation," says Decherd, who is also a Crimson editor. The officers, who had learned of the agreement Tuesday, explained the situation as well as possible options. In order to maintain their current space, the club would have to reconstitute its punch process into a system with a meritocratic basis. "Whether we choose to take that avenue or continue to exist with our current process and find other space on this campus, we're entering this with a very open mind," he says. The direction of the club will depend on the aims of the new executive board.

     If Upstairs at the Pudding finds another location somewhere in the Square, the club could try to retain lunches there, Illingworth theorizes. Or the club could look for another place to hold events. But as the Greek organizations and other social clubs researching for real estate possibilities could tell Pudding leadership, finding a house--especially a well-located one--is no easy task. Even as a Harvard organization, the Pudding would have to compete for their "members' lounge" with other student groups' meetings or parties. The prospect of obtaining a house is not entirely daunting to the club, according to Decherd. "We have a bank account that's really quite sizeable that is not affected by the agreement," he says. "We have a tremendous alumni support base that could give us a leg up on finding a new club house, 6,000 graduates who are quite influential people frankly."

     Also, the club may also consider doing without a club house for a few years while looking for a suitable property. "A club is a club is a club whether it has a facility or even if there isn't a space in the short run," Decherd says, explaining that for the first several decades of the club's existence, the Pudding managed without an official space. A core group of members seem eager to keep the group intact as a social club.

     A move to another building raises questions as to the relationship between the club and the other three student groups involved in the Institute. Decherd says the organizations have maintained a fabulous working relationship over the past few years, and the students have helped each other weather these huge transformations recently. "The different groups are rethinking the structure of how they will all be related to one another, and in the end they may be closer to each other," he says.

     But the Pudding socialites won't need a building without a membership base. Perhaps one of the reasons the grads were willing to agree to the change even with the dramatic ramifications to club life was the fact that the club's popularity has suffered a major blow. As the school year began, the grad board surprised members with news that the club would serve no alcohol, much to the chagrin of the regulars who had grown accustomed to weekly Thursday and Sunday night shindigs. Club leadership has attempted to hold the group together and pinpoint some other reasons for existence. At the time of the change, Decherd said the shift would be a positive one. "Really, the club is not about alcohol," said Decherd. "This gives us a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate the organization. What traditions do we want to renew?" Lunches and the occasional party haven't been cutting it for many members, who had turned to the club for a social outlet. A female junior in the club says the organization has changed completely over the course of the year. "It's become a different kind of club--so now different people dominate," she explained. "It doesn't have an identity anymore." She says the only reason she has retained her membership is that her parents pay for it. "If it came out of my own pocket, I would never join," she says.

     Every semester many people decide not to "rededicate," or shell out the $125 fee that keeps membership active. But this semester seems to be worse than in the past. A female junior who decided not to pay her bill this semester said she based her decision on the recent changes in the club. "There were no more parties in the Pudding. It's just different," she said. "If I had friends in it, I could see them outside. So we decided together to save the money." The woman who decided to retain her membership said the biggest clue to the fact that people were not rededicating this semester has been the flood of messages from the officers telling club members "it's not too late to rededicate."

     Scott P. Asher '02, who, as a Krok, doesn't have to pay the fee, agrees that the shift has had adverse effects. "The no alcohol policy hurt the Pudding a lot," he says, though he adds that parties are "getting fun again" second semester. Other members said officers have tried to sneak in a few wet parties without the trustees knowing, which have been extremely well-received by the club. Kroks Manager George W. Hicks '99-'00 contends that the club had no choice in the alcohol matter given the atmosphere in the College. "They're making the best of the situation given the general discouragement of alcohol and the general concern over liability," he said, pointing to recent changes in final clubs' guest policies. He praises the Pudding officers for their ability to adapt the club and says the alcohol change has improved the quality of the Pudding experience. "There's less of an emphasis now on alcohol being involved in every aspect," Hicks says. "It's sifted off the bad elements that gave it a bad reputation. There are no more alcoholic nightmares walking around." People may be disappointed, but he tells fellow members that the grad board is simply acting as a "barometer of the real world." "You can't fight city hall or the Harvard administration, but you can work in parameters of what's appropriate," Hicks says.

     This argument meshes well with the trustees' reasoning for the policy shift. When they were undergraduates, the drinking age was lower, so alcohol at the club was not as much of a privilege. Consumption of alcohol has played a fairly large role in the club's life. An early constitution of the club included a stipulation on alcohol use: "No alcoholic drinks except Malt Liquor shall be allowed in the Club House." This rule soon fell out of favor as the second floor of the current building became a full-time bar. By the mid 1970s, the drink of choice was the whiskey sour, so at the beginning of each night the bartender would set out about 50 glasses--with appropriate garnishes--over the entire bar and spend the evening filling them up. "There's a story that [former U.S. attorney general] Elliot L. Richardson '41 had to be carried out every night, but it wasn't really like that in our day," Daniel G. Swistel '75 maintains however. "Getting drunk was not a routine thing." And John Dotson recalls the band's drinking contest, in which "one member had to check into the hospital every year." These youthful indiscretions notwithstanding, trustees felt the alcohol violations of today's students had grown out of hand, especially when dealing with College requests to uphold drinking laws. "The change was taken to address certain aspects of social intercourse that were unacceptable combined with what we think is a much more acceptable platform," Dotson explains.

     What the graduate board did not foresee was the side effect of the change. One of the biggest complaints about the club has always been its perceived elitism. With the shift from parties to lunches, some members complain that the club has created an even greater aura of exclusivity. "People would say, 'Whatever. It's kind of elitist and snobby, but at least there's free alcohol.' Now people can't even say that anymore," says one member, who requested anonymity.

     Still, the Pudding does have its supporters. Decherd emphasizes the club's identity as the only co-ed social institution at Harvard. Club Vice President Haley M. Joel '01 says she loves the club because it offers the chance to gather with other students for lunches and the use of the members lounge, which subscribes to over 15 magazines. "We're trying not to dwell on the past--positive strides toward a different kind of club." As part of her new vision for the club, Joel has poured her energy into an upcoming charity event for pediatric AIDS. "The club and pediatric AIDS have a very special relationship," Joel says. She stresses that the event does not make the Pudding a service club, but she has been overwhelmed by positive responses from club members offering to stuff envelopes and perform other tasks to get the evening planned. Pudding President Jessica S. Wu '00 also speaks glowingly of the idea. "As for the charity event, it's just a wonderful way to give back to the community, utilizing our resources and alumni for a terrific cause."

     As rosy as these views may be, other members acknowledged that the Pudding's foray into charity events may not be the answer to salvation. "People think it's ridiculous," a female member said. "Maybe alumni will go, but the reaction of most people is, 'Come on. We're students.'"

ooking back on Pudding history, every era has presented the club with obstacles (see ), but no time has compared with the past 30 years, which have proved devastating. For the first half of the 20th century, the Pudding remained static. The members--white males from privileged families--pulled out female garb and other outrageous costumes every year for the big show and fraternized the rest of the year on special club nights. Other than the creation of the Kroks in 1944 by a group of four guys who liked hanging out in the second floor bar, little of lasting significance occurred. But things began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s when counterculture found a foothold at Harvard.

     With Students for a Democratic Society and other rabble-rousers getting all the attention, the Pudding as well as the even more exclusive final clubs lost their appeal. The idea of joining other "clubbies" for a meal and a drink simply did not appeal to the radical idealists who populated the campus.

     In the spirit of liberalism, students who did decide to join wanted to widen the scope of membership to include a greater number and range of people. Newell Flather '61, who served on the selection committee as vice president of the Pudding, says the application process in the early 1960s was simple. When the committee went over applications, they established a rule: "If someone on the committee knew them and liked them, they would be elected. If someone of the committee didn't like them, they would not be elected unless there was a groundswell of support. If no one on the committee knew them, they would not be elected," he says. Flather, a self-proclaimed collegiate "doer," who knew a vast percent of his class, made it his mission to include men he knew would not have gotten in otherwise. It was during his time, for instance, that a significant number of Jews gained admission to the club. In another move to expand the membership base, when co-education came around in the early 1970s, women were almost immediately invited to join. "[The introduction of women] made it a lot more fun, and made it easier for the final clubs not to take women," Swistel recalled from his days during the transition. The final clubs kept their traditional role as a bastion of male camaraderie, while the Pudding altered their role to maintain a large following. The broadening spectrum of membership kept the Pudding popular, even during anti-club times. Had the Pudding not managed to include these other undergraduates, the club could have easily gone the way of clubs like the Pi Eta and the O.K.--oblivion.

     The larger membership helped the club stay afloat, but problems popped up again in 1971 when theatricals went bankrupt over the show The Wrong Way In. Swistel acknowledged that the theatricals' business practices were lacking. The club and theatricals were still intertwined as one organization, but club types did not always make the best drama decisions and the state of theatrical finances was grim until two enterprising members overhauled the organization's management. "They said we had to redo the business plan, how we sold tickets--specialized in group sales and advanced sales. And they convinced their parents to kick in $5,000 or $10,000. With this financial boost, the theatricals went back in the black. The 1970s also saw a resurgence of interest in the club. "The dining room was always crowded, the bar was always full," Swistel said. "But," he adds, "it all fell apart after we left."

     Flather, who has supported the club for 40 years, says the recent incarnations of the Pudding have not mirrored his remembrances. "It doesn't strike me as as nice a place as when I was there. It does not seem as well maintained," he notes. "It's a chopped up institution. It doesn't have the feel that it's completely in the hands of the undergraduates." With alcohol laws creating legal problems for the club and financial issues weighing it down, graduates had no choice but to get involved.

     By the 1980s, there was no denying the club was on the way down. In 1981, even the New York Times was reporting on the $33,000 debt in back taxes the club would have to pay in order to prevent foreclosure, as well as $18,000 in University debts. ''Somebody had to pay the piper, and now the piper is at the door,'' Andrew L. Farkas '82, the Pudding President that year told the Times. "Over the past decade the Pudding suffered from a social disease: It lacked popularity, its management was poor and the financial control was abominable."

     In 1982, the club gave up on its restaurant, which had been the focus of club life for decades. Members would buy tickets downstairs and then move up to the third floor for meals with dates or buddies from the club. The number of people eating in the club had dwindled to the point that the operation was too expensive to continue. "The popularity of getting a little dressed up and going to dinner, that atmosphere was waning," Minevitz said. "The club was running an expensive restaurant for very few undergraduates." In 1986, the University pulled the Pudding out of its immediate problems when HPRE purchased the property on which the clubhouse sits. HPRE's Scott Levitan said the University took action purely to rescue the Institute from financial ruin. "We work with the trustees to preserve the student groups. Otherwise, I don't think Harvard would be stepping in to deal with their problems," he said. But the University may have had a few stronger motives. "The primary reason was to land bank a valuable piece of property that sat near the college that we did not wish to go to anyone else," Epps says.

     The land purchase certainly staved off extinction, but the financial problems were far from over. Epps said that a few years ago he had been involved in talks dealing with outstanding obligations to the University. Recent discussions have also dealt with use of the building for other student activities. The College may lose Agassiz Theatre with the expansion of the Radcliffe Institute, and with student space a growing concern, especially space for drama productions, the building appears attractive and well-placed to the College. Illingworth confirmed the advantages of the space, admitting that the College's agreement with Agassiz will only last until 2004.

     Dotson admitted before the conclusion of the talks that he has been dealing with these financial issues for much of his three years on the board, but recently he has been embroiled in these talks more frequently. "Harvard has certain contractual rights. I would prefer not to say where we're headed," he said. Levitan confirmed that he has been in contact with the group at least once a week. He enigmatically stated, "If an event occurred which brought ownership into jeopardy, Harvard would have to intercede." But both sides were similarly hush hush on any details. Until the hour of the agreement Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 emphatically declined all comment on the matter.

     Levitan acknowledged that the conversations about the aged building could lead to a big change for the club--he even hinted at the possibility of a University takeover of the building. "If the ownership of the building were to revert to Harvard, FAS would use it to accommodate student groups' needs," he described as the ideal relationship between the two bodies. Though the Pudding's lease won't run out for another 85 years, the University's vast resources could allow it to gain control much sooner.

     The "agreement in principle," as Levitan refers to the outcome of the lengthy discussions between Harvard and the Pudding trustees, which will be executed this coming September, marks the next era of Pudding history--probably one without the social club in any recognizable state. "I definitely don't see it surviving the way it is," a female junior in the club said prior to the agreement.

     Hard times are nothing new for the social club, and with ingenuity on the part of officers and graduates, the Pudding could still find another form to take. "If I have anything to do with it, the Pudding will not fold," Decherd says. "I'm very excited about the possibilities for the future. A co-ed social institution should still play an important role on this campus." But one certainty is that the club cannot continue as it is today. To those who complain of elitism, the change may be positive. But in losing the Pudding, Harvard is also losing one of the oldest living pieces of its history. "If you described it to someone from another country, it would seem to have no place," says Flather. "In many ways, the Pudding is an anachronism, but a celebrated one."