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Commencement Cut-Ups at CalArts : Graduates Show Degree of Hilarity

Times Staff Writer

It was a typically atypical graduation ceremony Friday at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

When the name of one bachelor’s degree candidate was called, a white stretch limousine pulled up to the front of the stage, and the chauffeur walked up to the podium and accepted the diploma for his passenger.

Another student, attired in a brown leather jacket, khaki trousers and slouch fedora, climbed down a rope tied to a second-story balcony, bounded across the courtyard and leaped up to the stage while the theme of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” played in the background.

And of course there were CalArts students who took the more traditional route of walking across the stage to pick up their diplomas. Some brought their dogs, others carried their babies, and three film students wore black graduation gowns with Mickey Mouse ears on top of their mortarboards.

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Free-Form Ceremony

Ed Emshwiller, provost of CalArts, called the entire experience “down-to-earth extemporaneous theater.”

CalArts, a private university that specializes in professional education in contemporary visual and performing arts, has long had a tradition of free-form graduation exercises. They include students in costume, dramatic entrances and exits, and individual thank you’s to parents, teachers, friends and pets.

Elsewhere, too, the solemn commencement exercise is long gone. USC students carry balloons to graduation. At Stanford, advanced-degree recipients wear leis over their gowns in place of academic hoods.

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Recently, the administrators of California State University, Northridge, said that excessive champagne drinking and rowdy behavior by graduates during the evening ceremony contributed to their decision to have this year’s graduation early in the morning.

But there is still something special about a CalArts ceremony. Maybe it was the marching Balinese band with bamboo xylophones and gongs. Or maybe it was the multiracial African Music and Dance Ensemble that led the 75 bachelor’s candidates and the 74 master’s candidates to their seats.

It could have been the ushers, dressed entirely in white, who handed out whistles and jars of soap bubbles to the audience. By the time the ceremony began, the Graduation Courtyard was a cacophony of Southeast Asian music and squealing whistles. Above the bewildered but happy parents floated millions of translucent bubbles.

‘Living Statues’

Five students were stationed on pedestals in front of and on the stage as “living statues.” But the CalArts students were imperfect statues--fidgeting, giggling and wincing during the speeches.

There was a serious side to the ceremony. CalArts President Robert Fitzpatrick delivered a stinging indictment of President Reagan’s recent visit to the Bitburg, West Germany, cemetery where he left a wreath in honor of German soldiers killed during World War II.

Telling the graduates that as artists they understand the impact of images and symbols, Fitzpatrick said he was “appalled but not surprised” at Reagan’s visit. The visit, he said, showed that Reagan “failed to comprehend the symbolic impact of this gesture.”

Shankar Thanked

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Perhaps the most moving part of the graduation program featured Ravi Shankar, probably the world’s pre-eminent sitar player. Shankar’s expertise with the long-necked, stringed Indian instrument, and his Hindu philosophy influenced a generation of popular musicians from The Beatles to jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.

When presenting an honorary doctor of performing arts degree to Shankar, Fitzpatrick said it was a way of thanking him for making students steeped in the “European-American culture” aware that there are other ways of thinking, feeling and creating art.

Even some of the graduates brought a taste of reality to the ceremony as they stepped up to receive their diplomas. Some called for the student body to investigate the school’s investments to ensure that it has no ties to companies with plants in South Africa or that export goods to that nation, which enforces racial separation.

But even the realities of world politics could not dampen the high spirits of the graduates, their classmates and their parents. As the ceremony drew to a close, the pop of champagne corks could be heard and cool canyon breezes carried the sound of voices singing the school’s alma mater:

“And so, dear fortress on the hill,

“Our hearts before you lay;

“P-R-A-

“I-S-E

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“T-O C-I-A!”


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