Where the Grad Goes Away Mad : The Tradition Is to Do It Weirdly When You Graduate from CalArts

Times Staff Writer

First there was a mock political assassination. Then a young man stepped to the microphone and gave a speech while being whipped by women singing German opera.

On Friday afternoon in Valencia, the people at California Institute of the Arts once again offered their annual display of weirdness and extemporaneous theater.

It's a little something they like to call graduation.

And in a new twist this year, the students' weirdness was rewarded with cash prizes.

"Don't you want a little wisdom before you leave?" said incoming president Steven Lavine, reacting to the madness during his address to departing students and their parents.

"No!" came the resounding answer.

CalArts, a college of about 800 students, is nationally respected for its arts education. The school was founded in 1968 with money bequeathed by the late Walt Disney, who had conceived of it as a "high-arts sequel to Disneyland." CalArts quickly became known as "Mickey Mouse U." and in the years since has become notorious for its singular version of graduation day.

By Land and Air

In past years, graduates have arrived at the podium by limousine, helicopter and swinging rope. During one ceremony, Robert Fitzpatrick, past president, was cut loose in a hot-air balloon, landing 40 miles away in a field.

This time around, school officials decided to offer $88 in cash to each of the three strangest performances while accepting a diploma. Perhaps they figured, as writer Hunter S. Thompson once put it, that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

There was a method to this madness. Recently, graduation ceremonies have been running long, with "more boring speeches than the Academy Awards," said Richard Jenney, director of student affairs. So, only those acceptances 20 seconds and under would be considered for the cash prizes.

Unfortunately, the method didn't work.

Most students ignored the time limit and some took extra time at the microphone to protest the restriction.

So graduation ended up running an hour longer than usual.

Winning Performances

Summer Rognlie, a theater school graduate, took her opportunity on stage to live out a lifelong dream. She had a fellow classmate present her with a 7-foot-tall Academy Award.

"It's my fantasy, so go to hell," she told the audience. "You like me. You really like me," she said, mimicking actress Sally Field's Oscar acceptance speech.

Sharon Cohen took only 20 seconds to scream into the microphone. That won her $88. Jeffry Blake Border, a film and video graduate, wore Mickey Mouse pants, carried a bowling ball and talked gibberish.

It was strange, and it was short. He won $88 too.

"I thought of it about 15 minutes before graduation started," Border said.

Of course, certain aspects of the CalArts graduation ceremony that have been passed down through the years were carried on in 1988. Javanese music was played as an introduction, and West African dancers, CalArts' version of a marching band, led the candidates to their seats.

Parents and friends in the audience blew the traditional soap bubbles throughout the afternoon, and much confetti was thrown into the breeze.

Such irreverence might be expected in a school where dogs and skateboarders roam the halls and, during a recent lunchtime, an artistic performance outside the cafeteria consisted of a tape recording of a man screaming obscenities.

And school officials, though preaching brevity, did nothing to discourage the madness at graduation.

Jon Lovelace Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, performed an African dance in suit and tie as part of his address to the graduating class. Faculty members handed out diplomas while sipping beer from bottles.

Student council president Curtis Massey presented his own staged assassination, with other students pretending to riddle him with submachine gun bullets, then throwing his body into the back of a pickup truck and driving off. He later returned playing a saxophone.

There were a few serious moments. One student led the audience in a minute of silence for CalArts students who have died of AIDS. Another student unfurled a banner across the podium that read Teach Yourself. And several others offered tearful goodbys to the institute.

"I'd like to thank my mom and dad," Sean Doherty said. "Because without them, I'd probably be normal."

COMMENCEMENT 1988

The California Institute of the Arts held its 18th annual graduation ceremony Friday on the Graduation Courtyard. Degrees were conferred on 222 students, including 89 graduate degrees.

Keynote Speaker: Steven Lavine, president-elect of CalArts, said: "As a nation, we respect the arts. Perhaps we respect them too much; we intimidate ourselves and then, once intimidated, deny the arts and artists the affection and support necessary for them to survive. CalArts reverses our usual national priorities, placing artists at the center rather than the margin, giving artists a chance to create in ways that might eventually change us all."

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