You can visit the Willamette Valley in Oregon just about any summer to sample wines, beers and spirits, hike the buttes, float in a river or cycle alongside one. But this August, there’s a Baby Boomer bonus: the chance to see “National Lampoon’s Animal House” slip awkwardly into middle age.
As most Oregonians know, “Animal House” was filmed on and near the University of Oregon’s Eugene campus in the fall of 1977. As the world knows, it was released in the summer of 1978 to riotous laughter despite, or perhaps because of, its poor taste. It made John Belushi a movie star and launched the directing career of John Landis.
To mark its 40th birthday, many in and around Eugene are putting together celebrations — especially the people in nearby Cottage Grove, scene of the film’s climactic parade.
On Aug. 18, that town will host a parade (with Deathmobile) and toga party featuring performer DeWayne Jessie, who has been performing as Otis Knight ever since his role in the movie, in which he is seen singing the Isley Brothers’ “Shout!”
On campus, the Erb Memorial Union, long a gathering place for students, got a gleaming upgrade in 2016. But look closely at the glass-walled dining area known as the Fish Bowl. Yes, this where Belushi ridiculously overloaded a tray, sat at a table to do his impression of a zit, then set off a food fight.
The cafeteria line is now a Chipotle Mexican Grill. But there’s still a series of window booths, and two of them are within a few feet of the spot where Belushi and company sat.
As for the rest of the University of Oregon, the noble quad, athletic fields and fraternity row of which, played such central parts in the story? Well, you can certainly see them, but that’s where the awkwardness comes in.
The university doesn’t completely ignore the movie. Between the third and fourth quarter of every Oregon Ducks football home game, the crowd sings “Shout!” And most campus tours mention it.
Emily Beck, a 21-year-old senior and vice president of membership development of the university’s Panhellenic Council, guesses that most of the university’s 23,000 students have seen it.
But from the beginning, the college people were wary of “Animal House.” Even in the fall of 1977, when the University of Oregon’s president agreed to let Universal film on campus for a month in exchange for $20,000, he insisted that the campus go unidentified in the movie.
That was fine with the producers, who wanted to create a sort of generic, universal college landscape; they labeled the campus Faber College.
When the movie came out, sure enough, it was disrespectful, gratuitous and often mean-spirited. Even as it ridicules the narrow-mindedness of the early ’60s, it carries plenty of ’70s presumptions about sex and race that many viewers now find doubly insulting or ridiculous.
In the current era of #metoo investigations and campus sparring over male privilege and white privilege, what college administrator would embrace “Animal House” now?
The campus did screen the film in May, and the university’s Oregon Quarterly publication ran a thoughtful story by Jason Stone on the film’s assets and flaws in July. But the university has no representative on the community group organizing anniversary events.
As of last week, the main Duck Store, official source for U of O merchandise, had nothing connected to “Animal House.”
As for the party on Aug. 18, “We’re not currently participating, but that may change,” university spokesman Tobin Klinger said last week. “It’s still under discussion.”
Shoes, athletics and art
Anyway, the university has plenty else to celebrate. The world’s oldest shoes, for instance. (Yes, really. They’re in the university’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and they’re between 9,100 and 10,400 years old.)
Also, the university’s track and field stadium, Hayward Field, a great source of local pride since the days of Steve Prefontaine and the gestation of Nike in the 1960s, is under reconstruction in preparation for the 2021 International Assn. of Athletics Foundations World Championships.
And any visitor should save a few minutes for the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, a provocative collection in a striking building.
Given those other options, nobody but a lowbrow movie geek should linger long along campus-adjacent East 11th Avenue, where the “Animal House” fraternity row is or was. But a few minutes’ visit may be instructive. And as somebody once said, “Knowledge is good.”
The bad news is that the original bedraggled “Animal House” exterior at 755 E. 11th — a farmhouse-turned-frat-house-turned-halfway-house that was already near collapse when location scouts found it — was leveled in 1986. (There’s a plaque half-hidden in the bushes along the sidewalk.) It has been replaced by a less dramatically ugly building (beige stucco, triangular windows) that includes the Oregon Foot & Ankle Center.
Next door stands the Phi Kappa Psi house, which portrays the snobbish Omega house in the movie (where Kevin Bacon’s character is seen asking “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” in a hazing ritual). The brick building features a stately facade with three arches. But recent history isn’t so stately.
In May, the campus paper, the Daily Emerald, reported on a document that was apparently one of the house’s pledge questionnaires -- a document rife with offensive language. The university and national Phi Kappa Psi officials investigated, then shut down the U of O Phi Kappa Psi chapter July 18. The chapter will be eligible for return in the fall of 2020, a .national Phi Kappa Psi representative said.
The ‘awkwardness of that’
The day I visited, Jonathan Nahass and Cole Schneider, a pair of 21-year-old seniors and Theta Chi fraternity brothers, were frowning at their homework in the middle of a beautiful summer day.
When I mentioned the movie, they smiled. Schneider told me he loved the beginning of the movie, “when they rush the different houses. The awkwardness of that.”
For Nahass, the most excruciating part is “when they go to the African-American bar and just get stared at.”
A moment later, I took a seat at the next booth over with Katherine Wilson, who worked in casting and location scouting for the film.
“From what I heard, they had like three days to find a location or Universal was going to pull the plug,” Wilson said. At one point, she said, “They needed 26 locations found in four hours.”
Wilson, who has worked on many other Oregon-based shoots, in 2015 co-wrote and co-produced “Animal House of Blues,” a documentary about how, while filming “Animal House,” Belushi met musicians Curtis Salgado and Robert Cray and developed the idea for “The Blues Brothers,” released in 1980.
I could have listened for hours to her stories from the set. But not every diner in the Fish Bowl gets that advantage.
Instead of depending on Chipotle and the other fast-food options on campus, I suggest slower, better food, which can be found all over Eugene. There’s pleasant French fare at Marché; admirable Italian at Rye (with dessert pairings of chocolate and spirits); zesty mole verde tacos at Tacovore, great breakfast at the Creswell Bakery.
And whether you’re on the “Animal House” trail or not, it would be a good idea to get out into the countryside.
I suggest a bike ride along the 12 miles of paths along the Willamette River or a hike up Spencer Butte, which offers a 360-degree view. (It’s 1.5 to 2 miles up and back, depending which routes you take.)
One day I got lunch at Rattlesnake BBQ at the Dexter Lake Club, about 20 miles southeast of Eugene, a Texas-style barbecue restaurant and bar. As it happens, its building is the mostly black bar where the road-tripping boys of Delta House found Otis Day and the Knights playing.
The club’s neon sign remains and the exterior paint was getting redone a bright red while I ate my brisket sandwich. A few reminders of the movie are scattered around the bar.
The big surprise for locals in the ’70s was that Landis and company had chosen to “create” a black club in a rural area that was so white that African American extras had to be hired from Portland, Ore., 110 miles north of Eugene.
The big surprise for a visitor now is that Landis and company could shoot anything in a room with such a low ceiling — less than 7 feet in some places.
And now to the Deathmobile. The day after my journey to the Dexter Lake Club, I drove up to Cottage Grove to meet with Travis Palmer, executive director of the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce.
He led me to the beast. Like its precursor, it’s a black, much-adulterated scrapyard land yacht, a Lincoln, and it is owned by the Chamber.
In mid-July, it conked out just before a community parade, which made Palmer and a few other people uncomfortable. So it went to mechanic Randy Hettwer, 70, who had the vehicle in front of his garage, next to a ’38 Plymouth.
Palmer and I headed over there for a look.
Hettwer, who worked as an extra when the movie was shot, said the points seem to be the problem, although he also noticed a cracked gasket. Still, he was confident he would have it running by the 18th.
Palmer nodded his approval. He was barely born when “Animal House” came out, but he has adopted the vehicle and the film as his own.
“It flies in the face of all the hypersensitivity today,” Palmer said. “But the world was a different place then. You can’t judge those things by today’s standards.”
WHERE TO STAY
EVEN Hotel Eugene, 2133 Centennial Plaza; (541) 342-3836. Part of the global IHG brand. This hotel opened in early 2018 with an emphasis on health and fitness. About two miles from university campus. Doubles typically $120-$230.
Hyatt Place Eugene/Oakway Center, 333 Oakway Road, Eugene; (541) 343-9333. Opened in 2017 with 130 rooms, breakfast included, about two miles from the U of O campus. Stylish spot next to the upscale Oakway Center mall, which has a grassy courtyard and big shade tree. Doubles typically $169-$304.
Valley River Inn, 1000 Valley River Way, Eugene; (541) 743-1000. The ‘70s vibe is a bit tired, but this is a popular spot with visiting sports teams and families (table tennis, adjacent bike trail), with 257 rooms and sprawling site along Willamette River. Doubles typically $119-$159, with sale rates as low as $104.
WHERE TO EAT
Marché, 296 E. 5th Ave., Eugene; (541) 342-3612. French food in a lively dining room. Dinner main dishes typically $21-$34.
Rye, 444 E. 3rd Ave., Eugene; (541) 653-8509. French and Italian food with dessert pairings of chocolate and spirits. Dinner main dishes typically $17-$26.
Tacovore, 530 Blair Blvd., Eugene; (541) 735-3518. Wildly popular taco spot with long tables in the Whiteaker neighborhood, a.k.a. “the Wit.” I loved the mole verde taco. Tacos $3-$5, tortas $8-$10.
Creswell Bakery, 182 S. 2nd St., Creswell; (541) 895-5885. A community with great baked goods, meat pies, house-cured bacon and Sunday brunches. Nothing over $11.50.
Rattlesnake BBQ at the Dexter Lake Club, 39128 Dexter Road, Dexter; (541) 581-3000. Texas-style barbecue at a rustic restaurant and bar where Otis Day and the Knights played in “Animal House,” about 19 miles southeast of Eugene. Sandwiches and burgers $6-$11, side dishes $2-$4.
TO LEARN MORE
Eugene, Cascades & Coast — Travel Lane County, (800) 547-5445.