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A Fasching party at HGS

In February 1958, when we were grad students living in the Hall of Graduate Studies, Charlie Neff ’61PhD and I wistfully shared our memories of the German “fifth season.” Charlie had experienced it as Fasching in Bavaria; I experienced it as Karneval in the Rhineland. The partying season opened on January 7 and culminated in Rose Monday and Fat Tuesday/Fett Dienstag/Mardi Gras.

We agreed that HGS needed a Fasching party. But how to bring it off?

In my two-plus years on the HGS House Committee, social events had amounted to Christmas and Valentine’s Day parties, sustained by punch and cookies, held in our elegant first-floor common room, with its monumental fireplace, grand piano, and polished wooden furniture. The House Committee did not have the budget to hold anything like a Fasching party, and the common room was most certainly not an appropriate venue.

Charlie cast the die: “What do you say we pool our money to bring in a lot of beer, get together some live music, and produce a party ourselves?” Done, and done. On the Saturday night before Mardi Gras, there would be a party in HGS.

Beneath our wing of the large dormitory section of HGS was a recreation room of sorts. It housed two ping-pong tables and a sturdy, old, almost-in-tune upright piano. It could hold at least a hundred people, and we would not have to worry too much about breaking things. But it was dreary: gray concrete floor, grayish-green walls and columns, bare light bulbs. Something would have to be done. 

Permission and promotion

Parties at the residential colleges were usually held from 9 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m. We applied for a permit taking effect at 9 p.m., but did not mention a closing time. The official document which we received to post in the basement venue read “from 9 p.m. until _______________ .” It took a while for the implications to sink in. Whether oversight or, perhaps, underestimation of the capacities of graduate students for partying, we would have the only officially sanctioned after-hours party on Yale turf or in the rest of New Haven, for that matter. We had something (discreetly) to promote.

We posted placards throughout HGS, in the Law School, and in the graduate women’s dormitory on Hillhouse Avenue. We took special care to make sure that the student nurses in the medical school complex would know about the event. We passed the word to our graduate classmates living off campus.

We did not, however, advertise the event in any of the undergraduate colleges or in the library and labs, where the undergraduates would be likely to see announcements. Though many of us were preparing for careers as teachers and recognized the tradition of Socrates’ corrupting the youth of Athens, there are limits; and the permit had been granted for the graduate grinds only.

The lineup

Charlie would play trumpet. I would play fluegelhorn. We enlisted a tenor-sax player and a drummer from the Law School. We knew we would need a strong piano player. And we got one.

I had played in some sessions with Vernon Biddle. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he recorded with some very good New York City and Los Angeles jazz musicians and sat in with some of the great ones. He had left the big leagues and returned to New Haven to ply his trade as a house painter, playing jobs with the relatively strong local groups. For union scale and a pint of rye, we retained his services for the party. It would be an honor to work with him and a treat to listen for hours to him.

Once we had received the open-ended permit, we decided to take full advantage of it. I invited Eli’s Chosen Six, the main Yale Dixieland group, to fall by HGS when their gig at one of Yale’s residential colleges was done. Similarly, I invited the tenor man Billy Voluotis, who was working at a club in town, to fall by with any members of his combo who might care to play after hours.

To decorate the room, we received a great deal of help, mainly from two graduate students in the School of Art. Besides arranging for us to mask the ceiling lights with colored fireproof crepe paper and to bring fat candles from the mantelpieces of our HGS rooms to place on the tables, they put in a lot of effort to establish a Karneval theme. Using for inspiration the cover art of my LP of Orff’s Carmina Burana, they made a series of bright tempera posters to tape to the thick, square columns supporting the low ceiling. 
A slow start

Besides our quintet and the helpers in readiness to welcome the guests and oversee their consumption of beer and snacks, hardly anyone was there in the first half hour. As we started to play, Charlie and I began to fear that the party would be a failure, and that we would lose our shirts. Then the room began to fill up.

As the band took a break shortly before midnight, things were going very well indeed, and it was clear that Charlie and I would recoup most of our money. We could afford to think ahead about the after-hours segment, and we were able to pay Vernon a bit extra.

As we did so, he commented: “You know, I could keep on playing through for as long as you like if we had a bass man; and I know where to get one, if you can lay ten bucks on him.” He and Charlie and I went upstairs so that he could put in a telephone call to Lillian’s Paradise on Dixwell Avenue. We arranged to come over for the bass man at Lillian’s 1 a.m. closing time.

As the other players at Lillian’s heard us talking, they asked the bass player what was up, and he told them that he was on his way to an after-hours party and session. The leader of the combo at Lillian’s came up to us and, yes, pleaded: “Man, there's no after-hours action going on in this town. Couldn’t we come along too?”

Charlie and I couldn’t refuse such a request.

Lillian leaps in

It turned out that the “we” included not only the band but also several carloads of Lillian’s faithful listeners who had stayed until closing time. When we left to return to HGS, we were leading a procession of at least five cars.

When Charlie and Vernon and I re-entered our basement room, music was going on. Eli’s Chosen Six had arrived and decided immediately to fill the musical vacuum. Billy Voluotis and his sidemen had come in. And now the players and fans from Lillian's Paradise entered. Among them were two noteworthy visiting musicians, Donn Trenner and his wife, Helen Carr.

A native of New Haven, Donn was currently the pianist in Les Brown’s “Band of Renown,” which worked with Bob Hope on his network TV shows and his tours to American military bases around the world. Helen had sung with Charlie Barnet, George Auld, Stan Kenton, et al. The two of them were also recording artists for the Bethlehem label. When Charlie and I counted heads around 1:45, there were 22 musicians in attendance.

We now were heavy on pianists, bass men, and drummers. The electric guitarist from Lillian’s added a dimension to the rhythm section. But there were also enough reed and brass players who wanted to take solos that the two numbers we played as an improvising “big band” took a long time to get through. The players decided to break into mix-and-match combos for the rest of the party.

We also had an impromptu floor show. Among those who had come over from Lillian’s were several professional-level dancers. One of them was a youngish lady who appeared to have been poured into a leopard-skin dress. She did not actually disrobe, but the aesthetic effect was pretty much the same as if she had. The party had shifted from animated conversation-accompanied-by-music to an enthusiastic jam session, and the beer was still flowing.

Get me to the church

Around 3:30 a.m., it occurred to Charlie and me that, as members of the Battell Chapel choir, we would be singing at the Sunday morning service in a few hours. We would have to get some sleep and leave things in the hands of the few remaining helpers.

One who remained was a German language-and-literature major who was well aware of the significance of the occasion. Charlie had put him in charge of the beer kegs. He presided over his domain while sprawled on a small stepladder next to the kegs. By now, having frequently sampled the contents, he should be relieved of his duties to go to bed. He refused. So we gave up and left him.

But before I went upstairs, I stayed for a bit to observe an energetic ritual in progress. Standing atop two of the sturdier tables, confronting each other while the rhythm section laid down the beat and the chords, the Law School tenor-sax man and the tenor-sax man who had come from Lillian’s Paradise were “trading fours,” vigorously and at length. With this last impression in mind, I left and went up to bed.


Charlie and I somehow got ourselves up, cold-showered, dressed for the church service, and out to meet each other shortly after 8 a.m. But before going to get some breakfast, we had to take a look at the basement room. It smelled like a brewery laced with stale cigarette smoke, but it wasn't as bad as we had feared. Somebody had tried to clean the place up a bit, and the large, wheeled garbage cans were filled with used cups and the disposable table coverings, including the puddles of wax from the long-spent candles. The tempera renderings were gone, taken as souvenirs by the guests. Nothing was broken.

There were only two persons in the room. One was the German major, still sprawled, asleep, on the small stepladder next to one of the kegs of beer which he had guarded so faithfully and insistently. The other was a college guard, sitting at one of the tables, smoking a cigarette and sipping from one of the few remaining cups the last of the beer from the last active keg. He said, “It looks as if you people had a good time.”

One evening, in the middle of the next week, I walked to the Liggett’s Drug Store at the corner of York Street and Broadway to buy a pack of cigarettes. On the walk back, I was just behind a Yale undergraduate and his date. As they approached Mory’s, he was filling her in on the traditions of this white-painted frame structure, including the Whiffenpoofs and their song. As they then passed in front of HGS, the young woman asked, “What's this place?” He answered, “It’s where the men graduate students live, and there are a lot of classrooms too.”

She said, “That sounds awfully heavy—to live and go to class in the same building. What do they do for fun?”

He said, “I don't know—probably throw books at each other.”


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Filed under Graduate School, Hall of Graduate Studies, Music
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