Fat, Drunk, and Stupid

The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House

Matty Simmons

St. Martin's Griffin

1
THE HOUSE IS OPEN
 
 
It was July 26, 1978, a hot and humid Friday night. I drove down Park Avenue slowly—everyone and everything moved slowly. The car in front of me seemed not to move at all. The people in the streets didn’t walk with the usual New York overdrive but with the tired tread of a weary and almost defeated populace. It was summer in Manhattan and one of those nights that you think of only as an excuse to go to the mountains or the beach, or anywhere where you can breathe.
It seemed I was the only one on Park Avenue whose adrenaline was pumping. I was a nervous wreck and the crawl of everything surrounding me aggravated me even more. I turned left on 57th Street and drove slowly to the Sutton Theatre, just east of Third Avenue. Now, the street was crowded and people were moving briskly. I crossed over Third and stared at the crowd in front of the theatre. The ticket line stretched all the way to Second Avenue and beyond. It was not unlike that at a rock concert, with hundreds of people—primarily young, screaming, running, laughing, calling to each other, and waiting on line. It was the line for the 6 P.M. showing on opening day of National Lampoon’s Animal House.
A kid in his late teens ran by me and yelled to a friend, “They’re sold out until the midnight show and we have to get on line.” I looked at my watch. It was 5:50.
I remembered what Charlie Powell had told me. A week earlier we had screened the movie at the American Book Association convention in Atlanta. The place was jammed with 10,000 people for the book fair and to see an advance showing of this new film. I was upset. The sound of the movie was not recorded for an arena. Fifteen minutes into the film I got up and strode out into the lobby. I just stood there alone, smoking, and trying to listen to the reactions from the audience. Charlie then marketing head of Universal Studios, saw me and came over. I told him I was disturbed because the sound was so bad. He smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, Matty,” he said. “I swear on my son’s life that you have a major hit.” I’d never heard anyone take such an oath, then I turned and saw that behind him was Buddy Young, Universal’s public relations director. He’d heard what Charlie said, laughed, and said, “You’re in good shape, Matty. Charlie loves his son very much.”
“A major hit,” he had said. And now I could see from the lines at the Sutton theater that Charlie might be right.
At eight o’clock I drove to the Loews theater on 86th Street. It was the same scene, lines around the block. Then I moved across to Broadway to the Astor, where a few days before we’d held the world premiere of the film. There were at least 2,000 people on lines around the block. Not stopping on Broadway, I drove back to the Sutton and sat in my car until the ten o’clock show. The lines were again snaking around 57th Street to Third Avenue. As I looked around the crowd, I noticed a familiar figure standing quietly watching. It was Walter Garibaldi, the assistant to the treasurer of the National Lampoon, and in his hand was a small calculator, which he kept tapping. I called out his name and he walked over to my car. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He smiled and told me, “I’m just figuring out how much money we make every time somebody buys a ticket.” Later that evening, when I returned, Walter was still there, three crushed coffee cups at his feet, still tapping numbers into his little calculator.
In Chicago that night, Lampoon editor John Hughes sat alone in a jammed movie theater watching the film. He’d stood in line for a half hour or so to get in. When the picture ended, he later told me, “I said to myself, I’m going to make movies.”
Universal executive Sean Daniel and the distribution people were calling studio head Ned Tanen to give him numbers and tell him about the opening-day reaction to Animal House.
At one point, Tanen called Universal chairman Lew Wasserman and told him what was going on. Wasserman thought about it for a moment and mused, “Funny how such a little movie can turn out to be such a big movie.” A few years earlier, the same thing had happened at Universal with the low-budget American Graffiti, but it appeared that this was going to be even bigger. And it was.
Tanen, Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA, Universal’s parent company, and Wasserman phoned each other constantly over the weekend, getting day-by-day box office reports and congratulating each other.
Universal had agreed to have the world premiere in New York City and asked me to run it. My staff and I were to handle the invitations and to set up the premiere party. I gathered everybody who worked on the business end of the Lampoon in my office. We would invite, of course, key members of the cast and crew, Universal officials, celebrities, the magazine’s advertisers, and the staff of 21st Century Communications, the parent company of the Lampoon. My assistant, Barbara Atti, would coordinate the event. From the start, I knew I wanted to have the party at the Village Gate. Its two floors could house 2,000 guests and it had been the place where we kicked off our first live show, National Lampoon’s Lemmings, in 1973. It was this play that featured John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and others.
Guests were asked to wear college garb: anything that they might have worn, or thought about wearing, during their days at college. Some came in togas, others in T-shirts or letter sweaters, carrying pennants from their alma maters. Belushi wore the famous “COLLEGE” sweatshirt. There were girls in cheerleader costumes and a couple of guys came in football uniforms. Some came as Bluto look-alikes.
I wanted servers everywhere with trays of food, and I wanted college-kid food: hot dogs, hamburgers, and snacks of every kind. There would be no hard liquor, just kegs of beer. Sixties rock bands would play wall-to-wall music. It was spectacular, and I remember it all so well, even though it was one of the few times in my life when I spent an evening in what seemed to be a total daze.
The screening of the film that night started with a problem. The movie was supposed to begin at 7 P.M. By that time, the Astor theater was jammed with 3,000 people. We had to rent another theater some blocks north to screen the film for the overflow crowd. The audience was getting restless at the Astor. We were waiting because John Landis, the film’s director, was late. At 7:25 he still hadn’t arrived and I told my assistant to tell the projectionist to start. I was too restless to sit and watch the movie, so, again, I stood out in the lobby. At 7:30 Landis and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, whom he later married, came dashing in. He was furious that the movie was already screening and began arguing with me in the lobby. Both of us threatened to start throwing punches. We were face to face when Universal execs Thom Mount and Sean Daniel moved between us and separated us. Landis then went into the theater and watched the rest of the film while sitting on the steps of the balcony. His reserved seats had been taken.
Down at the Village Gate on Bleecker Street, Barbara Atti and her crew were set. Every entrance to the Gate was guarded, not only by uniform police but by the senior class of Columbia Prep, headed by my son Andy, a senior there at the time. I had first done something like that at the after-party for the opening of Lemmings when my older son Michael’s Horace Mann senior class guarded the entrance, so that only those with invitations would be allowed into Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street. Now it was the Village Gate and we expected ten times the crowd that had been invited to the Lemmings party. We invited 2,000 people; more than 5,000 showed up, some with, more without, invitations. So there was a 3,000-seat world premiere, a 1,000-seat theater in addition, and then a 2,000-plus party. Thousands of people contacted us to get an invitation to the premiere and the party. Crashers were stopped by the guards, who looked like a small army surrounding the Pentagon. Warner Bros.’ chief Steve Ross came by. Ross put a hand on my shoulder. “I guess,” he said, “we should have made the movie at Warner.” (Steve, in the course of his career, had gone from Riverside Funeral Home in New York, to Kinney Parking, merged it with Independent News Company, and then acquired Warner Bros. His company would eventually merge with Time, Inc., creating Time Warner.)
The music at the party was nonstop. Groups like Joey Dee and the Starliters played sixties classics. At one point, the Michael Simmons Band played Stephen Bishop’s theme song from Animal House and members of the cast jumped on stage and led the singing. As they sang, John Belushi leaped off the stage, raced to the back of the club, grabbed me, and partly pulled, partly carried me, onto the stage and I joined them.
*   *   *
Sean Daniel remembers the studio’s response to the reaction to Animal House at the premiere screening and party. “I phoned Ned and he said to me—you know Ned had that dark, gloomy humor about him—‘I know it’s about to open, I know you’ve had good previews, but I still think you gotta choose which building you should jump off, the Chrysler or the Empire State Building, you still got time to make that choice.’ I said, ‘Ned, we’ve been through so much, it’s working! It’s gonna work.’ There was a part of Ned that was a rebel. Much of this movie appealed to him as a way of sticking it to the rest of the people because he always wanted to remind them how straight and uptight they were.”
National Lampoon’s Animal House became the number-one picture in America for eight weeks. It slid to second for two weeks, because of the prebooked Christmas movies and, remarkably, was brought back in February and became number one again. No other movie in recent motion picture history has ever had such a run. It became more than a movie. Animal House changed comedy, and attitudes, particularly among college audiences, where the movie became a prototype among young people.
Perhaps Roger Ebert described best the reaction to the film on college campuses in his Chicago Sun-Times article.
In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, life on college campuses had changed. Tim Matheson, as Otter, had said, “We can do anything we want, we’re college students!” The words were taken literally, things changed. Whereas in the late ’60s and early ’70s college students stopped being “wild and crazy” and spent more time fighting against or for the war in Vietnam, they would now let loose and the trigger was National Lampoon’s Animal House.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Matty Simmons