39 years ago, a low-budget, near-star-less, patently offensive "drive-in movie" began filming in Eugene, Oregon. You've probably seen it. It's called Animal House.
Now enshrined as one of the great American comedies, Animal House would essentially launch the state's film industry and galvanize a local music scene that inadvertently inspired The Blues Brothers by getting John Belushi onstage.
This Sunday, October 30, the Oregon Film Museum will host an anniversary toga party at the Exchange Ballroom featuring Otis Day himself—who played the house party in Animal House—and the Kingsmen, whose "Louie Louie"was recently hailed in the New Yorker as perhaps the "dirtiest song of the sixties.".
The party will take place a recreation of the original U of O frathouse set—using pieces of the original house where Otis Day first played.
WW spoke with DeWayne "Otis Day" Jessie, and location scout/casting director and Animal House of Blues documentarian Katherine Wilson. Here's what the two had to say when asked to share their memories of the legendary production.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. All images used with permission from Katherine Wilson.
WW: Was the school always proud of its connections with the film?
Katherine Wilson: Back then, the University of Oregon had a contract with Universal that said the film was not to divulge where it was shot. Every college had turned them down because the script was so disgusting, but, at U of O, President [William] Boyd said that he'd made a mistake passing on a movie called The Graduate. He'd read that script, turned the movie down, and, then when he saw the movie, he realized he didn't know how to read scripts. So, that's how that happened. He never read Animal House.
Now, of course, a lot of people are going to the U of O because of Animal House. It actually just became acceptable in the last five years: What happened was kids would get together at the games. And, when there was a touchdown, the kids would start singing "It Makes Me Wanna Shout," and then other guys going to the games would start singing with them. Before you know it, there was this wave of all these people singing "Shout" from Animal House. So, the U of O decided they needed to get on that bus, and they contacted Otis.
He has been a sort of mascot for the Oregon Duck games. He played in February at the halftime for the Oregon men's basketball tournament before 34,000 people. He did the Civil War game the year before. He's played at Dexter Lake Club numerous times – packed houses for $100 a ticket. He's been really involved up here.
WW: Did it have much impact on the local film industry?
Wilson: Before Animal House, when a film like Rooster Cogburn—or, to a certain degree, even One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest—came to Oregon, they brought their own crew with them. In the meantime, indigenous filmmakers were busy crafting their skills and would maybe get some work but never in key positions. Animal House was so low budget that they couldn't afford to bring anybody up from L. A. so they hired me as location scout, location casting director, extra coordinator, stunt girl…
So many of us got jobs that it kind of broke the mold open, and, the next thing I know, the word got out. 'Well, God, this crew up in Oregon is so phenomenal – they're really talented and they're hip and they're cool and they're good at what they do. And, so, more and more films would come here, and they would let Oregon gaffers and grips and people like me be key department heads. It just got to the point that they were only bringing up skeleton crews. They even do post-production in Oregon now. It's a completely different world.
WW: How were the musicians cast? Was Otis Day …
Wilson: [As DeWayne Jessie], he was a contract player for Universal.
DeWayne "Otis Day" Jessie : I was an actor first. I've been an actor all my life, and that's how come I got the job as Otis Day. You know, I was brought up in a house full of music. My brother was a big influence on my life. He was a musician and sung with The Platters. I was raised in a house of music, I love to sing, but I wanted to go into show business in another kind of way. That's why I wanted to become an actor and a singer then now they got it twisted.
WW: And, the other musicians? Did Robert Cray live in Eugene?
Wilson: Robert Cray moved to Eugene because of the rumors going on up the I-5 corridor —the "Chitlin' Circuit" —about Eugene being such a great blues town. Part of it was because of the record stores, and I owned one that had a shrine to Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the lobby.
I was mentoring and tutoring Black Panthers at the University of Oregon at the time. They were clueless about the music, but I got into the blues on an Indian Reservation before I went to the U of O. When I was 18, I ran away with Buddy Guy. I was really into the blues. Now, when we went to cast Otis Day and the Knights … the truth was there were very very few black people in Eugene, Oregon, at the time.
Day: I'll tell you something, when I did the film, I got up that morning when we were shooting at …
Wilson: … the Dexter Lake Club out in the redneck neighborhood.
Day: I didn't know the history of the club. I didn't know anything until I get up that morning to go to work and see all these sheriffs or something on top of my trailer. So, I ask what's happening, and they told me they had gotten death threats – based on the color of my skin. And, I didn't know all that was happening until right then.
Wilson: We had 90 black people bused in from Portland to the Dexter Lake Club, and there were pickup trucks circling the club with rifles in the back. Then, when we broke for lunch … you know, in those days, above-the-liners got catering and the extras all got brown sack lunches. Well, you can imagine what that looked like—having the extras in one line and the whites in the other. It was crazy and I told the [unit production manager] he was going to lose all these people. Black women had come up to me and said "we're walking, we're out of here—this is dangerous."
Day: That was a sign of the times, you know?
Wilson: They were maybe curious, you know, but the death threats tell me it wasn't just curiosity.
Day: And, you know what, Dexter Lake was supposed to be where they'd hang black people and throw the bodies in the lake. So, you know, because of that, I think maybe that's why my scenes had such a profound effect. What I was doing came from inside-out and maybe the struggle and all that was captured in my performance. I think that's what made it so captivating to people.
Wilson: The shoot was so magical. You guys were so incredible. It was like a spiritual experience. You were doing "Shama Lama", all these people were dancing, and I remember thinking "this is heaven." I wanted to be a filmmaker for the rest of my life because of that scene.
WW: What was the club like normally?
Wilson: Back then in 1977, it was, you know, logging territory. So loggers, mostly. But there was a contingency of Merry Pranksters out there too. The night of Otis' shoot, Dan Aykroyd showed up to drive Belushi back home in a big green station wagon, Ken Kesey showed up with a producer. Some of the gang on the bus showed up in solidarity. You know, word got around really fast about what was going on.
Day: And I had heard all the energy that was generated for the film being shot there, and that brought a whole other kind of love to Eugene.
Wilson: Otis, I did not even know … he became those words and that music – incredible talent. I was so proud of Otis and The Knights because they did bond and become a group. Just like that, we had the finest blues people in the whole Northwest in that room.
Day: Everybody on that shoot was impeccable, you know what I mean? It was so incredible. There was something totally magical—no egos or star tripping.
Wilson: We were all nobodies pretty much, except for Donald Sutherland, and we bonded because of our creativity. Landis let us all be creative, and that screenplay was like the blueprint. It was thrown out, pretty much. Everybody improvised on set …
I worked on 50 movies in the Northwest, fifty major motion pictures – you know, not blogs—and have never experienced anything like Animal House. It was the one where we became a family. We all bonded, we all helped each other, and there was some kind of magic fairy dust on that whole shoot because every time I turned around to ask "where am I gonna find a seven foot tall black man?" They couldn't find one in LA!
Day: Now who was …
Wilson: Jebidiah. He was the seven-foot-tall hot dog salesman on campus who just happened to have played Othello on Off-Broadway.
Day: That film was different. It was just so different, man. Y'know, we meet up every two or three years. Karen Allen, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf, Peter Riegert, Martha Smith—we meet up and we talk about it. The camaraderie that we have is something else, and we did not know it was going to be like this. We did not know that we were going to have the effect that we had. At all. Nobody had any kind of idea. I'm telling you, man. It's crazy
WW: Did the film have much impact on Eugene as a music town?
Wilson: The other way around. Eugene as a music town had an impact on Animal House. And, Eugene as a town that was home to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The writer of Animal House was just smitten by Kesey and the book the Electric Kool-Acid Test. His community wanted to be real pranksters.
WW: What if they'd filmed at another college?
Wilson: Well, the Blues Brothers wouldn't have happened. I was there, I pushed Belushi on stage to sing, and what happened was this:
October 31, 1977, we did the toga party scene. The Knights were jamming while the the cameras were being set up for the different takes, and there was a bond that happened with Belushi and Otis and Robert Cray and Robert Bailey and Ron Steen and Sonny King.
[Director John] Landis would drive us all into the grave if he could. He was just a perfectionist, and he would go 'do it again, do it again, do it again' until it was perfect. There were so many setups—53 setups! It went on forever, and, finally Robert Cray said, "We started at 8 this morning, and now it's time for me to go to work. I have another job, and I'm not going to blow it for this movie."
So, Belushi followed us over to the Eugene Hotel for Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado, DK Stewart, Dave Olson, Richard Cousins … [Salgado's band] The Nighthawks and the Robert Cray Band did a splinter group called the Cray-Hawks.
They sang this Howlin' Wolf song called "Who's Been Talkin", and … Belushi went nuts. It's the most incredible song. Curtis Salgado plays the harmonica like I've never heard him play. Robert Cray plays the guitar like I've never heard him play. That night, it was like all the stars lined up and went bam! The next thing I know, Belushi's asking people to introduce him to Curtis Salgado.
Well, here's the thing. Belushi was a mimic. I know that Dan Aykroyd was very into the blues before Belushi came to Eugene. They did a Killer Bees skit [for Saturday Night Live] singing a blues song, but Belushi couldn't get into it. It was only when he saw a white guy singing the blues. You gotta remember, for crying out loud, the Paul Butterfield blues band was notorious for having black and white musicians. And, here in Eugene was a black guy and a white guy doing the blues together, and Belushi saw these guys with the Ray-Bans, the fedoras, the old blues guy suits, the briefcase, the cop car—DK Stewart had a souped-up cop car that Belushi rode on the way to Curtis' house.
By the time the Blues Brothers came out, Robert Cray and Curtis had both moved to Portland and were playing at the White Eagle … nobody knew, nobody knew … Y'know, you go through life, you do stuff, but, like Otis said, it was a B-movie for drive-ins. We didn't know it was going to last. We didn't know it would be like this.