131 years of Mayfest
    Students in the annual Maysing form a human pyramid for the competition in 1976. At the time, the contest was open to any interested students, not just Greeks. Photo courtesy of the Northwestern University Archives.

    Northwestern’s Mayfest, the student group that hosts a month of activities leading up to the infamous Dillo Day, claims that this year marks its 40th anniversary. However, Northwestern students have been celebrating the warm weather and the end of the school year for over a century.

    As early as 1882, according to the Northwestern Weekly, Northwestern celebrated a “May Festival.” 

    The May Festival was a small, but elaborate “women’s spring pageant” that took place on Deering Meadow. The ceremony included such attractions as “the dance of father time” and and the crowning of the “May Queen,” a May tradition that continued until 1969.

    The festivities were incredibly tame by today’s standards. There was of course no alcohol served in the hometown of Frances Willard, and no men were allowed to attend the ceremonies. Despite this, May Festival became incredibly popular with women on campus and soon became an annual event. According to “The Story of May Week,” a short article in a 1950s May Week program, the 1910 May Festival was so well attended that the Women’s League decided to host the next one as an official all-school event.

    May Week continued for over 50 years at NU, becoming an increasingly elaborate event. Maysing, added in the thirties and broadcast on WNUR, and an Honors Day added in 1950 made the week increasingly expensive as well.

    To help split the costs, in 1950, the first Mayfest board, the May Week Steering Committee, was formed with co-chairs from the Mortar Board Honor Society, Deru (not a secret society at the time) and representatives from the Interfraternity Council and the Panhellenic Council.

    The influence of Greek organizations quickly transformed May Week into something much closer to the modern Mayfest. While Maysing, the crowning of the May Queen and Honors Day remained, more events were added to what The Daily Northwestern called Northwestern’s first “all-school week.”

    “Northwestern’s May Week will last for seven days instead of just a weekend,” said Mickey Murphy, co-chair of publicity for May Week to The Daily in 1954. 1954’s May Week included a formal at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and a Freshman Carnival, hosted by the freshmen, followed by Mayfest’s first bands in the Patten Gymnasium parking lot: “two combos and some semi-professional talent.”

    Soon, the Freshman Carnival and parties began to overshadow the traditional May Week celebration and the classical era of Mayfest came to an end. 1969 was the last year of the Freshman Carnival and the crowning of the May Queen. As a result of anti-war protests, all of the events were cancelled in 1970. They would never return. 

    The next year, Northwestern put on the “Spring Thing,” a music festival on the brand new lakefill. After a positive reception, Spring Thing returned in 1972 with “three days of food, rides and continuous music,” according to The Daily Northwestern

    With 24 bands, a ferris wheel, and an ice cream truck, Spring Thing almost put today’s Dillo Day to shame. Not everyone was happy with Spring Thing, however, including two students from Texas, Dan Stout and George Krauso.

    Stout and Krauso formed Armadillo Productions, named after a popular performance venue in their hometown of Austin, and set out in the spring of 1973 to host the anti-Spring Thing, the “First Annual ‘I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore’ Festival and Fair.” on Deering Meadow.

    The pair were determined to make sure their event was different, as they wrote in a newsletter advertising the Festival: “This isn’t like Spring Thing which costs thousands of dollars because of imported entertainment,” stated the letter, “We’re making the fun ourselves.”

    The letter went on to explain that “dorms, Greek houses, and other student organizations will provide various booths and activities” and that the event would be “a costumed affair” to help establish an “atmosphere of magic and unreality.”

    With its shoestring budget, Armadillo Productions’ festival wasn’t even necessarily going to have live bands. Students could instead entertain themselves with among other things, relay races, body painting and kissing booths.

    The festival did at least have one thing in common with today’s Dillo Day. The organizers noted in the letter that “Armadillo is attempting to devise a way to serve beer without offending our friends in Evanston City Hall.” Evanston had only become a wet city the year before.

    When the day of the festival came, Armadillo Productions did indeed figure out a way to serve beer. They also managed to secure three small bands and a musician the Northwestern Albatross, a short-lived alternative publication from the early '70s, identified only as “Joe the Bagpipe player.” While the festival attracted nowhere near the attendance of today’s Dillo Day, it was popular enough to return for a second year.

    Members of the Mayfest crew stop by a shooting gallery, one of the booths at Dillo Day in 1978, when it was held on University Place. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University Archives.

    Sponsored by the Northwestern Apartments, Pi Kappa Alpha, and the Activities and Organizations Board, Armadillo Production’s “2nd Annual ‘I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore’ Festival and Fair” promised in a newsletter to be another “day of fantasy, far away from the oppression of Evanston or Kansas or the dullness of uninspired imagination.” 

    The date of the second festival was moved back from the beginning of May to today’s traditional date at the end of month in hopes of better weather. But even the warmer weather could not help the festival gain traction. After its founders graduated, Armadillo Productions died away.

    Two years later, with the popularity of Greek Week and A&O’s Spring Festival waning, the groups decided to merge their boards, and their budgets, to form the modern Mayfest. After debating different ideas for new May activities, Mayfest decided to bring back Stout and Krauso’s festival as “Armadillo Day.”

    This time, the festival caught on. By 1978, Armadillo Day had become the centerpiece of Mayfest’s lineup. The Daily Northwestern reported that hundreds of students and Evanstonians, including “70 senior citizens from local nursing homes,” had come out for the festival despite the 92-degree heat and “consumed nearly 19 kegs of beer” as “five local bands played from noon to 6 p.m.” 

    Dillo Day didn’t stop growing. The next year, Dillo Day programming dwarfed other Mayfest activities. The festival consisted of five stages across South Campus.The huge variety of musical acts was complemented by activities including a slip n’ slide, jousting, and according to The Daily, “an extremely realistic simulation of all the seven wonders of the world.”

    After a few more years of development, Mayfest 1982 finally found the proper balance between Dillo Day and “ten days of perse programming,” according to The Daily. The events included a nearly modern Dillo Day with more well-known “Chicago and local bands,” a Deering Meadow carnival, campus-wide parties and a “Beach Party on Norris Lawn,” featuring a “wet t-shirt and boxer shorts contest” and, most importantly, “cheap beer.” 

    Since they achieved critical mass in the early '80s, Mayfest and Dillo Day have enjoyed a mostly smooth evolution into their modern form. Since that warm day in 1982, Mayfest has expanded into a month of programming, and Dillo Day has become more mainstream than its founders could have imagined.  Although there is no longer maypole dancing, the crowning of a May Queen, or a freshman carnival, Mayfest at Northwestern continues to be, as The Daily once put it, “more than merely 200 kegs of beer.”


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