30 years ago this month, Kenyon faculty shed their collegiate robes and performed the first of three faculty coffeehouse fundraisers for the Gambier Folk Festival. Running from 1971 to 1996, the Gambier Folk Festival attracted visitors from across the country to The Hill for the three-day festival. Held on Kenyon’s campus, it was known for showcasing a wide variety of music and arts, such as blues singers, traditional Irish music, African drum making, and Greek folk songs.
As a lover of the festival himself, Professor Emeritus of Sociology Howard Sacks thought that a faculty-led coffeehouse would be a fun way to raise money for the local festival, in addition to bringing the community together for a fun event amid concerns surrounding the Gulf War and debates between faculty and the administration over the academic future of the College. He gathered various faculty members that sang or played an instrument, including Professor of Anthropology David Suggs and Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann. “Students know faculty in the classroom, and in some other extracurricular activities, but we thought having the faculty perform music and other sorts of things would give another side of faculty that students and people in the community didn’t necessarily know,” Sacks said. It’s no surprise that students would be enticed by the idea of watching their professors perform Jimi Hendrix songs.
The Collegian reported on September 20, 1990 that the first faculty coffeehouse would end at midnight with “an all-star jam session,” beckoning students to “come and experience another side of the Kenyon faculty.”
Held in Gund Commons, then a dining hall, the first event drew significant popularity, Sacks recalled. An audience of 300 to 350 people came to watch the professors, seating themselves on the floor in anticipation. “Students, faculty, staff, everybody came,” Sacks said. “They were extraordinarily successful.”
Suggs remembers playing his Gibson J50 guitar at the first coffeehouse, and fondly recalls how much the students loved the event. “I screwed up one song at least three times before I could get it going. They applauded loudly and laughed, and just had a good time with us,” Suggs said.
The event became an annual faculty-led fundraiser for the next few years, and a highly anticipated second coffeehouse occurred less than two years later. Titled “Birkenstock: Three Hours of Peace and Music,” the coffeehouse was characterized by the Collegian on January 23, 1992 as “The Woodstock of the Nineties.” The faculty earnestly followed the theme, featuring “a very hipped out” then-Professor of Psychology Michael Levine as the emcee. Levine shared “cosmic revelations with the audience” and even led a sing-along to “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono between acts. A main highlight was then-Professor of Psychology Art Leccese playing original songs on the keyboard, with titles such as “Free Tibet” and “Panama Paranoia”. The coffeehouse ended with the full cast of performers coming onto the stage for an unrehearsed performance of “Hound Dog”. It’s unknown if Elvis’ famous dance moves were employed.
The third and final coffeehouse was just as tremendous of a success, earning a stellar review in the Collegian on January 28, 1993 where it was described as a “campy, smile-filled evening of comedy and music with a surprising amount of talent and emotion.” Titled “disGraceland,” the event featured Levine once more in the role of emcee, clad in Elvis-style attire, though he was said to look “more like a reject from a Paris walkway than Elvis.” “He was the funniest man on campus, he just kept us all in stitches,” Suggs said. While all in good fun, the coffeehouse also featured then-Professor of English Ted Mason, whose original songs blew the students away. “Judging from the attendance, I assume that a substantial amount of money was raised, as well as the spirits of all who attended,” the review read.
Recalling the overwhelming success of the coffeehouses, Sacks said, “People really enjoyed that they were seeing faculty do things that they’d never gotten to see faculty do, like be rock ‘n’ roll musicians.”