Interview With John McGill
- Version 2.0
- [Reviewed by Cheatham and McGill. Ready for final review for historical accuracy, grammar, formatting, etc.]
- John McGill, Varsity Yell Leader 1934
- Dan Cheatham, Drum Major, 1957
- Date of Interview:
- June 1, 1993
- 1010 Hyland Drive, Santa Rosa, 95404
- Barbara Gabler
- [Cheatham reviewed it for clarity in August 1993]
- [McGill edited his own remarks for clarity on 12 September 1993. Entered by Cheatham in November 1993]
- [Editorial notes are attributed thus:
- Norden H. (Dan) Cheatham - NHC]
Keywords: First days on campus, Dinks, “Non-Orgs”, Bonfire Rallies, Yell Leaders, Rooting Section, Card Stunts, World’s Fair on Treasure Island
Cheatham: I am happy to be here at John’s house. This is a day or two after his fifty-second wedding anniversary! [Or 35th? See page 30]
Give us a self-introduction.
McGill: My name is John McGill. I attended the University of California from 1930 to ’34 and was active on the campus in various activities but mainly as the varsity yell leader. I had the honor of having Ralph Edwards, well known T.V. personality and lifelong friend, and Bill Johnson as my assistants. I graduated in 1934 but returned to the campus after WWII, in l948 and worked toward further degrees in a new field.
Cheatham: How was it that you decided to go to Cal instead of some other University?
McGill: Living in Oakland, it just seemed a natural thing to go out to Berkeley which was pretty close to home. I lived in Oakland around the Park Blvd. area and as we were in a serious economic depression in 1930 it seemed the wisest thing to do. Also, the University had a world-wide reputation even then, and I never considered going any place else. I just assumed if anyone in our circumstances wanted to go to college, that was the place to go.
Cheatham: Tell us about your first days on campus as a brand new Freshman.
McGill: The initial introduction to the campus was the usual shock of a youngster coming out of high school and being lost in a fairly large “city” we had to wear a rather unusual little hat called a dink and we wore some pants called mole skins. I can’t describe the material - a rather smooth material. At that time, you wore garments according to your class. We wore moleskins, [A heavy-napped cotton twill fabric. NHC] the Sophomores wore jeans and the upper classmen wore cords and as you got along in your senior year, of course, you weren’t supposed to wash those cords. They got dirtier as you went along so by the time you graduated, they were practically able to stand by themselves.
There was some hazing on the campus. I never felt there was anything that was serious at all. It was just kind of an annoyance but it was small things -- you had to shine someone’s shoes or salute or do something silly like that. I always felt it was pretty childish stuff and I never really subscribed to the idea that incoming people should be involved in this nonsense but it happened. In general, it was a pretty bewildering experience to do all the registration, get classes started out and to learn how to take notes in class and do many things we’d never done before. However, we had been rather well briefed in high school and I think those of us who had talked with counselors knew pretty much what to expect.
Cheatham: Describe the registration process?
McGill: The registration process took place in the old Harmon Gym which was an old rickety octagonal barn-like building located to the left of Sather Gate as you walked in the Gate and turned left. [Roughly the present location of Dwinelle Hall. NHC]
The registration fee, at that point, I believe, was about $25 which was quite a bit in those times but registration was a pleasant experience as we looked forward to lining up the classes we wanted. Later on, during the years I was on the campus, the old barn burned down -- whether by accident or for other means, I don’t know. It was probably a good thing that it happened because the result was a beautiful new gymnasium for men -- later, renamed Harmon Gym. [At the time, the “Men’s Gym” (now called Harmon Gym) was one of the premier facilities of it type in the nation. NHC]
The actual registration process...as you went in the door, there were signs telling us what school we wanted to register in. For example, Letters & Science or Engineering or whatever we wanted. Mine happened to be Letters & Science so I looked for that particular sign. I went there and I was very cordially treated. Usually students worked all the desks and I met students who were quite knowledgeable and helpful so the process was pretty simple. You went through many lines and filled out what seemed to be interminable forms but finally we felt that we were now actual students at the University of California.
Cheatham: Before you went through the actual registration process, you already had some introduction to the campus because you were in a fraternity, weren’t you? Tell us about that.
McGill: Yes I had been rushed by two or three different fraternities and decided to join Pi Kappa Alpha. The rushing process was pretty much of a hard sell deal. They were all trying to get as many of what they called “nuggets” - fraternities all needed a certain number to pay the house bills. I was an off campus member of Pi Kappa Alpha of course. I lived at home because our economic straits didn’t permit me to live on campus even though it was less convenient to live at home. The rushing process consisted of people coming to my house then driving me around the campus and showing me the merits of their national fraternity. Those who did not join a fraternity were called “Non-Orgs”.
I found that fraternity life was kind of a mixed bag; some of the activities I approved of and some I didn’t. A fraternity consists of, a group of young men from all walks of life that you’ve never met before and you are supposed to all of a sudden become brothers and become one and to approve of each other. I didn’t always find this to be possible. I found lifestyles that I disapproved of and I didn’t necessarily enjoy all aspects of fraternity life but there were also those aspects that made it very productive, as well as meeting some fine people. It was a very political thing however and if you wanted to do any major political activity on the campus, the backing of a fraternity was very important. Pi Kappa Alpha was a national fraternity of some 120 chapters and today I believe it’s still functioning although fraternities have run into many serious campus problems in recent years. [Referring to low membership and financial woes. NHC]
Cheatham: As a pledge in a fraternity, you certainly got instruction on the social mores of a properly behaved fraternity man. Tell us a bit about that.
McGill: The fraternity was helpful in the sense that it oriented me to what I could expect on campus and it answered a lot of questions that I’m sure might have been more difficult if I hadn’t been in a fraternity. They outlined what a Freshman’s place on the campus was supposed to be, what we were supposed to wear, and where we were supposed to obtain those articles. By the time we got ready to walk through Sather Gate and register, we were pretty well oriented as what to expect. There were Sophomores in the fraternity who offered advice that might not have been helpful to Freshman because they were engaging in some of the playful hazing on the campus, but in general, we were probably better prepared than the people who didn’t have the opportunity to be briefed. We were able to buy the correct clothing in local shops along Telegraph Avenue, which were then adjacent to Sather Gate. [Telegraph Avenue went right to Sather Gate. Roos Brothers clothing store was one of the “in” places to buy clothes that were in fashion. It stood across the street from what is now Sproul Hall, on the site of the present student union. NHC]
Cheatham: I should have stated at the very beginning that my presence here today is a result of the interview I did with Ralph Edwards, who was one of the Junior Yell Leaders when you were the Varsity Yell Leader.
Ralph goes into some detail about the custom of wearing the Freshman dink. What was the protocol of the time as you remember it?
McGill: The main identifying piece of clothing we had to wear was called a dink. I don’t how that custom came about but the object was to make you identify yourself as a Freshman so you could be quickly spotted by sophomore men who, by tradition, were responsible for hazing the freshmen men. It also made you look a little bit silly, another of the goals of hazing. You might have come out of your high school as a pretty important person and then, you’re wearing one of these silly little hats and you were absolutely nobody. If you wanted to be “somebody”, that would have to come later. We wore the dink simply because we had to but the annoyance didn’t last too long. After the first two or three weeks, as I recall, the custom kind of dropped away and by the time classes got started in earnest nobody seemed to worry about it anymore.
The dink itself was simply a piece of navy blue felt that was in the shape of a little round hat commonly known as a Yarmulke. But “beanie” was another way to describe it and we felt pretty ridiculous because we were supposed to be college people.
Cheatham: Earlier you made reference to some of the students that were referred to as “Non-Orgs.”
McGill: I mentioned joining a fraternity -- I’m not quite sure why but it seemed the thing to do at that time. There were, of course, people who were not members of a fraternity or sorority and they were called “Non-Orgs” because they were non-organizational. [I.e.,people who lived at home or in boarding houses and were not normally associated with the campus “organizations”. This expression was still used in the immediate post-WWII years. NHC] They seemed to be a completely distinctive group from the fraternity people. I assumed the fraternity people had a feeling that they were a little bit superior to Non-Orgs, for some reason or other. It didn’t give me that impression at all. People just decided that they were probably going to spend more time on their studies than they were on the organizational things. That was the two classes of people...those who joined groups and, the ones who didn’t were the Non-Orgs.
Cheatham: Tell me about “The California Spirit.” This refers to the activities and esprit-de-corps that goes along with athletic events and being loyal to the Alma Mater.
I have an image of a Freshman on campus by the name of Johnny McGill, wearing a goofy looking dink at the beginning of football season and somewhere along the line, Johnny must have gone to his first bonfire rally. Tell me about that?
McGill: Well living as close to the University as I did, in Oakland, I was close to a lot of things that happened on campus and of course I was excited about the football games. I saw a lot of them and knew that there was a lot of Cal spirit but I was not quite prepared for what took place after I got on the campus such as the first bonfire rally. We attended as the “Freshman Class” and, of course, the big activity for the Freshman class was to make sure that there was plenty of wood for the bonfire. This was in the Greek Theatre which was a classic theatre then, as it is now.
It was really impressive. We sat in class groups [Freshmen, Sophomores, etc.] and wore our dinks to make sure that everybody knew that we were the Freshman responsible for piling more wood on the bonfire as it burned down. The head yell leader was in charge up on the stage. The Cal Band was there and it was kind of overwhelming just to see the groups gathered there in the Greek Theatre, around the bonfire. As I recall, we piled the wood on as high as we possibly could under the direction of the slave driving Sophomores. There were many campus celebrities including President Robert Gordon Sproul who was a wonderful and able man as our college president. He was always in fine fettle and always talking about how wonderful it was to be a member of the University of California family which was true then as it is now. Then would come on the coaches and the yell leaders would rouse the group with great rally cries and we would sing All Hail and Hail to Cal and Fight for California and we came away terribly impressed that there was no better place in the world to be than here and that our opponent, the following Saturday on the football field, would absolutely have no chance to defeat us. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work out that way but we always came away from the rallies with high hopes. They were very impressive ceremony and I soon became ambitious to play a key role those rallies.
Cheatham: In Ralph Edward’s oral history interview, we learned a lot about the entry of the individual classes to a bonfire rally. I’d like to get your recollections of the same event.
McGill: Well to enter the Greek Theatre, for one of rallies, assembly areas were predesignated for the different classes to gather. It was my impression that the Juniors and Seniors weren’t too enthusiastic about this procedure. They felt pretty worldly by the time they got to that elevated status and they were not always in attendance at the rallies but the starry-eyed Freshman and the Sophomores still had lots of spirit so we gathered in designated places and marched into the Greek Theatre. The freshmen had an area on the side which was nearest to the bonfire wood which was piled outside the Greek Theatre, so we were in an area which was convenient for loading on the wood as the fire died down. We gathered in our designated areas and entered in a rather rowdy fashion and found our seats...ready for the ceremony. As each class entered, there was always some good-natured ribaldry and rivalry and yelling and hooting and also the classes came on strong with their class yells. My class was ’34, and I happened to be the Freshman class yell leader and our class yell was, “Give them Hell and then some more! California ’34!” We felt that that was a pretty outstanding.
These rallies were only held for the biggest games such as Stanford, UCLA, or USC. It was quite an undertaking and took quite a lot of time to prepare for them.
Cheatham: Freshman Johnny McGill has attended his first bonfire rally and now he’s gonna attend his first football game in Memorial Stadium. Tell us about that.
McGill: Of course attending the first football game as a bona fide Cal student was a large event in my life. I had gone to games before and been very impressed by all the excitement and the spirit. When I saw those yell leaders up there, I thought...Oh! It would be nice to be up there leading those 10,000 wildly enthusiastic rooters. It never entered my head that I could really attain that exalted status. Going to the first football game as a student and sitting in the Rooting Section with a rooter’s hat on and being part of the Big C which was formed by whichever color, blue or gold, was showing on your rooter’s hat, was pretty exciting. [The felt rooters hat had reversible colors. NHC] All the yells and the hooting and the hollering and being with people who knew a lot more about the game than I did and explaining the strategy was very exciting. We seldom enjoyed the thrill of victory -- more often, the agony of defeat. It was an exciting experience for a young Freshman to be part of a Rooting Section at a major University football game.
Cheatham: What are your first memories of the Cal Band?
McGill: The Cal Band was one of the most important parts of the game and indeed all of campus life. It was present at many functions and always added a great deal of pomp and circumstance and spirit.
At the football games, it was outstanding. The Band would come on marching in great formations, in snappy uniforms and I always thought the Drum Major was great! The Band used to enter the stadium and play some wonderful numbers and then they would split into two columns and the Cal football team would come running through the middle onto the field. Of course, at that time, we didn’t have television to show the colorful antics at half-time, but the Cal Band was always great with fine and inspiring music, precision marching. We were always very, very proud of the Band. I never felt at any time, we were ever outplayed or out marched by any band. And that includes the USC Band.
Cheatham: Today’s band has as its hallmark the concept of precision. I suppose I could define it as a “machine-like” appearance in their marching style. I was interested and pleased to hear you say that they had a reputation for being a “snappy-looking” band even in the mid l930s. This would indicate to me, some sort of continuity between “us guys today and them guys back in those days”.
In your Senior year, you were what we called in the 1940s and 50s, the Head Yell Leader. You called them the Varsity Yell Leader. How did you achieve that stature?
McGill: Well, it goes back to having been a yell leader in high school so I was interested in that sort of activity. When the Freshmen class first met, they elected class officers and that included the job of yell leader for the class. I became the Freshmen class yell leader and led yells at various activities such as rallies and class meetings. Then I became sophomore class yell leader and became more identified with the activity. The Varsity Yell Leaders were elected by vote of the student body, just as for other student body officers. The candidates for assistant yell leader tried out at the football games early in the season, wearing big numbers on their front. The head yell leader would call upon a couple of candidates to lead yells at different points in the game so the rooters could become acquainted with them by number and through that process, I became one of the assistant yell leaders. My head yell leader’s name at that time was George Reeves who was a very dynamic red headed guy, who was also a jazz musician. I learned a lot from George and went on to be his assistant. There were just three of us for this 10,000 rooters. We used microphones and also had megaphones. There were no pom pom girls, no acrobatics - nothing - just the three of us up there. The head yell leader controlled that whole group so he had to be a pretty forceful person. The assistant’s job was not too demanding at that time. When it came time in the spring to select a head yell leader and we went through the process again where the two assistants were trying out in the eyes of the student body and I was fortunate enough to get the head yell leader’s job.
Cheatham: How would you describe your duties as head yell leader?
McGill: The actual duties were not complex. The job was to do whatever was possible to manifest the great Cal spirit wherever we went. Most of the planning and organizing work was done by the Rally Committee. They did all the work on the card stunts and they worked in conjunction with the Band but the duty of the Head Yell Leader was to be there when it was time to lead the student body in yells and songs, whether it was at the football games, the basketball games, or the rallies, to see that the spirit was kept up, to make a good appearance, to go to various functions, such as Alumni meetings, and to talk up Cal spirit wherever we could. I traveled with the team when they went south or to Oregon or wherever the were playing. We didn’t have much of a Rooting Section on trips north but of course large groups of students would go down to the USC or UCLA game in Los Angles, and of course at Stanford we always had a huge turnout. The rooters were inclined to be loud but not nearly as rough and undisciplined as they were after the War. Still, it required a good deal of control to keep people from getting out of hand and make sure the sportsmanship was always good in the Rooting Section. One instance comes to mind that required a little diplomacy. At one of the Stanford games all the ten thousand rooters were male rooters because, at the time girls weren’t allowed in the organized rooting section. It was the custom of the teams to run onto the field and have a warm-up and then run off the field and then return, ready for play. So, as the Stanford team ran onto the field the first time, they were greeted with 10,000 upraised right arms of the Cal rooters and each hand formed the well known obscene gesture. This of course was totally unacceptable to the horrified officials and after a hurried meeting, it announced that if this was repeated, the game would have to be forfeited or something equally as punitive. From the yell leaders ramp, I had to attempt some kind of remedial action since the rooters did not appreciate this affront to their expression of enthusiasm. However, as the Stanford team ran back onto the field, they were again greeted with the upraised arms but this time all the hands with the objectional gesture were discretely covered with rooters hats! This seemed to be acceptable to the officials and the game went on.
Cheatham: Would you describe a rooter’s hat to us?
McGill: They were simply a beanie like device that had two colors: blue on one side and yellow on the other. As you turned up the brim...and the blue was the dominant part over your head, then the brim would be yellow. And vise versa
The rooters hats played an important part in the seating arrangement. Rally Committee had arranged the seating so that those sitting in a certain place would wear their hats with the blue part showing and those in the remainder would have the yellow part showing. So when people came into the stadium, they were greeted with a beautiful big yellow C on a blue background or vice versa. It was a very beautiful display and it drew a lot of comment.
END SIDE ONE OF TAPE ONE
Cheatham: Would you say that the hats were in the shape of a sailor’s cap?
McGill: Yes, very similar.
Cheatham: They were reversible so you could wear them inside out, one way or the other, exposing the blue or the gold side.
On certain seating positions in the Rooting Section, there was a gold mark painted by Rally Committee so if you sat on one of those gold marks, you were to have the gold side of your hat exposed. Everyone else had the blue side exposed. Viewers on the opposite side of the stadium saw this beautiful gold C on a blue background within a matrix of solid white shirts. At a certain point in the game, probably the second half, the Head Yell leader would indicate to everybody to reverse the colors of their cap so now it became a blue C on a gold field.
Would you describe the administrative relationships between the Head Yell Leader and the Rally Committee?
McGill: The Rally Committee was the important group in organizing everything that went on at the football game in the way of school spirit. I, as Head Yell Leader, had nothing to do except to talk to Rally Committee ahead of time and ask them anything I should know about the card stunts, anything else special that they had arranged, or if we had any special problem in the Rooting Section. They would communicate to me what the problem was and I would communicate the problem to the rooters and try to solve it. If there was something going on that shouldn’t go on, then I would try to tell the rooters what was happening. [In other words, the Head Yell Leader was responsible for Rooting Section discipline. NHC] The spirit was good and we didn’t have too many off key incidents.
As I recall the Rally Committee, they were a bunch of hard- working people who did a lot of work in between organizing card stunts and the appearances of a celebrities. [...at the rallies and short appearances on the yell leader’s ramp at the games. NHC] They always let me know if there was anything unusual or anything special and I really had very little to do except lead the yells and songs. The Rally Committee did all the hard work and I was always very respectful and appreciative of what they did. They were an outstanding group. We were fortunate at that time to have a hard working and very effective Rally Committee.
Cheatham: Give us some further descriptions of the Rooting Section of your day?
McGill: Well as with any situation, when you get 10,000 enthusiastic young men together, there’s bound to be a problem or two arise and football of course brings out the excitement. There were sometimes rooters who disagree with what was going on but most of the time, we were able to control them quite well.
The Rally Committee was involved here. For example, if someone in the Rooting Section happened to be wearing something red, there were raucous cries of, “Take it off! Take it off!” [A variation was to chant, “Take of that Red Shirt”! NHC] And they either took it off or some of the rooters would pick up the miscreant and “roll him down” hand-over-hand toward the bottom of the Rooting Section. We always felt that was rather physically dangerous but actually we never had anything bad happen. The Rally Committee made sure there was nothing dangerous or unseemly or unsportsmanlike going on.
The Rally Committee was very efficient in doing their job. Of course, it did add to their unpopularity where the old cry of “Rally Committee stinks”! I felt that was rather a harsh indictment of a group that was doing a good job.
Cheatham: Yes, even into the 40’s, when I was a water boy, the chant was: “Rally Committee stinks! Hey! Rally Committee stinks! Hey!” I interpreted that as an expression endearment and of respect and recognition of their authority in a kind of teasing way. Maybe some rooters did feel hostile but I suspect they would be the rowdy ones.
It was truly a student run rooting section. Rally Committee and the yell leaders had the responsibility for maintaining an orderly rooting section. They wore distinctive felt hat which was called, strangely enough, a “Rally Committee hat”. Many members of Rally Committee were senior, respected, well known students on campus. If someone did become over-rowdy, Rally Comm would work their way in the Rooting Section in sufficient numbers to control the person and eject them from the Rooting Section if necessary. Or more typically, a rowdy student was “rolled down” to the Rally Committee who traditionally sat at the bottom, central part of the rooting section. In the immediate post-WWII years they would roll the rooter “up” and dump him off the back of the back of the rooting section. That was dangerous but I am not aware of anyone ever being hurt.
Certainly in the post-war years, there was alcohol in the Rooting Section that contributed to rowdiness but Rally Committee had the responsibility and the University left it to them to take care of Rooting Section discipline. Now, perhaps behind the scenes the University was more concerned and maybe leaned on Rally Committee with threats that if they couldn’t do it, the police would get involved. (The police were usually there as a backup.) The point I’m trying to establish is Rally Committee was a powerful and respected group.
As John has described, the yell leader had responsibilities for cheering in unison and because he was the figure at the microphone, from time to time the Yell Leader would also have to chide the Rooting Section into better behavior as he described in the incident with the obscene gesture.
Part of the reason I’m taking the time to describe these things is because the Rooting Section and the Rally Committee of the l990s is an entirely different matter. In my opinion, there’s no resemblance of the circumstance which I’m describing. The concept of an organized rooting section as I knew it is lost on today’s students.
McGill: As I listen to your comments Dan, I would say that you’ve covered the area of the Rally Committee’s function quite well and the attitude of the rooters and the fact that it was totally a student operated Rooting Section. I think we did very well. I never had any incidents of any problems as far as the administration was concerned. In fact, President Robert Gordon Sproul, one time at a meeting, told me that he was very appreciative of everything we did and he was very proud of the Rooting Section and of course, the Cal Band, so everything was positive and as I left that activity, I felt that we had done a good job and gave a lot of credit to the Rally Committee. In our yells, we had some pretty routine things. We would give the coaches a yell. For example, if the coach was Bill Ingram the yell would be: “Coach Bill Ingram, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah, rah.” That was “Coach Bill Ingram Six”. The other way, we would split it up and say, “Coach” and then, “Coach Bill” and then “Coach Bill Ingram” and then give him the rahs. Other times, the yells would be: “Beat somebody” or “spell it”, where we spelled out California, starting very slowly and speeding up at the end. Another was, of course, at the Stanford game, when the ax yell was used. Unfortunately I think we only kept the ax once during my tenure but that one was a glorious occasion.
We had many fine Cal songs which were designed to bring out the spirit and appreciation of Cal. Cal fight songs which began: “We are sons of California.” We also had All Hail. That one came at the end of the game. No matter what had happened, win or lose, we always had the student body rise and sing All Hail and the Band would also participate. Unfortunately, not all the rooters knew the words of the songs and they did a lot of faking but we always had enough who did know them to carry us along. It was always very impressive on the radio to people listening. We also had a great song called Hail to California and Our Sturdy Golden Bear. Great songs! The Band always played them with such great spirit that no one could resist getting into the spirit and that’s where the Band really provided great backup for us. We couldn’t have had a great Rooting Section without the wonderful band we had. It all came together in a very very impressive package. We always had a lot of good comments after the games when the spectators had been there.
Cheatham: Just to backtrack a little bit on Rally Committee, my presumption is the reason that it gets its name, Rally Committee, as opposed to some other name like Rooters Committee, is because Rally Comm also had the responsibility for putting on the bonfire rallies. The Yell Leader and the Band and other groups would be subordinate to Rally Committee when it came to the program and the planning.
On the subject of yells... Throughout the world of organized rooting, not just restricted to Cal, standard yells included the “(name of person or school) Six”, or the “(name of person or school) Twelve”. For example, the Joe Jones Six went, “Joe Jones! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!” Or a California Twelve went, “ California! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!” A variation would be the Split Six or the Split Twelve in which the Rahs! would have half before the name and half after the name. Twelve rahs ranked higher in the degree of honor you were paying to the subject of the yell than a yell with only 6 rahs.
I remember the “Coach’s Yell”. It was traditionally given in the last quarter of the game. It was a lengthy variation on the “Split Six”. It went, “Coach! Coach Pappy! Coach Pappy Waldorf! Rah! Rah,rah! Coach Pappy Waldorf! Rah, rah, rah!” Corny maybe, but when the full rooting section expressed their love of this particular coach, it was a fine example of an organized college rooting section. I’ve not heard the “Coach Yell” since Pappy left and it is now lost in the mists of time.
Well there are many more yells and anecdotes, but let’s move on.
My personal memories of the card stunts in the l940’s are very spectacular, and perhaps I’ll describe my memories in a minute but for now, I would like to hear your memories of the mechanics and the image that was created by card stunts in the mid l930’s.
McGill: The card stunts were very famous and outstanding in their day and were one of the great features of the football game. All of the rooters in the Rooting Section of 10,000 men were required to wear white shirts, something which probably would be totally unenforceable today. If they did not wear a white shirt, they were not allowed to sit in the Rooting Section, because the white background was essential to success of the card stunts.
The Rally Committee was responsible for putting on these card stunts and that involved getting together with the people from the Art Department who would design the stunts and make mock-ups on the huge charts which had all of the seats arranged in order. They would then decide which color card had to be held up at each seat for each card stunt. For example, if we wanted to show a picture of the Campanile, the artist would draw that over a replica of the Rooting Section’s, numbered seats. They would then decide which color had to be on certain seats. It sounds very complicated and intricate and indeed it was, and it took a whole lot of concerted effort by lots of people - not only the Rally Committee but other people in the Department of Art. They would show various campus scenes; pictures of the coaches; and the Campanile...and also a special version of the Big C. They might also show a slogan such as “Beat Stanford” or “Beat USC”, whoever it happened to be.
Each seat, where a rooter sat down, contained a slip of paper at the middle of the seat and on it, were numbers and opposite the numbers, a color. Four to six colored cards, approximately two feet square, of all different colors, were used to make the picture. These cards were nailed to the bottom of each seat and the rooter would remove the cards at half-time and check the number of the seat he was sitting on, then take the card that had the color on it, check the number of the card stunt the yell leader was calling. “We will now do card stunt number 5” for example. The rooter would look at his slip of paper and number 5 would show that his seat should hold up a blue card. He then held the card in two hands, lower down and at a given signal, from the yell leader, would raise the card to eye level, hold it vertically. This created the scene which came on in all its glory for everybody in the stadium to see. Unfortunately, we didn’t have television at that time so millions more could have seen them. The pictures were amazingly sharp and very seldom did we ever have a foul-up. Great credit must go to the Rally Committee for taking the responsibility to see that all this was done properly.
The rooters seemed to take great pride in doing it properly and always did their best to make sure that they held up the right card. There might have been as many as eight or ten stunts during the half-time. When it was over and almost time for the second half to start, and the teams to ran back on the field, the rooters would stand up and hurl the cards into the air. It was an awesome sight as thousands of colored cards took off into the air.
An outstanding experience I’m very sorry to say had to go down the boards as we got into the post-war years, but we enjoyed it and so did the spectators and it was so beautifully done.
Cheatham: Let me augment that very fine description with my memories of the card stunts in the l940s, when I was water boy for the Cal Band. Indeed, it was very well organized. Rally Committee would show up before the game and spend a lot of time, transporting the packets of colored cards, each with a full collection of colors and a cue sheet, one by one, up into the stands and thumb tack them to the wooden seats.
Rally Committee stored the cards in one of the storerooms on the outside of the stadium located quite near, and to the east of the entrance to the North Tunnel. In the l940s, they had acquired, a railroad baggage cart that was characteristic of the railroad era. It had large iron wheels and the floor of the cart was about waist-high because that would put it at the same height as the floor of a railroad baggage car. The point being that it was easy to shift heavy pieces of luggage on or off the railroad car from a cart that was the same height as the door of the railroad car. There was what was referred to as a “tongue” at the front of the baggage cart which people would grasp on to and would act almost as horses, pulling this cart. So they would roll the cart out through the tunnel and out onto the grass playing field to the yell leader’s ramp in front of the rooting section. Then they would place these cards on the seats by passing them up to the stands in bucket brigade- fashion. The height of the baggage cart was convenient to the height of the yell leader ramp.
Of course, since last week’s game, they had to spend a lot of time sorting the cards because when the game was over the cards were just all over the place in random colors. Rally Committee used to hate this because first of all, the cards would get damaged when they they were thrown into the air and it would come out of their budget to replace the cards. Secondly, they would have to do all this collecting and sorting. In fact, what Rally Committee wanted you to do was to pass the cards to the right and the Rally Committee member on the microphone would be pleading to the rooters, “Please pass the cards to the right”. All the time, the rooters are throwing them up in the air and paying no attention to him at all.
So I’ve established that when the rooters arrived at the beginning of the game, the cards and the instruction sheets would be attached by thumb tacks to the wooden seats. When it came time to do the stunts, a member of Rally Committee (The Card Stunt Chairman) would be at the microphone on the yell leader’s ramp and there would be large poster board charts of what the stunt would look like so the rooters could see what it was that they were performing for the benefit of the viewers sitting at the opposite Rooting Section who had the best seat in the house for this spectacular half-time entertainment. Hence the stunts would include spoofs about the opposing team as well spectacular effects that were designed to prove that our rooting section could do card stunts better than than the one facing us on the other side of the 50 yard line.
The protocol at Cal was for the Rooting Section, all of them in white shirts, to put the cards on their lap and to lean forward and position the appropriate color in such a manner that it would be showing when the time came to perform the stunt. The Director of the card stunts would give the command, “Everybody...UP!” at which point, everybody would sit erect from the previous position of leaning forward and there’d be an instant picture formed by the different colors that each one was holding up. In today’s technical jargon, each of the rooters would be a pixel and because the Rooting Section was jammed full, there were many pixels per picture which was a way of saying that the resolution was remarkably high if you viewed it from the opposite side of the stadium. When the stunt was over and it was time to shift your cards to the next one, the Director of the card stunts would say into the microphone, “Everybody d o w n”, at which point you would lean forward, put your cards in your lap and shuffle to the color for the next stunt. In so doing, the stunt would dissolve into a field of white formed by the white- shirted backs of all the rooters in the leaning-forward position. And the card stunts would progress one after the other.
They had a kind of a card stunt which was called a flip stunt. For example, if you had a picture of a happy face, you would flip the cards and the happy face would turn to a sad face, or some other appropriate sequence of pictures. The Director of the card stunts would yell “Flip!” and you would flip to the next stunt without leaning forward with the cards on their laps. Sometimes there would be several flips in a row.
Then there was another kind of a stunt - I forget how to explain it in terms of a name but - the yell leader would start counting numbers.
Here’s a perfect example. In the post-war years, the sign- off stunt was to do a script Cal. A solid gold field would come up and then the Director of the card stunts would start counting numbers and by your instruction sheet, you knew that on a certain number, you were to flip from the gold to blue. What would happen is, the script Cal would be written in blue across this solid gold field, just as if someone had a pencil and was writing it. This was a very spectacular stunt. The way this would happen is he would start counting his numbers as fast as he count - l,2,3,4,5... etc.(into the hundreds). He would count all these numbers so fast that the blue script Cal would appear on the gold field in a very nice way. Then they would flip several times alternating the gold on blue to blue on gold.
So, these are my memories of the mechanics of how to run a card stunt.
McGill: Just a couple more comments. Dan brought out a real good point there that I overlooked. One of the members of the Rally Committee, just about the time we were going to show the next stunt, would stand up on the yell leader’s stand with a huge picture of what the picture was gonna be so that the rooters, who were part of the stunt, could see what the picture was gonna be and this added much value to it as they knew exactly what they were showing. The script stunt Dan described came later. We weren’t quite that sophisticated and I remember seeing that later as a spectator. It was a very spectacular card stunt.
Cheatham: Any memory of other schools doing card stunts and how did it appear to you on the Cal side when opposing rooters did it?
McGill: I recall that Stanford, UCLA, and USC had card stunts. The latter two schools were down there in La-La land [Referring to Los Angeles. NHC] where they had many super- creative people who gave them a lot of ideas and I would have to say that they were very outstanding. Each university tried to outdo the other and we had a great time doing that.
I think, however, that Cal probably did originate card stunts and the others just picked that up as they went along but it became a very, very impressive feature of every football game.
One other very small point. Dan mentioned in the post-war years that the person in charge of the card stunts gave the signal. It happened to be a duty of the head yell leader when the card stunts were being put on in my time so I was the one that gave the number, gave them the up and the down. The up and the down was part of the fun. They didn’t just do it piecemeal or few up or few down. It was spectacular that they had that much discipline. They were ready to do what they could to make it work right and they did it well.
Cheatham: A mechanical point that I think is important to establish here is that when the rooters brought the cards up, at least in the post-war era, they would hold them in front of their face, with the eyes looking just over the card and so this added some additional uniformity to these pixels which went together to make the over-all show.
I should also point out that in those days, Rooting Sections sat opposite one another on the 50 yard line, which means that what’s now referred to as the alumni section didn’t exist. That was where the opposing rooters would sit. So, when they would come to Cal and bring their cards...the important point I’m trying to establish here is that the competition between one Rooting Section and the other was very important because if you knew that they were over there looking at your cards and in a minute, you were going to be looking at their card stunts, you performed yours with an extra zeal to not goof.
As the years went by the opposing Rooting Sections began to dwindle away and a lot of empty seats were seen there. Prominent alumni began to complain to the Athletic Dept. that they would like to sit in the 50 yard line. The next thing you know...time goes by...and now all the Alums holding season tickets are sitting over there and the opposing rooters are now scrunched off into the southwest corner of the Memorial Stadium and the same goes when Cal travels to other stadiums... and the proceeds from the sale of these prime seats rolls into the coffers of the Athletic Department.
I’m also reminded that in John’s day and up to, I think it was about the mid-fifties, the athletic department was a function of the student body government. That is, the coaches were paid by the Associated Students. The stadium I believe was owned or at least controlled by the Associated Students and all matters having to do with school spirit and athletics sprang from that source.
I think it’s important to note, as a way of establishing how it was that the Rally Committee was so important...was because of pride in the fact that the Student Body Government had such powerful influence. In later years (1960s?), when the responsibility for the athletics switched to the administration, I believe it was the beginning of the end of the powerful influence the students had and Rooting Sections of today and the Rally Committee of today just don’t quite have the same enthusiasm and the same sense of group that they once had. About this time, all of the disagreements and the troubles down at Sproul Plaza having to do with the Free Speech movement and the anti-Vietnam War era started and that helped to diminish interest in traditional, “Go Bears” activities.
While I’m on the subject, I should point out that the one group that seems to have weathered all of this and serves today as the warehouse, if you will, of school spirit and the school traditions is the Cal Band, who somehow survived all of these distractions, but that’s another topic for another discussion.
(End side two of Tape one)
(Side one of Tape Two)
Cheatham: Let’s go back to bonfire rallies for a minute and see if you can’t give us some idea of the role that the Band played at a bonfire rally.
McGill: Oh yes, there was one important factor I overlooked talking about. We mentioned as the classes came marching in and went to their respective areas but before that happened, the Band was assembled on the stage and they, with their great music, provided wonderful spirited background as we came in and that set the stage for the whole rally.
One other event that happened at the rallies...we would have the coaches and the players on stage and gave them all big yells. There were inspired speeches from coaches and players.
I recall coach Bill Ingram who was having kind of a tough year. At the Stanford Big Game rally, he was so worried, he was in tears trying to tell us what kind of a year we’d had and what they were going to do to the Stanford team on the next day. We also had key members of the team, usually Seniors who were going to graduate that year, who would come up and be accorded a special accolade or a big yell which indicated our appreciation of what they had done over the years.
The fire was allowed to die down as the rally went along. Obviously there was no point in having a big bonfire going as we got toward the end and then it was very impressive at the end. Everybody sang All Hail and we filed out into the night.
There were no incidents of violence or things like that. Everybody seemed to pick up on the spirit of the rally.
Cheatham: Did Garff Wilson read the Andy Smith Eulogy at the Big Game Rally in your day?
McGill: Garff Wilson wrote the eulogy in 1948 and became its reader two years later a the Big Game rally. This was sure- fire emotional stuff as Garff read it over a background of Cal songs hummed by the Cal Glee Club. Everyone in the Greek Theatre was standing for the reading and also held candles. At the end a bugler played “Taps”, followed by the singing of All Hail. Garff performed this impressive rite for about 25 years. I have no knowledge of the date of his last reading.
Cheatham: In his book Color them Blue and Gold: Memories of students, athletes, house mates and rascals I have known at Cal, Garff Wilson tells the story of the Andy Smith eulogy. The last he read it was Big Game rally 1984. The text is copyrighted and appears in the appendix to the book.
One of the things that’s confusing about Cal lore is that we have two songs that are often referred to as the Alma Mater, that is, the hymn of the institution.
One song is All Hail and the other is Hail to Cal. This is both, I guess, a blessing as well as less than blessing for us because of the confusion between the two.
How do you describe the difference?
McGill: The basic difference I could see between the two songs was that Hail to Cal was more of a fight song, and a warning to our opponents that we were very strong and united and we were going to put up a good battle. All Hail, which we always sang at the end of the contest or University function, is more of a hymn, expressing our reverence for the University and our appreciation of just being there. So, we sang a hymn at the end and a fight song, Hail to Cal, at the beginning was to impress on our opponents how mighty we were and what great things we were going to do. The biggest problem was getting the students to remember the words and sing as if they knew them.
Cheatham: Very good answer to that question. Thank you very much and I would point out that my memories of the rooters of the post-war, late l940s, were that they did know the words to the songs and it’s fun to go to their Big Game reunions these days because they’re the ones who sing along with the Band. The other, more recent classes, sit there like bumps on a log. Some of them might clap. But sing? No.
The lore of Cal’s school songs is fading fast and known only to members of what remains of the Glee Club and to the Cal Band.
All Hail Blue and Gold was written in 1905 by Harold W. Bingham. As best as I can determine, the only other school songs, at the time, specific to Cal, were Charles Mills Gayley,s Golden Bear and “Brick” Morse’s Sons of California. All Hail seemed to function as Cal’s alma mater, I suppose, by default, there being no other song in that genre. Then in 1907, “Brick” Morse improvised Hail to California at the piano and now there were two songs in that genre. There is lot of confusion about which to sing when. All of my old blue friends say, and the custom was well established in the the late 1940s, that events start with Hail to Cal and end with All Hail. In 1952, the California Club, a by- invitation-only student group sponsored by President Robert Gordon Sproul to promote an all-University feeling among all the campuses, adopted Hail to Cal as the all-University alma mater. All Hail, by custom, serves as the alma mater for Cal (the Berkeley campus) and is sung at the end of events. In the 1993, planners of campus events are all newcomers with no ties to the old-blue customs and they are mistakenly programing in Hail to California in stead. This could be the beginning of the end of a long tradition. I hope not.
One of the special events that the Band participated in was the Worlds Fair on Treasure Island. Do you have any memories of seeing the Band there.
McGill: Dan, I have very vivid memories of being at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay when lo and behold I heard some wonderfully familiar music. I didn’t know where it was coming from and I soon decided to find out. Then along came the Cal Band and I remember how proud I was that they were playing on Treasure Island in front of all those thousands of people.
[John: Can you elaborate on this point. Where did they perform? Did they march or just play a concert? Etc.]
Cheatham: Well, time passes and you’ve indicated at the beginning of this interview that you returned to Cal for some graduate work. But before we get to that, would you give us a synopsis of your life events between the time you graduated and the time that you returned in the late l940s.
McGill: After graduation, I joined the Del Monte group in San Francisco and worked with them in various capacities for about 7 years at which point along came WWII and I was drafted into the Army, I was in the 75th Infantry Division. Later my two years of ROTC at Cal, enabled me to get a commission and eventually go on to rank of Captain in the Quartermaster Corps. I had four years of Army experience in various capacities. Following that, I decided I’d like a new career. I returned to the campus about l947 to work for a degree in Educational Administration which I received and then obtained a Masters degree. I then went into the field of education for about the next 30 years in various capacities, including teacher, principal, and District Superintendent.
My wonderful wife Doris and two great sons were part of our 35th wedding anniversary last week. [...or 52nd?]
Cheatham: I’d be interested in your observations of the Cal campus and the Cal spirit upon your return in l948.
McGill: In returning to the campus after an absence of several years and comparing the spirit and the enthusiasm of the students, I found an entirely changed spirit for athletics. It seemed like the many veterans were there for one thing and that was to achieve an academic goal and the role of athletics didn’t seem important to them. Athletics seemed hardly important, except for those participating in them. It seemed like the Rooting Section at games had completely changed and rowdiness was beginning to get to the point where it was intolerable. In fact, it did become that later on according to a book by Ron Fimrite. The Rooting Section became so rowdy and uncontrollable that it was necessary to actually disband the group.
Post war matters made people more serious, more goal and job oriented and there wasn’t the rah rah feeling that was present when I’d been on the campus before. I think it was much more of a serious business and indeed it was approaching the protest days that came a little bit later.
Cheatham: The book that John is referring to is titled Way to Go! Heroes and Legends of Bay Area Sports by Ron Fimrite, a paperback book that was printed by Tarquin Books in Mill Valley in l978. It had some chapters on the athletic aspects of the University of California, including Pappy Waldorf and Jackie Jensen, as well as some observations on the Rooting Section.
My observations are that, while it is true the veterans were more goal-oriented, they were swept up in the heady days of the coach Pappy Waldorf era too. The 1948 football season resulted in the first of three straight Rose Bowls. I’ve heard it said that when it was time to work, the Vets knew how to work hard. And, when it came time to play, they knew how to play hard. Hence, the rowdy rooting section.
Well, we’re coming very close to the end of this interview here and I’d like to give you a moment to look back from the perspective of the present and ad lib for a little while on your memories of Cal.
McGill: As I look back over the total University experience, I’d have to say that it was one of the highlights of my life, attending one of the great Universities of the world, making some wonderful friendships and acquiring a good education.
It was a great privilege to have gone to the University of California which I still think today is one of the great institutions of the world.
Cheatham: John McGill, thank you so much for taking some time to help us get a feel for what the “California Spirit” was like in those years when you were a student and the Varsity Yell Leader.