A Place of Two Minds: Tradition and Informality at Interlochen Art Camp, High School Boys Division
There are places that once visited have some kind of profound ability to draw you back, season after season. In my life, Interlochen Arts Camp is one such location. Interlochen is a forested campus, and as the name would suggest, located between two small lakes. The main camp is made up of several administrative buildings, employee dormitories, amphitheatres, concert halls and the main cafeteria. In the outlying wooded areas are the cabins that lodge the campers. I’ve taken many working vacations on this campus, specifically, in the High School Boys Division or as it’s referred to at the camp, HSB. I don’t particularly like the administration or “main camp” as its referred to by counselors and unit leaders, and in large part, I’ve never gotten along that well with the majority of campers and staff; yet, the few friends I have made and crude banter that I enjoy there somehow offer enough appeal that I have spent six summers at Interlochen. Although I’ve now sworn it off as an expensive lark of a summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself once more at the “land of the stately pines” at some point.
Interlochen has been around for just under eighty years and Interlochen’s elders are more than happy to educate new employees and prospective contributors to the institution on its history. The story of “The Land of the Stately Pines” is never told without the name Joe Maddy being brought up. That last statement is an absolute one. The book-jacket to a collection of memoirs entitled Joe Maddy of Interlochen: Profile Of A Legend reads, “In 1928, with 115 students and a borrowed $15,000, music professor, Joeseph Maddy founded the National Music Camp.” After extolling the virtues of the camp’s determined founder, the familiar mantra is repeated, “Today, the world renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts is a thriving 1,200 acre year round arts campus consisting of both the National Music Camp in summer and Interlochen Arts Academy in during the school year.” Cribbing a little more from the jacket, we learn, “2000 summer students, ages 8-18, and 430 high school students experience the magic of Interlochen.” While the aforementioned book covers much of the institution’s history, my own experience is six summers spent on the boy’s side of the summer camp.
That Interlochen’s summer camp still lodges campers in cabins makes it distinct. Other summer music institutes, I’m told, are held on university campuses where the students stay in dorms. In a practical sense, that option may be far more convenient and comfortable one than the reality of group living in a rustic cabin; however, such a change would disrupt years of tradition. I have spent three of my summers as the counselor of HSB Cabin #20, and my name, along with the names of the campers, is written on the cabin’s walls. If I have some kind of small attachment to that cabin, and I do, then one can only imagine how HSB regulars who have been coming to the camp for decades, both as campers and staff, feel. Sentimentality aside, the cabins are little more than brown siding, cement floors, bunk beds, sinks and showers. It isn’t the structure of the cabins that have given them character; truthfully, it is the graffiti. Ranging from musical notes, to names and majors, to obscenities written and surprisingly well illustrated, each act of vandalism is someone’s memory. One of my own favorites was left by Yin Hei of Hong Kong from the summer of 1999. As someone who was not a native speaker of English, he was not familiar with all the vulgarities of our language, but the boys soon caught him up. On the wall, is written “This summer I learn these words”: — and well, suffice to say, he has new arrows in his arsenal when it comes to describing parts of the body and certain related functions. When all is said and done, these cabins are simply places to sleep and relax; however, the Interlochen day is not an entirely restful one.
As a counselor and later as a supervisor, I did have time to sneak naps and catch a warm summer breeze through the screen window; nevertheless, restfulness is not an Interlochen priority. The trumpet or bugles first call comes at about 6:25 a.m. during the camp session. Three minutes later, reveille is played and the campers are expected to be up and ready. As lethargic as I am during the early morning, I have had to struggle with more than a few campers, on more than a few occasions, to get them moving briskly out towards the tennis court for line up and morning announcements. I remember one skinny kid from another cabin telling me at the end of the year that he had hidden under his sleeping bag for four days in a row, so apparently staff efforts were not always so successful. Fortunately, I don’t think any of my supervisors had any idea. What can I say? Some people don’t do mornings very well.
Assuming the all campers have made their way to the tennis court in a timely fashion and have therefore avoided having to repeat line- up, the exercises will commence. These exercises might be the first hint to any outside observer that much of the returning staff of HSB is made up of eccentrics or people who don’t necessarily take every aspect of camp life seriously. I have led the boys on exercises that involved screaming, throwing punches, and pelvic thrusts; others have climbed on top of the picnic table, done one jumping jack and then announced, “This concludes this morning’s exercises,” often eliciting applause from the campers.
Eliot Gittleman, the former director of High School Boys, was and forever will remain an Interlochen institution. His time at Interlochen spanned decades- something which isn’t uncommon among the senior staff. After making announcements concerning rehearsal times, auditions, concerts, recreational opportunities and other sundries, he usually follows up with a quote of the day. To be fair, I have heard Eliot quote Eleanor Roosevelt as saying, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” However, it would be far more typical for him to say, “Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get stuck in jet engines,” or, “After trying camels, nine out of ten men preferred women.”
Indeed, much of the conversation and banter amongst the HSB staff would likely fall on what most people consider “the low end” of the humor scale. Old Headquarters is where the division’s office is located. It’s also where campers’ packages from home are received and the warehouse for the division’s cleaning supplies, which are kept in a closet nicknamed “Fort Allen.” However, first and foremost, it is an employee-only, camper-free zone. On a more chilly morning, many counselors and administrative staff can be found sitting on rocking chairs in front of the fire, shooting the breeze. The jokes are the sort not told in mixed company. In fact, when I reflect on this small cabin, the two things that come to mind are the smell of wood smoke and the juvenile but painfully amusing jokes.
One shouldn’t assume that the informality carries over into all aspects of camp life. Interlochen is a tradition-bound institution. One such institution is the uniform. I have witnessed an assistant director, often referred to by himself and others as the “queen of H.S.B.,” stop campers on their way to rehearsal or class: “Um, Okay, what’s going on with the sandals and no socks? And where’s your belt?” A camper may try to interject a lame excuse, to no avail. The queen will command, “No, you need to go back to your cabin, put on some socks and get a belt.” Interlochen has had a uniform since its inception in the 1920’s. A few small changes aside, it remains unchanged. Males wear powder blue, collared shirts, blue pants, a belt, and of course must have their feet covered. The ladies, in addition to wearing light blue collared shirts, must wear knickers, and have knee high or visible socks. While there are various levels of zealousness in enforcing the uniform code, this doesn’t change the fact that the Interlochen regulars view it as their duty to uphold these policies. I can not confirm it, but I have heard that an idiot in the Intermediate (middle school) Boys division once declared “Not wearing the uniform right is like burning the flag.”
The uniform isn’t the only sacred cow in the Interlochen day. After the 9:30 p.m. call to quarters, the administrative staff of High School Boys sits on a bench where they can keep an eye on the division. They joke around about the day’s disciplinary problems, gossip about camp events, and carry on typical conversations. However, after all campers have been accounted for and Taps played, all lights must be out and silence must blanket the division. I have walked into many cabins to take to task campers for speaking loud enough to be heard from the outside. I have also walked into cabins to turn off porch-lights that were on unbeknownst to the campers or counselors. For all of Eliot’s good nature, generosity, and humor, he has a serious side. I have seen him red-faced discussing people talking or keeping their flashlights on during taps. As best I can tell, a camper’s observation of Taps is of paramount importance to Eliot, bordering on the sacred.
Solemn sounds are however not the only ones to be heard in HSB. In the practice rooms, which are nothing more than wooden cells with a piano inside are occupied, and all around the forest, musical scales and a cacophony of instrumentation can be heard. I have had to yell on several occasions to get the attention of a saxophone player. I have had to be insistent with a number of clarinet players that their practice time was over and they needed to return to their cabins. Interlochen’s young musicians are among America’s best.
However, if any of the campers can really be accused of “living their art,” it would be the Musical Theatre majors, or “MTs,” as they are referred to. The best two descriptions of the high school boys who are Musical Theatre majors would be very loud and very gay. During concert performances, the High School Girls (HSG) and HSB staff often have to wander down to wherever the MTs have congregated in order to remind them that their talking, singing, and general theatrics shouldn’t compete with whatever is happening in Kresge Auditorium, where important concerts take place. It is a request that has to be reiterated, and sometimes the kids have to be sent back to their cabins. I remember getting up one morning especially early, as it was one of the last days of camp and special events were taking place. Everyone looked like death as we slogged our way to the tennis court for announcements, everyone that is, except for two musical theatre majors who were merrily singing, “Oh what a beautiful morning/Oh what a beautiful day/ I got a wonderful feeling/everything’s going my way.”
As mentioned, in spite of the good memories and friendships made at Interlochen, I have also felt my fair share of friction towards the institution and its zealots. There are people on staff who lose their sense of perspective early on in the summer. For this reason, those who do not balance discipline with a sense of humor tend not to return. There was a counselor I remember who was not entirely unpleasant, but definitely seemed to have fanatical tendencies. I felt the need to push his buttons sometimes and I figured out how to early on. I only needed to gripe about what I considered to be an archaic uniform policy and he would start screaming, “NO, WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT THIS, WE SIGNED A CONTRACT!” It was not hard to make him leave the dinner table in haste if so desired.
On one of my evenings out, an overly eager counselor who was “midnight roving,” placed sticks underneath the doorknobs of each cabin’s rear entrance. Upon finding the sticks under my cabin’s door broken and the door slightly ajar, he did a bed check. What he didn’t know, was that one of the campers was being allowed to watch a movie in another cabin that same evening. It resulted in a panic. Every agency short of the Navy SEALS was called out in the pursuit of the not so missing camper. All this because one staff member likely had too much caffeine and a camper probably opened a door to take a piss off of the steps.
The overzealous counselor was just wrong headed. Midnight roving should not have been thought of as guard duty, but rather as an excuse to be outdoors. He should not have been concerned with escape scenarios; rather, he should have focused his attention on a starry sky free of light pollution. I have never had to chase absconding campers; instead, with very few exceptions, the worst things to happen at night were when the raccoons would use their opposable thumbs to open up Old Headquarters’ screen door and devour any food left lying around inside. No one wants to clean up strewn garbage and raccoon bombs before breakfast. None of this required constant vigilance as raccoon raids are minor in the scheme of things.
The last day of the regular camp season is for the High School Boy’s division, a perfect and beautiful illustration of its contradictions. Interlochen’s last day of camp is concluded with a camp-wide concert known as “Les Preludes.” The event is held in the outdoor amphitheatre called “The Bowl.” Symphonic music is played by an orchestra of students while dancers gallivant down the aisles, taking to the top of the amphitheatre’s roof. Atop the roof, they continue to twirl multi-colored flags in fluid motions. Every year, this concert is a big draw and inevitably HSB staff end up sitting on the grass, far away from the stage. An outside observer would not have trouble drawing comparisons between the wisecracking antics of the men of HSB to the bad kids sitting in the back of the class in middle school. The jokes cease at the conclusion of the concert as the Interlochen theme plays for the last time that season. No levity is welcome during this solemn moment, in fact it contradicts Interlochen tradition to applaud after the conclusion of the theme. A campus predominantly made up of musicians understands the sacredness of some sounds.
After a relatively sleepless evening of seeing campers off to the bus stop or airport, the cabin is cleaned up, and the last paycheck handed out. Eliot was insistent that the cabins be thoroughly cleaned up and organized before his staff departed; however, once these contractual obligations were satisfied, informality returned. You could stay in your cabin for a day, a week even. Eliot always stayed on for a while after the season ended, and where Elliot was, one more campfire wasn’t too far away.