March 10, 2015

Mr. University: Fundraising event presents Greek surrealism at its absolute finest

Last week, two of the strangest recurring events ever put on by UChicago students wrapped up their festivities. One was Humans vs. Zombies, a quarterly contest known for its green headbands, plastic guns, and the cultish devotion it inspires in its participants. On the other end of the social spectrum was the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority’s annual fundraiser, Mr. University. The latter is better funded, and its lineage goes back further, its contestants are taller and better dressed. It is also incredibly weird.

I arrived at last Thursday’s Mr. University Pageant about an hour late, just in time to catch the performance of its first contestant, Mr. AOII. All of the other contestants were competing for their respective fraternities; Mr. AOII was competing on behalf of a sorority. I don’t know why. In any case, Mr. AOII—handsome, suited, self-assured—had the unenviable task of opening the pageant with a short standup routine. His act was mostly standard CollegeHumor fare, performed with the easy confidence of a young Joey Bishop. It was OK. But the crowd was out for blood that night, and Mr. AOII, bless him, was heckled mercilessly from all corners. Tough room, brother; you’ll get 'em next time.

Things did pick up from there. Next came the emissary from FIJI Island, performing a minimally choreographed but admirably bold solo dance routine, which included no small amount of crotch grabbing and air humping. Raucous cheers erupted from the crowd when Mr. FIJI removed his shirt.

The following act—a team dance by the Lambdas, with audiovisual accompaniment—was perhaps the most impressive of the night, and certainly the most rehearsed. They closed their routine with a round of what appeared to be Schuhplattler, the traditional Alpine step-dancing of Bavaria. It was all very impressive.

There were some more dance routines after that, a few bands, one surprisingly good magic show, and a two-man Barack Obama and George W. Bush impersonation act (they were both pretty good). The crowd—a mix of very supportive sorority girls and very rowdy frat boys who seemed to hate each other’s guts—was compliant, but not nearly drunk enough, and started to chafe as the event entered its second hour. The event was apparently a rousing success, raising some $46,000 for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

And maybe it was the oddly posh venue of Mandel Hall, or the curious smoothness of an event orchestrated and attended exclusively by very young people, or just the general weirdness of watching a talent show put on by members of a secret order with which you have no affiliation—but the whole thing just felt completely and totally surreal. It was like everyone there was in on some grand joke that I was not getting.

Did my scrawny, NPR-listening ass feel out of place, standing around at the event’s intermission among all these square jaws and broad, East Coast shoulders? You bet your pledge pin it did. But it was more than that. The fact is that I was an outsider among these Greeks. The men and women in attendance that night were members of a pinned-and-paddled subculture of which I was definitively and purposefully not a part. And that’s what made it so great. That’s why it belongs here, on this campus. If the hallmark of the University of Chicago is its geekiness, then, by the traditional definition of “geeky”—that is, purposefully exclusive community—Mr. U and the Greek system it represents are more clearly “UChicago” than HvZ or even Scav could ever be. Maybe this really was a “Mr. University” contest after all.

The big winner of the night was from Delta Upsilon, by the way. He was the guy who performed magic tricks.