Return of ‘the biggest social event on the East Coast’
“Hi there, Tiger. My name is Penny. Isn’t that an adorable name?” began one.
“I just love the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance. It’s so…animal. It’s the biggest social event on the East Coast,” concluded the other.
That year’s event lived up to its reputation, with over 1,500 couples attending to hear the rock and roll group Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the swing group the Critters and the “society music” orchestra headed by Lester Lanin, a mainstay of the annual ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance.
But despite its success, 1967 marked the last year a traditional ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance was held. The 1968 version disregarded all the dance’s old customs, and instead took the form of an ironic pool and costume party. In 1969, no event was held at all.
This year’s class governments have portrayed the Orange and Black Ball — which will be held on Friday, Nov. 11 — as the resurrection of a University tradition. But the dance on which it was based — the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance — was an annual event held independent of the University by the ‘Prince’ and Tiger Magazine, with no link to the USG or class governments.
While the two do have a fair amount in common – like the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance, the Orange and Black Ball will be held in Dillon Gymnasium the night before the Big Three rivalry football home game — the past dances took place at a Princeton University that was fundamentally different than the one we attend today.
1929-1941: Feminine Guests, Frankenstein and Savoir Faire
Because the university was not yet coed at the height of the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance, students had to “import” dates from back home or from women’s colleges along the East Coast. Event organizers limited attendance and charged for tickets in order to offset the costs. Unlike today, when nearly every weekend presents undergraduates with many social opportunities and a heterogeneous group of people with whom to attend them, the dance was one of very few chances Princeton men had to enjoy themselves and interact with women while on campus.
The dance began in 1929 as a small affair consisting only of members of two campus publications and their close friends, but gradually grew into a preeminent collegiate social event open to thousands of students and featuring musical legends such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Its evolution over the decades, as well as its discontinuation in 1969 and its revival today, symbolically reflect changing conditions at the University and in the country over time.
After each holding separate dances for two years, the business boards of The Daily Princetonian and Tiger Magazine decided to join forces and throw a ball on Friday, Oct. 25 — just four days before the stock market crashed. In order to keep attendance below 600, each of the 110 members of the ‘Prince’ and the Tiger were issued six tickets: one for himself, two for friends, and three for their “feminine guests,” as dates were known at the time.
The following year, the event was held the night before the Cornell game. Attendance numbers were similar, with 45 members of the Cornell Daily Sun joining 500 undergraduates and 200 “feminine guests” to waltz to Bob Lula and his Baltimore-based society music orchestra. In 1932, ‘Prince’ members and their 500 guests enjoyed the music of Louis Russel’s “Negro Orchestra,” and students’ dates were confronted with a new ban on corsages.
But keeping attendance this low began to be a problem in 1937, when world-famous socialite and party promoter Elsa Maxwell announced that she would attend the ball and direct its festivities. Demand for tickets rose sharply thereafter, prompting ‘Prince’ editors to explain to disappointed students why they would not be able to attend.
“We hope that everybody realizes that ever since its inception, this dance has been primarily for board members and their friends,” the ‘Prince’ wrote on Nov. 19, 1937. “It has been limited, not for reasons of exclusiveness, but in order to make it the one more or less intimate social event of the year. Unfortunately, the excitement over tonight’s dance has been so intense that most undergraduates and Faculty members have forgotten this guest limitation.”
The article also noted that, if more people than desired attend the party, “the gymnasium will be mobbed until it isn’t funny, everybody will be lost, the dance will be out of hand and Frankenstein will have achieved his purpose.”
But for those who did attend, 1937 proved to be a year to remember — and the energy Maxwell maintained in the gym as she introduced band after band of “Cafe Society” favorites made that year’s dance a legendary moment in ‘Prince’ and University history.
A new tradition emerged in 1939, when the ball was held on the eve of the Harvard or Yale home game for the first time. An anonymous female attendee described her experiences in a ‘Prince’ article following the dance.
“From the men that broke on me I must say that ‘Prince’ men have that savoir faire that their colleagues lack,” the woman, who admitted to having a ‘Prince’ escort, wrote. “Perhaps if every Tiger editor didn’t think he was a sideshow in himself and tried to be a wee bit more interesting, he and the magazine in general would have more success. Funny thing, but as it stands now I think every Tiger man ought to develop a sense of humor. They think they are funny when really they aren’t at all.”
In 1940, supermodel Angela Greene attended the dance as Princeton’s ‘Rheingold Girl,’ an imitation of a beauty competition held by a beer company. Yale students also attended the dance, but according to the ‘Prince,’ their attempts to woo her were unsuccessful.
“A phalanx of determined Yalies attempted to convince Angela Greene, Princeton’s 1940 Rheingold girl, that she should forego the local boys and become Yale’s own Rheingold girl, but as far as this correspondent could tell, she remained loyal to Old Nassau,” the ‘Prince’ reported.
The last ball for four years was held in 1941, as the United States entered World War II in the following months. As this next generation of Princeton students spent much of its free time in compulsory military training, no ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance was held between 1942 and 1945.
1946-1962: Recreating the Glory Days
For the first few years after the dance’s return following the end of the war, the campus community seemed frustrated with its perceived inability to recreate to glory of ‘Prince’-Tiger Dances past.
In 1949, for example, the dance featured a 1920s revival theme, encouraging women to dress as ‘flappers’ and all students to dance the Charleston to evoke the “F. Scott Fitzgerald era.” The gym — the site of the previous dances — had burned down in 1944, and the first revival dance in 1946 was relocated to Baker Rink.
For the first time that year, admission was not limited to members of the ‘Prince’ and Tiger staffs and their guests. Instead, tickets were sold on a first-come, first-served basis to the entire undergraduate student body for $7.20 a couple and $4.80 a stag. This process continued into 1947, the first year the ball was held at the newly renovated Dillon Gymnasium. Because the event was now open to the expanded student body, the University arranged rooms for students’ dates at the Hildebrecht Hotel in Trenton, as women were not allowed in the dorms at night.
At the 1947 and 1948 dances, about 1,500 couples swarmed Dillon to dance to Lanin and his renowned orchestra. Mahlon Hessey ’50 said Lanin’s personal presence — which was rare, considering he directed many orchestras across the country — was what attracted so many students and made the event so successful.
“Seemed like everyone and his brother was there. The place was packed!” Hessey, who said he was dateless in 1947 but “imported” a girl from Vassar in 1948, said in an email.
The crowds did not please the new class of ‘Prince’ and Tiger editors. In an attempt to restore the intimacy that they believed made past ‘Prince’-Tiger Dances great, they held the 1949 dance at a Lawrenceville country club. To ensure exclusivity, ‘Prince’ and Tiger staffers sold tickets only to select members of their respective eating clubs — a stark contrast to the past two years, when tickets were on sale to all students at the University Store.
“The principal reason for the change is to offer undergraduates a more intimate dance in surroundings more appropriate to an affair of this sort,” the chairman of the dance committee told the ‘Prince’ on Oct. 4, 1949.
Despite the publications’ efforts, the ball only matched — and arguably exceeded — the standard set by the Elsa Maxwell era once it moved back to Dillon Gym and became open to the entire University community in the late 1950s. Beginning with Benny Goodman in 1956, the dance featured a succession of performances by some of the most legendary names in American musical history.
“I remember the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dances vividly — because we had an astonishing succession of performers,” Don Allison ’62 said in an email. In his sophomore and junior years, the dance featured Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, respectively.
“It tells you a lot about Princeton in those years that these groups, so central to American jazz, would be the groups attracted to Princeton,” Allison said.
David Price ’62, a former business manager of the ‘Prince’ at the time, said he did not play a direct role in organizing the dance but noted that ticket sales made up for the cost. Students were willing to pay to get in, he said, because the desire to uphold the tradition of the dance was still very strong at the time.
“At that point, those kinds of activities were almost a rite of passage,” Price said. “It was something that everybody did.”
Especially at a time when underclassmen were not allowed in the eating clubs, the dance was the only major social event of the fall — and one of the only ones open to the entire student body.
“It was about the only game in town,” former news editor Michael Mathews ’62 said, noting that the junior prom and Houseparties joined the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance as the most fun weekend events. “Those were the excuses you would use to import girls.”
The 1960s: Sneaking Out Back Windows
As the 1960s progressed, students began to care less about excuses for “importing” girls and more about lamenting the socially limiting experience of an all-male campus. As rock-and-roll culture infiltrated Princeton and the sexual revolution spread around the country, students viewed the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance less as a rite of passage and more as a relief from the monotony of life on an all-male campus.
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said that campus culture underwent enormous changes just over the course of his four years. From the fall of 1965 to the time he graduated in the spring of 1969, the number of public school students and students of color at the University grew dramatically.
“The country was very different in the spring of ’69 than it had been in the fall of ’65, and all that was reflected here on campus,” Durkee said. “It was more pronounced here because of the way the demography had changed and the fact that Princeton had well-established social traditions that were not being perpetuated.”
Durkee recalled the 1967 dance, which featured rock-and-roll group Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, famous for their hit “Little Red Riding Hood.” Three women called the Shamettes traveled and performed with the group, providing backup dancing — often in cages — and vocals.
The women had been classmates of Durkee’s at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, and the ‘Prince’ published an interview with them in the next week’s paper.
“I had a certain amount of stature that night because I knew the Shamettes,” Durkee said.
By the mid-1960s, the “subdued atmosphere” indicative of the “preppy era” that Price described had disappeared entirely.
“It was loud, raucous, pretty traditional late-’60s rock-and-roll dancing,” John Balckom ’69 said. As the drinking age in New Jersey at the time was 18, Balckom said, many people bought liquor on Nassau Street and brought it into the dance.
Women still were not allowed in the dorms, and Durkee recalled an entire “cottage industry” that existed in town to cater to this inconvenience. Homes in town would provide cots for female guests to sleep on for the night after the dance. But by the late 1960s, Balckom said, he and many of his friends chose to simply disregard the rule rather than putting in so much effort to find accommodation for their dates.
“Women technically weren’t allowed in the dorms, even though they were there all the time,” Balckom said, noting that roommates and friends would advise couples when proctors were approaching. “My now-wife and I on one or two occasions escaped out back windows. Word passed very quickly despite the absence of Internet.”
But as a result of the cultural changes the campus was undergoing, the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance waned in popularity by the late 1960s. Even the dance planning committee disregarded the old traditions of the dance; for the 1968 installment, the dance committee encouraged costumes and discouraged formal dress and invited all attendees down to the pool for a midnight swim.
“The frat party stuff was out and counterculture was in at that particular time,” Henry Asbil ’69 said. “There was a big transition in terms of the anti-Vietnam War movement and much less interest among at least a quarter to a half of the class in those traditional fraternity-like parties.”
The Class of 1969, the final all-male class in Princeton’s history, was also the last to experience a ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance for all four years. In the fall after they graduated, the ‘Prince’ Editorial Board announced its support for a moratorium on the dance and for the March on Washington to protest the Vietnam War.
Since the demonstration took place on the traditional Big Three weekend, the Editorial Board withdrew its support for the dance.
No dance was held in 1969, and student interest never proved strong enough for a revival. Though the ‘Prince’-Tiger Dance was an institution founded and upheld by generations of the publications’ managing boards, the class governments are now looking to build on its history to do what the annual event occasionally did — but traditionally did not — do: bring the entire student body together for a shared evening.