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December 8, 2004:

Kickline continuum

By David Baumgarten ’06

Their skirts are short, their midriffs are bare, and their legs are hairy. But when the men of the Princeton Triangle Club take the stage for the final act of their shows, they thrust their legs high into the air with all the gusto — if not the grace — of the Rockettes. And for almost a hundred years now, audiences have been going wild every time.

“Whenever you have men dressing up like women, people are going to look really stupid,” says Ben Fast ’06. “I know I look ridiculous, and that’s funny.” Indeed, the men looked as ridiculous and were as funny as ever in mid-November, when the kickline made its annual appearances at McCarter Theatre. The show, entitled “Orange and Black to the Future,” played to packed houses, adding to a tradition of music and comedy that began 114 years ago.

Plenty has changed, of course, since future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Booth Tarkington, Class of 1893, ushered in the club’s modern era. A 1905 skit called the “pony ballet” — a parody of Broadway shows of the era — is believed to be the first precursor of the kickline, according to club historian Joey Cotruvo ’06. Gracing the stage a few years later were future legends F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17, whose famously poor grades prevented him from touring, and Jimmy Stewart ’32, who made his debut as part of an accordion duo. The club’s first woman, Sue Jean Lee ’70, appeared on stage in 1968, paving the way for other female performers, including the already famous Brooke Shields ’87, who once arrived at practice in a helicopter.

While times have changed, one critical thread remains the same: the show is still student driven. Undergraduates write all the sketches and music, perform on stage and in the pit, and are responsible for the set, sound, and lighting (a professional director and choreographer are hired to help out). “Because it’s student written, it’s always in touch with the time,” says Jing Jin ’06. “It’s so collegiate that the humor never gets old.”

A diversity of humor also goes a long way toward ensuring the show’s long-lasting appeal. An armada of writers participate in workshops year round, each contributing a unique style. As a result, the skits range from highbrow literary satire to bawdy sexual comedy, from parodies of Princeton to commentary on world events (this year’s show was especially political). “It’s best when the audience can get the jokes, but they’re not too complicated,” says Virginia Pourakis ’05, best known for her recurring role as Latvia Woman. “You need to make the audience think a little bit, but not require too much.”

Ultimately, Triangle members explain, it’s the passion that goes into the production that’s most responsible for its success. Roughly 75 students contribute to the show in one way or another. “It’s the student energy, the amazing commitment to the group,” Fast says. “They do whatever it takes to make something that they enjoy performing and others enjoy watching.”

Students and Princeton-area residents aren’t the only ones to see the benefits of Triangle’s efforts. Since 1901, the club has regularly taken its shows off campus, traveling as far as California. In recent years, the tour has come over winter break. After traveling as far south as Miami last December, this year’s trip will include several Mid-Atlantic stops. For the students, the trip is a bonding experience, full of traditions and titles, such as the “deli maiden,” who rations the food, and the “quote master,” who keeps a running list of funny off-stage quips.

Life on the road has its drawbacks, with a shortage of showers topping the list of gripes, but nearly every member still cites a story from a tour as his favorite Triangle memory. Besides, the reaction of the alumni who flock to see the show make all the pain and suffering worthwhile. “Who better to perform the show for, than the alums who will really appreciate it?” says Jin, the manager of this year’s tour. “It puts them back in touch with memories of their college years, and it really reinvigorates a lot of them.”

It’s that spirit — the desire to perform and bring joy — that ensures, even in its old age, Triangle won’t be slowing down, as long as there are students to sing and dance and kick their hairy legs into the air. “Certain types of humor are just timeless,” says Pourakis, her trademark high-pitched voice sounding ready to burst into song. “And so is wanting to entertain an audience and help them have a good time.”

David Baumgarten ’06 is a politics major from Richmond, Va.