Legacy of 'Animal House' remains in Eugene 40 years later

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Forty years later, the signature location is long gone, replaced by a parking lot.

View all (2)

The dilapidated Eugene home on East 11th Avenue that was the namesake for the movie "National Lampoon's Animal House" was torn down in 1986.

Still, the legacy of "Animal House" remains, as do many of the film's locations around the Eugene area. They are a visual reminder of that frantic autumn of 1977 when Hollywood descended on the southern Willamette Valley to make what would become a cult comedy classic.

Eugene is known for track and field, runner Steve Prefontaine and the birth of Nike. But this wild, zany and raunchy movie is another enduring claim to fame.

The movie is set in 1962 and follows the exploits of Delta House, a fraternity of misfits — one of them played by John Belushi, who's also no longer with us — who battle the dean of fictional Faber College. Director John Landis filmed it in the fall of 1977 and released it in the summer of 1978. Anyone familiar with the UO, Eugene and Cottage Grove will immediately recognize locations throughout the 109-minute movie.

During UO tours, guides often point out "Animal House" landmarks, said Micah Howe, the university's assistant director of visit programs. Johnson Hall, an administration building that's home to the UO president's office, is where mischievous fraternity members sneak a horse into the dean's office. The Fishbowl, the Erb Memorial Union's distinctive cafeteria, is the site of the movie's infamous food fight scene.

But it's not prospective students who are starstruck when the guides point out the locations.

"They tend to get a great response from parents and family members," Howe said. "I feel like (visitors) in that generation are more familiar with the film than today's high-schoolers."

Asked about the impact of "Animal House" on Eugene, Mayor Lucy Vinis has three reactions.

First, it's simply a cool piece of history. "It's just a quirky, fun fact that it (was filmed) here," she said.

Second, she has a connection to the house. Before she was mayor, Vinis was development director at ShelterCare, a nonprofit organization helping the homeless. And ShelterCare's history intertwines with the movie, having started in the "animal house" on 11th Avenue before it was torn down.

"When they began as an organization (in the 1970s), they housed four homeless families who lived communally in that house," Vinis said. A 15-by-6-inch plaque is on a rock next to the parking lot that now covers the former house location. It mentions "Animal House" after citing the pioneer history of the home.

Third, the filming of a major motion picture in Eugene sparked a surge in local movie-making. "And they are still at work in Lane County," Vinis said.

Independent films dominate local production these days, but major films followed "Animal House." Lane County was the backdrop for "Personal Best" and "Stand by Me" in the 1980s, and "Without Limits," a biopic of Prefontaine, in 1998.

The filming of "Animal House" more than four decades ago brought an energy to the area akin to a big sporting event, said Mike Dilley, executive director of the Eugene International Film Festival and an organizer of the Bohemian Film Festival in Cottage Grove. Locals appeared on camera and helped with the production.

"It gave people some jobs, and gave them opportunities, and they were able to prosper from it," Dilley said.

On location

Even if you haven't watched "Animal House," you've probably heard about the horse scene. In it, two Delta House brothers (one of them Belushi) and a pledge decide to prank the dean of the college by breaking into his office at night to leave a live horse behind. (Spoiler alert: The plan goes awry when the horse is literally scared to death.)

The "Animal House" crew shot the scene in a conference room at Johnson Hall. Today, it's UO President Michael Schill's conference room, and it looks much like it did in 1977 — minus the horse, of course. The furniture and blinds are different, but the wood paneling and bookshelf are the same.

As for the EMU Fishbowl, its signature semi-circle of windows remains, and its booths resemble those in the movie. But the red seats in "Animal House" are now a bright green.

Through the magic of movie-making, the location of the fictional Emily Dickinson College in "Animal House" is miles from Faber College in the film. In reality, the film crew used Gerlinger Hall on the UO campus as the site of the women's college.

Stepping into Gerlinger Hall's grand entrance takes you into another classic "Animal House" scene. The main stairs serve as the entryway of a sorority in the movie. There, Eric "Otter" Stratton (played by Tim Matheson) says he's there to pick up a woman who he knows recently died in a kiln explosion — a ploy to secure dates for him and his buddies.

While Otter waits, he says good evening to a pair of young co-eds who pass. The women — just two of the hundreds of local extras who played small roles in the movie — are Heather Henderson of Eugene and Ellen Hamm of Seattle, then UO students who answered the casting call in 1977.

"They only shot it once," Hamm said. "I guess we did OK."

The more things change ...

Not all "Animal House" locations are time capsules.

Just go down the stairs of the former Sigma Nu fraternity house at 763 E. 11th Ave., next door to the Delta House site. The building is now the School of Professional Studies for Northwest Christian University. The interior of the house served as the inside of Delta House in the movie.

Katherine Wilson of Blue River was a location scout for "Animal House." She said she recently visited the Sigma Nu basement to verify that's where the legendary toga party was filmed. Today, Northwest Christian University keeps the basement locked, and it's stuffed with spare furniture.

The location for the Deltas' rival Omega House in the movie, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at 729 E. 11th Ave., still stands and has the same white exterior with green trim. The UO recently shut down the real-life frat that had resided there, for hazing.

Some lost locations are making a comeback. The Dexter Lake Club, 21 miles southeast of Eugene, is where some Delta House brothers take their dates from Emily Dickinson College. In the 40 years since "Animal House" was filmed, the roadhouse off Highway 58 has changed ownership many times. It became a garden supply shop at one point.

Recent remodeling has restored its dimly lit, live-music venue. And the zebra stripe pattern on the wall looks just like in the movie.

Visitors come from near and far to check out the bar where Otis Day and the Knights play "Shama Lama Ding Dong" in the movie. They come to experience it, said Crystal Holmes, who owns Rattlesnake BBQ at the Dexter Lake Club with her husband, Dustin, a former UO football player.

"And (to) say that they were at the 'Animal House' bar," she said. "It's like a bucket list thing for people who have grown up in Oregon."

Why here?

The story of how the UO became the location is almost as legendary as the movie itself.

Wilson, the location scout who had worked on previous movies, said Landis and others associated with the film sought permission to shoot at universities around the country, starting with the Ivy League schools, but found no takers. The window for getting the film green-lighted by Universal was closing fast.

Wilson's phone rang on a Friday. It was the "Animal House" team wanting to know if Oregon had a university that was fit for filming. Wilson needed to find 26 different locations, including one with a rundown frat house next to well-kept ones, and a Main Street suited for a parade. And she needed to do it fast.

Wilson and her friends collected photos and footage of the site possibilities, including the house on 11th Avenue and the future parade route on Cottage Grove's Main Street, and got the materials to the filmmakers by Monday, thanks to the help of an airline's counter-to-counter courier service.

The movie producers had found their location. Then-UO President William Beatty Boyd agreed to allow the filming on campus, having not read the screenplay, Wilson said. There was one condition: The movie-makers couldn't refer to Eugene or the UO in the film.

But Eugene and the UO are oh-so-recognizable and forever linked to the movie that has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

"Locations and landscape are characters themselves," Wilson said. "They really are. It's really important. Location, location, location. That's why they always had to start with that. That's your foundation."

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com