Libel Show Celebrates 100 Years of Mischief, Memories
By Mary Wood
It started as a fraternity hazing ritual on the steps of the Rotunda more than a century ago, but the Law School’s annual Libel Show has retained its mission of lampooning faculty, the administration, and law school culture, while growing into an impressive musical-comedy stage production harnessing the efforts of more than 200 students. The infamous show celebrated 100 years in March, marked by the return of more than 125 alumni to see the latest production and a commemorative book on the show’s colorful history.
“It’s really fascinating to watch when you get a group of highly motivated, highly intelligent, and shockingly creative people together in a room to find out what they can do,” said Libel Show co-director John Sheehan, a third-year. “There’s something exciting about it because a lot of us are going on to legal jobs and this is one of those rare opportunities that comes to just get up on stage and be ridiculous and have a good time.”
Show producer Patrick Byrnett, a third-year, researched the show’s history for the commemorative book, which features photos, program covers, and portions of scripts from past productions.
“The thing that was surprising to me was actually how similar the show is to productions 70 or 80 years ago—though obviously we do more ’80s pop songs now,” joked Byrnett.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, members of the Phi Delta Phi legal fraternity would parade new recruits, or “goats,” around Charlottesville on the backs of mules during the University of Virginia’s annual “Easter Gayeties.” The first formal show occurred in 1903; while few details remain from that production, in 1904 the show featured a trial of a student for standing up a girl, while another early skit put Greek poetess Sappho on trial. Audience members illuminated the event by firing roman candles at participants. According to the 1958 Libel Show program, the tradition of performing on the Rotunda steps ended when the University president, climbing the steps to his office, “was struck in the midsection by a sputtering rocket.”
The show moved to Old Cabell Hall in 1908, where it remained for 80 years (for two years in the late 1960s it was moved to University Hall—for a production that “simply couldn’t be stuffed into Old Cabell”). In 1990, the show moved to its current home, Caplin Auditorium, on the Law School grounds. Although more than 100 years have passed since the traditions marking the Libel Show began, the production celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1958.
“The impressive thing to us is that the show was able to make it this far,” Byrnett said. “As is prone to happen when you’re making fun of the people in charge, they sometimes get rankled, and so there were a number of times in the show’s early history that it darn near got itself banned.”
Several sources report rumors of why the show was banned for a few years in the 1920s. Byrnett said the most verifiable suggests the show may have been barred by University of Virginia President Edwin Alderman after students produced a skit in which Law Professor (and eventual dean) Armistead Dobie participated in a shotgun wedding. It hit too close to home, since Class of 1904 member Dobie was marrying a much younger woman at the time. Dobie, who is frequently cited as a founding member of the Libel Show tradition, eventually forgave the students and reinstated the production.
Law Professor Alex Johnson (right) and the Hon. S. Bernard Goodwyn '86, now a justice on the Virginia Supreme Court, in 1986.
Other rumors cite that students went too far in mocking a professor who failed his entire Mortgages class in 1925, according to a 1949 Virginia Law Weekly. The show was so controversial, the paper reported, that students brought in a graduate to play the professor. In 1943, the show was canceled for a more serious reason—all members of the fraternity were serving in the military during World War II.
By 1961, the Libel Show began to feature more students than were in Phi Delta Phi, and the show totally separated from the fraternity by 1979. While the production always involved about a fifth of the student body, that meant 15 or 20 students in its early years, and 200 or more today. Recent shows typically feature a large band, musical numbers, skits, and even elaborate video shorts, all in the name of poking fun at the Law School. Anyone who tries out gets in the show.
“The joke we’ve had internally is that we will not let any talent go unwasted,” Byrnett said, noting that they even managed to work in a pogo-stick enthusiast last year.
“We get quite an impressive swath of students who want to participate in the Libel Show. In comparison to other law schools’ shows, it seems that ours is truly unique in how popular it is,” said Libel Show co-director Phoebe Geer. “It’s wonderful how excited the professors are when we ask them to help with videos or participate in the show. Everyone seems happy that the Libel Show is here.”
The show “encourages an activity that isn’t specifically related to the law, but I think it makes us better individuals coming out of the Law School,” Byrnett said. “It’s an example of UVA Law’s commitment to working hard in all pursuits.”
Students invited past participants back to enjoy this year’s production. Several alumni shared their memories for the book.
Class of 1965 graduate Jack Bissell, who in his last year at law school starred as former Dean Emerson Spies, recalled that the show was primarily a series of scripted skits and didn’t include the musical numbers and band that feature prominently in modern productions. In his final year of Law School the Libel Show spoofed the Civil War, with a group of professors of northern origin, headed by Spies, taking on professors of southern origin, led by Professor Neill Alford.
Students playing professors had a tradition of dressing exactly like their subject—so Bissell grew out his crew cut and had his barber give him a flat top with a waxed front, and he donned Spies’ trademark houndstooth sportcoat.
“Prior to the show the actor paid a visit to the office of the professor he was going to imitate and invited him to attend,” Bissell said. At the show’s opening the professor would walk down the center aisle with the student. “It was good fun and the spoof was always taken in stride.”
The Libel Show experience also connects alumni across generations. Bissell, a retired federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, recalled sharing stories with two of his law clerks in the 1990s who had previously directed the Libel Show.
Alumna Rosemary Daszkiewicz ’86, who served as an assistant producer in 1985 and a producer in 1986, fondly recalled rehearsing for the 1986 show in the Rotunda.
“I found myself imagining the generations of students working in the Rotunda, planning things serious and silly,” said Daszkiewicz, now a senior director of law with Plum Creek Timber Co. in Seattle. “It felt right to be using that space not for something grand and ceremonial, but for something without any ‘redeeming moral value’—something which is also an essential part of the fabric of life of the Law School. Thomas Jefferson would have been proud to see students in the mid-1980s still using that space for mischief and mayhem.”
Other notable alums include former Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice George M. Cochran ’36 and the Law School’s own Professor Barry Cushman ’86. Cushman served as musical director during his second and third years, played alto sax and piano, and also sang songs like "The Law [Love] Boat" and the theme from "Love Story."
"That's one of the wonderful things about the Libel Show—you see all these hidden talents people have," Cushman said of his classmates.
The students who run today’s Libel Show, known as “The Junta,” pour in hundreds of hours, which intensify from February until the show runs, usually in late March. “If we were in a billable-hour setting, the show would be a very good client—we each log hundreds of hours over the year,” Byrnett said.
Recent shows have cost $25,000 to produce; the Libel Show usually makes a profit through ticket and DVD sales and law firm sponsorship. Since the show began charging admission in 1927, however, it has donated its profits to a worthy Law School cause. Its first donation was a set of books on legal philosophy to the Law School library. Last year, the show donated its $4,000 profit to the Public Interest Law Association, a student-run organization that funds summer fellowships for students working in public service jobs. This year, the Libel Show also received support from the Law School Foundation to help with the cost of producing the book.
Although the Phi Delta Phi fraternity is still active on over 200 campuses, there is no longer a chapter at the Law School. Be assured that their legacy lives on through the Libel Show—only without the highbrow references to ancient Greece.