The Silly [but mostly true] Story of the Basic Elmos
Over the summer, I talked with members of this amorphous group of pranksters, who were highly caffeinated Beloit students between about 1972 and 1977. The Elmos took pride in their underground, nonconformist identity, so asking them to bring their adventures into the light was initially met with silence. They eventually warmed up. Still, one warned that I should believe only 65 percent of what I heard and others regaled me with penguin jokes in multiple languages. So reader, please approach this story with a caveat: I am reporting on a bunch of cagey jokers.
The Elmos, with their appreciation for weird stuff, the Marx Brothers, penguin jokes (penguins are naturally funny!), and clothing scavenged from second-hand shops, made sure there was never a dull moment on campus. They orchestrated happenings, like semi-dangerous tours of the college’s underground steam tunnels, or what they called “basic unit displays,” spectacles created out of nothing but their own wild imaginations and junk thrown out of windows.
“They were shadowy, undefined, loosely structured, spontaneous, anarchic, unpredictable, and mostly hilarious good fun,” recalls Tom Dickinson’73, a friend and sometime Elmo conspirator. Beyond just having a blast for a brief period in the 1970s, it turns out that most of the Elmos have stayed Elmos all this time, retaining their nicknames, their frames of mind, and their friendships.
Len Pagliaro’76, one of the original members, and one of the few Elmos without a nickname, says he deferred admission to Beloit to spend a year in England. Because he was away, he never saw those important college mailings about choosing a room and a meal plan.
“This was before the Internet, so there were stacks of mail that came when I was gone, and obviously I didn’t do any of that stuff,” he says. “So all the people who hadn’t done their paperwork ended up in the same dorm, which was Chapin Hall. It was a very interesting selection process. People kind of self-selected … people who were not that attentive to bureaucratic details. It was a really fun group.”
Their abode was on the third floor, its front patio below serving as the existing social nexus of campus and a readymade stage for the Elmos.
Phil Erickson’77, one of the core Elmos from the start, attributes the inviting hallways and spaces of Chapin’s third floor with inspiring the group’s formation. To the Elmos, Chapin offered the perfect venue to learn how to ride a unicycle, procure cast-offs from Commons kitchen, or test a rocket sled made out of a mop bucket.
“There was a long hallway and it comes right to the front of the building and there’s a big meeting room and a window,” Erickson says of Chapin. “So it’s really conducive to everyone running down the hall and conglomerating in this big area.” The space inspired Erickson and others to think about things like playing hall soccer and trying out those afore-mentioned rocket sleds, which first came to the Elmos’ attention in a physics class film about acceleration and velocity.
“A lot of the original Elmos were scientifically minded in a twisted kind of way,” says Erickson, whose nickname was James because he sometimes adopted the role of an English-accented servant.
Over the next four years or so, this loosely organized group kept reconstituting itself with an evolving cast of characters who moved between Beloit and other destinations, as they completed the requirements of the Beloit Plan.
What’s in a name?
This seemed like a simple question: Where did the name “Basic Elmos” come from? Yet no one I talked to could agree on an answer.
The Elmos were adamant about what the name didn’t mean. The group was not named for a fellow Beloit student whose first name was Elmo, despite rumors to that effect, though they all agree that he was a really nice guy. There appears to have been a tangential association with U.S. Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was in the news at the time because of the war. And a few people said the term “basic” was a joke about a hackneyed name for Beloit classes (Basic Biology or Basic Economics) though some disagree with that memory. Original Elmo Phil Erickson had the best explanation. Sort of.
“It’s a turn of phrase,” he says. “It could mean anything. If you’re doing something weird, someone might say, ‘Well, don’t be an elmo. You’re just being a basic elmo.’ I don’t think there is any explanation for it. It’s just one of those things. Someone heard it and liked it and it rolled off the tongue. It could be good or bad. There’s really no significance to it,” he adds. “That explanation doesn’t help at all.”
Unit Displays and Other Cheap Thrills
What the Elmos called “unit displays” originated from the stuff of everyday life, which the Elmos ingeniously reshaped into their own brand of humorous showmanship.
Several of the original Elmos had jobs in Commons, for instance, where reloading milk dispensers was a frequent chore. Students would fill their cups from the front of a cooler, while inside, a five-gallon plastic liner within a cardboard box held the milk. Once the bags were empty, they went to the trash. Pagliaro hated to see them go to waste.
“We thought these plastic bags were pretty cool,” says Pagliaro. “We went back to the dorm and said, ‘Why don’t we fill these up with water and throw them out the window?’”
Chapin’s third floor had the ideal setup to execute this plan, with a bathtub and a conveniently located window that opened and overlooked the quad. The Elmos plucked bags from the dumpster, filled them with water, and used shower curtains to drag them to the window. They dispatched a ground crew that warned people to “clear the area!” while music like John Philip Sousa marches blasted from their dorm room speakers. They started a countdown that ended in a shouted “ZERO!” as the bags went out the window, creating a spectacle to the delight of beer-drinking crowds of students. At the time, the Round Table reported that one of these giant water balloon displays could number anywhere from a few bags to as many as 60.
Over time, “zero” became a kind of code word and cheer for the Elmos, though earlier members say they also used the word to poke fun at a visiting physics professor whose pronunciation of “zero” made them laugh.
You may be wondering: Where was campus security? The Elmos insist they always had ground control to make sure no one got hurt or even splashed during displays. And once Martin Security, the college’s security service at the time, started catching on to their stunts, the Elmos were most likely to get caught after a show, when they were attempting to clean up.
“Security wasn’t as serious as it is today,” explains Andy Persily’76, an Elmo nicknamed “Bake” because he knew his way around the kitchens of various Elmo-centric residences. “They were easy to avoid and not ready to die on the job,” he says.
Besides giant water balloons, the Elmos tossed other things out the window, too. Bowling balls. Toilets. TVs plugged in with long cords, which, in at least one case, was still airing Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show monologue as it came down. The Elmos had scavenged most of this stuff from the garbage or bought it for next to nothing at the local Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store.
Defenestration is not a word you encounter every day, but if you talk to the Basic Elmos, it will work its way into your conversation. The term refers to their trademark act of throwing things out of windows. Its original meaning appealed to the Elmos’ strange humor: It was coined when two imperial governors and their secretary were tossed out of the Prague Castle window in 1618, sparking the Thirty Years War.
“We were a pretty eclectic group, a true representation of the liberal arts,” says Mike Salter’76 aka Mikey-Mike. “The Elmo scientists could discuss gravity and trajectory, the Elmo historians would expound on the history of defenestration in Eastern Europe, and the Elmo sociologists would discuss crowd psychology, explaining that those in the front of the crowd were going to get wet.”
Dickinson says he gravitated toward the Elmos “because I liked the faux seriousness with which every ‘mission’ was undertaken, providing a cover of plausible deniability. You could have fun, but camouflage it in academic terms and make it seem legitimate, which of course everything was … or was not … depending on your point of view.”
Sometimes, the fun was embedded in sport. Most students fondly recall summers on campus during the Beloit Plan, when they could opt for a lighter course load to make time for frolicking, like on Aldrich Field during softball games. Intramural softball—the kind played with a large ball and no gloves—was at the heart of Beloit’s social scene, so of course, the Elmos were in the middle of it. Humor infused everything from apparel to team names, which ranged from “Quivering Thighs,” to “Prunes,” to “Suppose That,” which was the name of the surprisingly competitive Elmos team.
Lynn Bierly Edmonds’76, or “Marge” as she’s known in Elmo-land, was one of two women in the Elmos’ later inner circle. She played center field on the Elmo teams called “Suppose That” and “We Forfeit” and was known for wearing retro outfits with elbow-length formal gloves and mismatched socks to games. In its softball card series—yes, there was one—the Round Table named her “the best dressed player.” The card describes her as “sporting high heels and a low cut, Marge has been known to sweep the opposition under her ever-present apron.”
Cheap gorilla suits were another Elmo favorite—any costume, actually, but gorillas especially. Elmos would show up inexplicably dressed as gorillas while hanging out on Chapin Quad or eating dinner at Commons.
Another time, a fire-fighting crash suit, “borrowed” from the Rock County Airport, became a muse for Elmo theatrics. Pagliaro wore the suit to the library and requested books on firefighting. He also surreptitiously stepped into the warming oven in Commons, and when one of the servers opened the door to pull out more lasagna, he stepped out with a tray in his hands, wearing the suit.
One of the most legendary episodes in early Basic Elmos lore was when Pagliaro, along with fellow climbing enthusiasts Chris Frelick’74 and Ed Friedman’76, donned gorilla suits and climbed the water tower that used to stand at the north end of campus. The three shunned the tower’s ladders, scaling the legs of the structure instead. “We had to devise a modified rappel rig so that the gorilla hair didn’t jam the ropes,” Pagliaro says. Of course, the cops came and arrested the trio, but they seemed genuinely amused by the stunt. The police took pictures of the students in jail wearing their costumes, warned them never to try this again, and let them go.
Pagliaro was and still is a climber, though professionally these days he’s running a company that’s working on a new treatment for cancer. He credits Beloit’s outdoor recreation club and one of its former ringleaders, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Ed Wilde, for turning him on to a lifelong interest in climbing. Wilde had taken students around Wisconsin and to Devil’s Lake, where they learned how to climb like pros with gear.
Those lessons led Pagliaro and others to ascend many buildings, including the Eaton Chapel bell tower, and the city’s historic stone water tower north of campus, which was where the climbers looked over and saw the taller, metal tower they ended up scaling as gorillas.
They asked: “Why not scale that, too?”
Why not? This line of questioning seems to have driven the Elmos to the apex of absurdity. Why not dress up as priests for an intramural softball game? Why not collect and tell ridiculous penguin jokes? Why not tinker with vacuum cleaners and use their motors for nefarious purposes, such as placing them in C-Haus toilet tanks or connecting them to a light sensor and a party horn so that your roommate, returning late, possibly after beers at C-Haus, turns off the light and is blown away by a mighty blast?
Oh, and the coffee. The Elmos had a love affair with coffee and kept 30-cup percolators going 24/7. In one house, the coffee pot dangled from a chandelier, always ready. They held notorious coffee drinking contests, too, which would last as long as a week. A 1976 Round Table story reports that Bob “Bottomless Cup” Teyker’77, an original Elmo, won one of these contests after polishing off 118 cups. The article reported that Teyker received a silver spoon and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol as his award.
Most of the Elmos I talked with seem to have worked as hard as they played while at Beloit, at least in subjects they liked. An outsized number hold advanced degrees.
As for their outlook on life, it seems to have remained, well, “Elmo-ish.” Many continue to be silly in the face of solemnity and some have turned their mad scientist tendencies into legit careers, like locomotive engineering or biotechnology. They still refuse to take themselves too seriously, including when they reflect back on their part in a group that has been somewhat mythologized over the years.
While many Beloiters have nothing but fond memories of the Elmos (just bring up the name and people start laughing), their humor did not resonate everywhere.
“Some thought it was stupid and they were probably half right,” recalls Persily.
Erickson remembers the campus mood in the 1970s. “A lot of serious things were going on on college campuses and throughout the country, but a lot of people just wanted to join in the simple appreciation of life again,” Erickson says. “We weren’t oblivious to the world’s problems. The Elmos were a rebellion against too much ‘maturity.’ For some of us, being told to ‘grow up’ was a badge of honor.”
Salter recalls the Elmos being met with mixed reactions. “I think because of the big shows, the perception was out there that we were narcissistic and doing things for attention,” he explains. “But the reality was that we enjoyed entertaining each other and enjoyed each other’s company, and that’s really all the Elmos were about. Everybody was so bright and inventive and talented, and it was a kindred spirits kind of thing.”
Between the Vietnam War, Nixon in the White House, and civil rights protests, Edmonds says you had to be a little sneaky about having the kind of fun the Elmos had. “There were a lot of serious people from the east coast at Beloit and they were pretty political,” she says.
Edmonds was swept into the Elmos’ orbit after she roomed with Liz Taylor Leutwiler’76 in Maine during a field term. Leutwiler had become friends with several Elmos during a 1973 study abroad seminar in Germany and later lived in an off-campus German House with Elmos. In 1975, she was moving into another German House on Park Avenue for the summer with several Elmo friends. She invited Edmonds to join her, even though Edmonds spoke no German. The women joined seven guys in a rundown two-story with one bathroom across from Horace White Park. Several resident Elmos claimed they had trouble keeping the names “Liz” and “Lynn” straight, so they dubbed Liz “Lillian” and Lynn “Marge.” The nicknames have stuck with them ever since.
Edmonds, who wore Groucho glasses to her own wedding reception, vividly recalls the sense of wonder she felt as a part of this wacky family 40 years ago. “That was the summer of my life living in that house,” she says. “It was something else with those guys. We never knew what was going to happen.”
One morning, in fact, Edmonds and Leutwiler came downstairs to find a “forest” in the living room, complete with handmade mannequins—clothing stuffed with newspapers—lounging beneath a canopy of leafy tree limbs. “Then I found out that the city of Beloit had trimmed the trees in the park, and the guys had come home with all these branches and made a forest in our living room,” Edmonds says. “It was incredible.”
Erickson giggles when he thinks about that summer. Today, he is a social worker and a visual artist who’s involved in community theatre, which he says “offers an outlet for my crazy tendencies, an opportunity to challenge my aging brain, and a chance to take a break from my professional routine.”
It was Erickson’s 2014 wedding that drew many former Elmos together again recently, though most have stayed in touch anyway and some show up for their Beloit reunions, often in costume.
Pagliaro, who ended up transferring from Beloit after four or five terms, attended Erickson’s wedding. “The thing about this group of people is that they were good guys with a good sense of humor and very willing to make fun of just about everything but also of themselves,” he says. “There was a lot of mischief. I’d like to think that it wasn’t harmful and we had a lot of fun.”
Edmonds is retired these days, with time to do the things she loves, like reading, tutoring kids in reading, and volunteering at a senior center, where she serves lunches and brings good humor to older adults. When I mention that somebody warned me not to read too much into the Basic Elmos, she is silent for a moment.
“Being a nonconformist is how I’ve lived my life,” she says. “Dealing with conformity is confining, and being silly and childlike is one way of keeping yourself from buying into somebody else’s idea of what you should be. I’m not going to read anything into the Basic Elmos, but I sure had the best time, and I think I’ve been a happier adult. I laugh a lot, I sing out loud, I make fun out of nothing at all. So don’t read too much into it, but the Basic Elmos taught me that.”
Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.
The Basic Elmos’ contribution to Beloit lore is huge, but their file in College Archives is thin. If you are in possession of photos or other memorabilia about the Elmos, please consider sharing copies with Beloit for posterity, or send your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org.