By Adam Gerchick '13
Making a fool of oneself on stage is a time-honored tradition at Amherst. Some early practitioners: these five Alpha Delta Phi brothers from the Class of 1888. Presumably, though, the stakes are higher now than they were back then. This year’s lip-sync contestants were vying not only for glory but also for good housing.
Someone hit “play,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” blared out, and six members of the Class of 2014 dove into a comedic musical adaptation of the 2010 Chilean mining incident.
Welcome to Lip Sync.
Each March, students submit housing applications for the next school year, and the Office of Residential Life compiles each class’ applications into a randomly ordered list that dictates the order by which students may select where to live on campus.
Known as Room Draw, the ordering process is a high-stakes affair: a low position can mean a dearth of geographically or physically desirable dorm rooms from which to choose.
But there’s a loophole. For at least the past decade, Residential Life has offered applicants a simple means of jumping to the top of the Room Draw list: they can perform their way up.
Or, specifically, lip-sync it. This year, eight groups—three composed of rising sophomores and five of rising seniors—competed on April 6 for the coveted top spot on their respective classes’ lists.
In the mix were the aforementioned six: Thomas Frederick, Andrew Herrera, Eli Mlaver, Andrew Mowry, John Osborn and Matthew Van Pelt. Entering Room Draw as a group, they’d placed fifth-to-last on the list for their class. Faced with the threat of bad housing, they came up with a band name—Channel 4—and a battle plan: “We focused on politics,” says Van Pelt, “thinking that might [help] us out with the older judges.”
With less than a week to prepare, they set to music the big news stories of 2010, from the mining accident to the Gulf oil spill, from Somali pirates to Wikileaks. “Someone had done health care as a lip-sync idea last year, and they won,” Frederick explains. “We thought, ‘Hmm, the judges probably like current events.’”
In the pressure-filled rehearsal room, Channel 4 suffered tests of friendship and moments of internal strife. Summarizes Mlaver: “Lots of yelling, seething frustration and slammed doors.” But by the big night, the men were confident. “It’s just about being crazy and nailing it,” said an enthusiastic Van Pelt moments before curtain call.
The audience filled every pew in Johnson Chapel. “I walked into the chapel: raucous crowd,” recalls Director of Admission Katharine Fretwell ’81, one of four judges. Channel 4 earned plenty of laughs, but the competition was fierce. Not one but two groups revived Disney hits, and it’s hard to compete with cartoon characters and a media conglomerate. Other groups courageously challenged the bounds of dignity and taste (one performed Chicago’s “He Had It Comin’,” to awkward reviews).
Then, decision time. The judges retired to select a winner, emerging after perhaps 20 minutes. Among the rising seniors, the “Disney Dating Game” trio claimed the pennant. Score one for nostalgia.
Among the rising sophomores?
“Toy Story!” Master of Ceremonies Tyler Wilson ’11 announced.
Channel 4 had lost.
“We were disappointed, of course,” Van Pelt admitted later. But someone has to live in Val.
Photo from Amherst College Archives and Special Collections