...in 1795, 21 Harvard students gathered in a dorm room and formed a secret social club to cultivate "friendship and patriotism." Members agreed to take turns providing a pot of hasty pudding for the meetings. Thus did the Hasty Pudding Club, the nation's oldest dramatic institution, get its name. In the early years, the club staged mock trials. In 1844 it produced the first of its trademark shows where men played both the male and female parts. Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Alastair Cooke, Jack Lemmon, and George Plimpton all performed in drag on the stage of the Pudding's historic playhouse in Harvard Square. Women are now involved in every aspect of the shows except one: men continue to play all onstage roles.
Early Hasty Pudding history can be hard to recover the club secretaries were required to keep the minutes in rhymed doggerel!
The founders of the Hasty Pudding Club were not embarking on a theatrical venture. In the years after the Revolution, fraternal societies, many of them with secret rituals, enjoyed wide popularity in the U.S. The first American citizens considered voluntary associations essential to the success of a democratic republic. The Harvard students may have been emulating George Washington, who was a leading member of both the Masons and the fraternal, patriotic (and secret) Society of the Cincinnati.
Harvard College at the turn of the nineteenth century could be a rowdy place; there were several student riots over food and discipline. Hasty Pudding Club meetings were often disorderly affairs; members instigated a mock court to try "crimes" such as "insolence" and "contempt of the club."
The trials proved to be such a great success that the club revised its rules to include one at every meeting. "No figure was safe from condemnations by this amateur court system Cortez was convicted for 'massacres and cruelties,' the British Parliament stood guilty for its beheading of Charles I, and the college administration was indicted for 'compelling the whole body of students to pursue the dry, repulsive . . . study of mathematics.'"
In 1844 senior Lemuel Hayward learned that he would be hosting the club's next meeting of the club. Instead of a mock trial, he transformed his room into a primitive theater and staged a production of a popular farce. A club member in drag played the one woman in the cast the first "hairy-legged heroine" in Hasty Pudding history. This was the first of the shows the Hasty Pudding Club has been famous for ever since.
The members were delighted by the innovation. While the plays were still performed in their rooms solely for club members, over the years they became more elaborate. The students enlisted graduates and Boston theater professionals to help them create costumes and design sets. The first productions used existing scripts, but by the 1860s, the shows were all written by Harvard students. The club's reputation grew, and non-members began to fill the audience. Initially the university disapproved of the productions, but in 1876, it finally gave the club the use of a little barn-like building on the edge of the athletic field.
In 1882 the club produced its first musical, a spoof of Virgil's Aeneid. "Dido and Aeneas" was such a hit that the club took it on the road. Flush with profits from ticket sales, in 1888 the Hasty Pudding built its own theater at 12 Holyoke Street in Harvard Square. For the next 117 years, the club presented its annual show, with breaks only during the world wars. One tradition remained unbroken: Even as women students became active members of the club, they did not appear on stage.The closest a woman has ever come to performing was in 1955, when costumer Lucy Barry shrieked from the wings. None of the 20 men in the cast of that year's show could produce a convincingly bloodcurdling scream.
In 1951 the club named its first Woman of the Year. Every year since them, a female performer who has made "a lasting and impressive contribution to the world of entertainment" has been invited to Cambridge, paraded through the streets, roasted, and presented with a "Pudding Pot." Beginning in 1967, members have also chosen a Man of the Year and accorded him similar treatment. Recipients have included such stars as Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, and Steven Spielberg.
After a few rocky years in the late 1990s, Harvard assumed ownership of the Pudding's Holyoke St. building. In the spring of 2005, the landmark playhouse closed. An enlarged and renovated theater opened on the site in 2007.
An Illustrated History of Hasty Pudding Club Theatricals, written and published by the Hasty Pudding Club, 1933.
"The Pudding Story"