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75 years of Rock Chalk Revue

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on kualumni.org in 2019. We brought it back from the archives in celebration of the 75th Rock Chalk Revue, the University of Kansas’ student-run variety show for a cause.

Every year, student organizations write, produce, and perform original musical productions for a show that has raised over $2.5 million for local charities since its inception.

All archival photos courtesy University Archives.

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First of Many

Variety shows on KU’s campus trace back to “College Daze,” a revue sponsored by the student union introduced after World War II.

In 1949, Roy Wonder, b’50, wanted a campus variety show with higher student participation.

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Roy Wonder at the 40 year anniversary show in 1989

At the time, Kansas State had their own variety show, the Y-Orpheum. (The name refers to a combined grouping of the local YMCA and YWCA.) Wonder, a Manhattan native, modeled the new show after Kansas State’s, and even used the Wildcats to drum up interest for the production.

Wonder asked his friend Ross Miller, producer of the 1949 Y-Orpheum, to write to the University Daily Kansan criticizing the “theft.” Several back and forths between the two newspapers later, then KU campus community was ready for the show.

“The idea of a campus-wide variety show is well established at many schools. We hope this show will be the first of many.”
- Roy Wonder to the Kansan
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Rock Chalk Revue in the 1950s

Almost 500 people paid 50 cents to see the first show in Hoch Auditorium, with Pi Beta Phi and Phi Delta Theta winning their categories (co-ed performances were not introduced until 1959). Expectations were low all around:

“We just wanted to get on and off stage without a gaff. We hoped someone would come and clap.”
- Fred Six, c’51, l’56, director of the Phi Delta Theta skit.

After a few years under K-State’s Y-Orpheum name, the Kansan held a naming contest, with ten dollars awarded to Kathleen Larson, c’50, for submitting “Rock Chalk Revue.”

Early skits were focused on the humor of campus life, with titles such as “How you Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm, now that they’ve seen KU,” and “We’ll study tomorrow.” 1963 saw the introduction of a common theme with skits based on it, a tradition that continues today.

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Rock Chalk Revue in the 1960s and 70s

The exact number of skits and participants has wavered through the 70 year history, with memories such as a particularly lewd skit from McCollum Hall that was yanked before opening night, and the 1991 Hoch fire leading to two performances at Lawrence High School, including a skit themed as a telethon for a sprinkler system in Hoch.

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Rock Chalk Revue in the 1980s

A Performance for the People

The 1983 Revue introduced United Way as the beneficiary for the funds raised, a tradition that continued until 2013. After cumulative fundraising reached $1 million, the Rock Chalk Revue advisory board voted to move to other Lawrence charities. Since then, Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters and now the Boys & Girls Club have received the profits.

In 2007, the advisory board introduced the Dream Maker Fund, a scholarship fund available to KU students to help ease immediate and unexpected financial burdens. Last year more than $10,000 was given to students for expenses such as a car repair for a campus commuter, or a month of rent when textbook costs were high. Today, 80 percent of profits goes to the Boys & Girls Club and 20 percent to the Dream Maker Fund.

Opening Number

The annual production of Rock Chalk Revue requires a nearly-annual cycle of checkpoints. The process begins in April, only a month after the show, with Greek houses pairing up. Over the summer, the pairings pick their directors and start writing their show. Once classes resume in August, the shows hit the ground running, preparing for oral auditions, the big audition in November to secure your show a spot in Rock Chalk Revue.

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Show notebooks for 2019's Rock Chalk Revue

Each show auditioning at orals produces a show notebook, a three-ring binder overflowing with character descriptions, costume ideas, script excerpts and song recordings. After reviewing the notebooks and watching short performances from the shows, it’s up to the judges to make the final decision, announced a week later at the aptly named In or Out.

 
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Set designs, complete with sizing measurements, are included along with estimates costs.

“This year, 9 shows tried out for only five spots,” said Henry Killen, a senior from Winona, Minnesota and executive producer. “When you get in, it’s super exciting, but you have much more work coming. The goal is to put out five great shows, and In or Out guarantees that.”

 
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Each show notebook includes sketches and descriptions of the main characters in their show.

Showtime

Once the five shows are chosen, it’s time to put the pieces of their performances together and perfect them. After winter break, each group practices one hour every weekday and an hour and a half on weekends.

Nearly every free hour is dedicated to the production in the home stretch of show week. Rock Chalk Revue moves into the Lied Center the Saturday before opening night, and rehearsal runs from 4:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday.

Show week is an exercise in efficiency, with the Lied Center bustling with students going over scenes in hallways, doing homework in the audience, or getting some sleep in a dark corner, all ready to run on stage when their show is next.

 
Henry Killen
As if to make show week more of a challenge for Killen, an intramural basketball game gone wrong led to a broken arm.

Henry Killen, a senior at KU, is triple majoring in finance, marketing and political science. Law school is the plan next year. Before that, he keeps himself busy as executive producer of Rock Chalk Revue.

Killen’s main job is to oversee the 20-person advisory board, a corporation-like structure with business and sales managers, graphic designers and public relations coordinators filling out the board.

“It’s my job to make sure that everything’s on track,” he says. “There’s so much that goes into this show beyond the performances, all the way back to August: Scheduling fundraising events, meeting with the University, securing sponsorships. This year we got over $15,000 in sponsorships, all going to charity.”

Rory Doepke
Doepke backstage with the awards, to be presented after Saturday's show.

Rory Doepke, a senior from St. Charles, Illinois, has been involved with Rock Chalk Revue from his start at KU. His experience began as a freshman when his fraternity auditioned, but did not make it in the show. The next year, Doepke served as the director and got his house in.

Now as an executive director, he oversees the production of all five shows and selecting the judges for oral interviews and the final production itself. The judging panels are a combination of Rock Chalk alumni and the area theatre community.

“Rock Chalk Revue has been great for meeting new people,” Doepke says. “It can even give career help when we meet with the judges. It’s a great way to get involved outside of your house and on campus.”

2012 performances at Rock Chalk Revue
2012's Rock Chalk Revue, clockwise from top: Sigma Nu and Delta Delta Delta in "It Suits You", Delta Gamma and Sigma Phi Epsilon in "A Letter for U", Chi Omega and Beta Theta Pi in "A Campus Carol".

As an executive director, Doepke has seen how the show changed both him and the students experiencing it for the first time.

“There are a couple houses that started out so shy, and now they’re singing and dancing and having a great time. I never did anything on stage in high school. I’ve always been a musical guy, I’ve always sang, played guitar and piano, but it took a while to get comfortable with theatre. Now I love being around it.”

With show week a blur, there’s hardly any time to look back at the years’ worth of work. 48 hours before opening night, Doepke took a moment to do so.

“I’m still not sure how I’ll feel Saturday night when it’s done. It’s crazy talking about it, because I’m thinking about all that’s gone into it. We started in April. It’s a lot of work for three days of glory, but it’s so fun. I’ll have these memories for a long time.”
The cast of Rock Chalk Revue 2019: "Sky's the Limit"

Today, Rock Chalk Revue’s beneficiaries are The Ballard Center and the KU Dream Maker Fund. The 75th annual Rock Chalk Revue will be at the Lied Center, Feb. 22-24. For more information, including tickets, visit rockchalkrevue.com.

Our Jayhawks Give Back program is presented in partnership with Andrew Wymore, Senior Realtor with ReeceNichols.

Jayhawks Give Back celebrates ’Hawks who are making a difference in ways big and small. Each quarter, we’ll feature a member of the KU family and their story. If you know a Jayhawk who should be featured in Jayhawks Give Back, let us know!

— Ryan Camenzind

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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on kualumni.org in 2019. We brought it back from the archives in celebration of the 75th Rock Chalk Revue!

On the 70th anniversary, the past and the present of The University of Kansas’ student-run variety show for a cause.

First of Many

Variety shows on KU’s campus trace back to “College Daze,” a revue sponsored by the student union introduced after World War II.

In 1949, Roy Wonder, b’50, wanted a campus variety show with higher student participation.

Roy Wonder at the 40 year anniversary show in 1989

At the time, Kansas State had their own variety show, the Y-Orpheum. (The name refers to a combined grouping of the local YMCA and YWCA.) Wonder, a Manhattan native, modeled the new show after Kansas State’s, and even used the Wildcats to drum up interest for the production.

Wonder asked his friend Ross Miller, producer of the 1949 Y-Orpheum, to write to the University Daily Kansan criticizing the “theft.” Several back and forths between the two newspapers later, then KU campus community was ready for the show.

“The idea of a campus-wide variety show is well established at many schools. We hope this show will be the first of many.”
- Roy Wonder to the Kansan
Rock Chalk Revue in the 1950s

Starting in 2018, the event went from a one-night event to a full weekend, with a VIP dinner on Friday and a celebrity bowling tournament on Saturday.

“The first Roundball Classic had 16 players with 1,000 fans watching at Free State High School,” says Hanni. “This year we have 50 players coming from across the world. Last year we raised over six figures across the three events. It’s changed the scope of the benefits for these families who go up against the fight of cancer.”

Behind the Scenes

The Roundball classic is an annual event, but it takes months of planning to make it happen. A 20-member board convenes to nail down all the logistics: fundraising, auction items, location, travel, lodging, media, concessions, merchandising and more. Most important, they select the “Starting Five”, the group of children battling cancer who will be the stars of the evening and the benefactors of the event’s ticket sales, silent auctions and donations.

The board is filled with those who know the power of the event firsthand. Most of them joined when they had a connection with a child in the Starting Five and have stayed on since.

“We’ve been blessed with incredible people. They are the real muscle and hustle of the event.”
-Brian Hanni
KU players and coaches who have participated in the Roundball Classic

Every year, it seems the event grows in size, scope and most importantly, money raised.

“It gets bigger and better each year,” Hanni says. “It’s a pretty easy sell to our athletes, to come back to Lawrence to have a reunion and bless these kids. And when you get the star power, Jayhawk nation blows the doors off in terms of money and support. I never would have believed how big it’s grown.”

Some athletes’ impact on the children go beyond the weekend too.

“Think about the difference the three days can make in these kids’ lives,” Hanni says. “We’ve had some special ambassadors over the years, who truly get what their platform means. Cole Aldrich is one guy who totally gets it. Any time we have a kid struggling, Cole will record a video to send to them to let the kid know he’s thinking of them.”

Making Memories

Each year brings a new Starting Five, each with their own stories of fights against cancer.

In 2018, Lawrence residents Nolan and Laura Henderson’s 8-month-old son Grit was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, and was undergoing treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Nolan was in Lawrence to represent the family, but his wife and son couldn’t be there.

Or so he thought. Nolan’s family made a surprise appearance when the Starting Five was introduced, bringing one of the loudest cheers of the night.

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Bill Self and Rachel Howland

Topeka resident Mindy Howland hadn’t even heard of the Rock Chalk Roundball Classic when she got the news.

A surprise email let her know her six-year-old daughter Rachel was nominated as a beneficiary of 2016’s Roundball Classic. Rachel was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma in 2015.

The night was a blur for the Howlands. Rachel was introduced as a starter by former KU public address announcer Hank Booth and walked through a tunnel of every Jayhawk athlete, ready for high-fives. And for the game, Rachel got a courtside seat next to coach Self.

“She loved KU,” Howland says. “Was crazy about the Jayhawks. She had a book called I am a Jayhawk, and anytime she met a KU basketball or football player, she had them sign the book. It’s filled with signatures.”

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The day they met, Rachel and Hanni immediately hit it off. “They were like best buds, and he was sure to have her in his life from then on,” Howland says. “He took her as his date when he was honored at the Royals in the Buck O’Neil legacy seat. She would light up every time she saw him. She ran up to him and jumped into his arms.”

Rachel lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in 2018. At a past year’s Roundball Classic, banners were raised to celebrate Rachel and other beneficiary children who have since passed away.

For the Cause

KU standouts like Frank Mason and Ben McLemore grab the headlines when they come back to Lawrence for the Roundball Classic, but if you dig a little deeper, the best stories are on the sidelines.

“Obviously, I hope the fans have a great time watching the game, and enjoy the autographs and selfies with the players,” Hanni says. “We try to give fans the best interactions with the alumni they can get all year.”

"But I hope the loudest cheer is when we introduce the Starting Five.”

The Rock Chalk Roundball Classic begins Thursday June 8. For more information, including tickets, visit rockchalkroundballclassic.com.

Our Jayhawks Give Back program is presented in partnership with Andrew Wymore, Senior Realtor with ReeceNichols.

Jayhawks Give Back celebrates ’Hawks who are making a difference in ways big and small. Each quarter, we’ll feature a member of the KU family and their story. If you know a Jayhawk who should be featured in Jayhawks Give Back, let us know!

— Ryan Camenzind

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