Written by Rare Book Curator Elaine McConnell
For many college students the prospect of graduation is much anticipated; this is especially true at West Point. The “100th Night Show” at the U.S. Military Academy is the celebration of a milestone for the First Class cadets: in just 100 short days, the seniors will leave behind “Kaydet Grey” and don the “Army Blue” of the officer corps. According to Kendall Banning’s book West Point Today, February 13, 1884, is the first recorded date of the 100th Night Show.
What was life like for cadets in the 19th and 20th centuries? From the official records we know about the regulations, the buildings, the classes that were taught, the text books that were used; but what really happened? To better understand the experiences of the men and women of the Long Gray Line we rely on letters, memoirs, scrap books and published accounts in books,newspapers and magazines; but, again, this is only a part of the story. Fiction by graduates and Academy aficionados reveals other aspects of the West Point mystique and draws on a long history of storytelling that reigned before the days of the Internet, YouTube and personal electronics. Storytelling and “entertainments” were a large part of 19th century recreation, and the cadets at West Point mirrored the nation’s norm in this respect.
The 100th Night Show, conceived, written and performed by the cadets, has taken on a life of its own. Originally the “show” consisted of skits, and readings of poetry and prose presented to the members of the Corps of Cadets. Over the years the shows became more elaborate to include original music, scenery and costumes. Like Shakespearian actors of yore, all the parts were played by men in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although much of the story has always been an inside joke, understood only by the student body; family, friends, dates (or “drags”), faculty and staff purchase tickets and come to enjoy the festivities. According to a New York Times article published on April 21, 1895, the 100th Night Show in Grant Hall was well done and quite elaborate. “The make-up of Cadet Augustine as Yum-Yum…was very successful. Had it not been for his voice the majority of the audience would have thought that a Vassar girl had been borrowed for the occasion.”
The lore of the 100th Night Show became so ingrained in the popular culture of the day that it was a major plot device in the 1950 film “The West Point Story” starring James Cagney and featuring Doris Day, Virginia Mayo, Gordon MacRae, and Gene Nelson. “Cagney as Broadway director Bix Bixby is down on his luck. Reluctantly, he is
persuaded to go to West Point Military Academy to help the students put on a musical show. Bix takes Eve, his on-again, off-again assistant, with him to the Academy. His ulterior motive is to recruit student star Tom Fletcher for Harry Eberhart’s new production. Then, Bixby finds that he himself must live as a cadet.”
For those living as cadets, 100th Night made another important contribution: providing the name for the Academy’s yearbook, The Howitzer. While early programs had varying titles, the 1887 edition was titled: Programme, Address and Howitzer of the Hundredth-Night Entertainment Given by the U.S. Corps of Cadets. Over time this title was reduced simply to The Howitzer and the modern yearbook evolved from a combination of this publication and the types of photographs formerly featured in the Class Albums.
The holdings of the Special Collections and Archives Division include programs, scripts and, in some cases, sound recordings of past 100th Night Shows. The West Point Story is available on DVD in the library’s collection.