DEVO's Seminal 1975 Night on Kent State's Front Campus

An early DEVO show in what's now Cartwright Hall unveils a window into Kent's early underground culture

  • Friday, April 4, 1975, DEVO (opening for the film Pink Flamingos) in The University Auditorium (now Cartwright Hall)

To just write in this one blog space about DEVO's relationship to the city of Kent and Kent State University would be an injustice to the real history of what happened here. If I may, I would prefer to look at each archival piece that I have come across relating to DEVO in Kent and explore what it is to the best of my knowledge. DEVO formed in Kent and put on shows in this town on several occasions before this 1975 evening on front campus. If you really want to dig back far enough in dealing with DEVO's relationship with Kent you will find that DEVO co-founder Gerald Casale was born at Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna on July 28, 1948. He attended St. Pats Elementary School, went to Davey Jr. High School, graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1966 and received his bachelors degree from the School of Art at Kent State University in the Spring of 1970. I don't think it gets any more Kent than that!

So as I was doing some initial research on the music of Kent I came across this very mysterious advertisement taking up three-fourths of a full page from a Daily Kent Stater dated to April of 1975. The image is provided for this story but click here to see a blowup of the advertisement. When I first looked at it I was stunned, for so many reasons. The image itself prompted so many questions. Why had I never heard of this event? Who set it up? Who was there? What was the show like? It conjured up images of old advertisements I'd seen from the Village Voice and elsewhere from a decade earlier promoting Andy Warhol's seminal New York City nights and his relationship with The Velvet Underground. Click here, here, here and here to see these images.

As a lifelong Kent resident, I had a few ideas of some people who might have been there who could tell me more about this night, but nobody in my immediate circle of family and friends knew anything about this event. However, everyone I showed this old image to seemed to be as fascinated as I was that this occured in town and on campus.

Some months after first spotting the image I received an email from a buddy who told me that DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh would be having his artwork featured at an exhibit at his sister's Studio 2091 Gallery on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls. In addition to this, there would be a live question and answer session from Mark himself at the reception! Clearly Mark Mothersbaugh was at the show that night. DEVO is the band that he co-founded and he is their frontman/vocalist. And if he was doing a question and answer session at this reception just 15 minutes away from my house then I had a question for him! So I went to the reception, and when it came time for the Q&A  I presented him with the original 1975 Daily Kent Stater advertisement (provided for this story) and I asked him what he remembered about that night. This is what Mark told me:

"Yeah we opened up for Pink Flamingos. I think the band at the time was my brother Jim, my brother BobGerald Casale and myself. It was just the four of us and um, there are some really bad recordings that Chuck Statler made that night on one of those old video cameras where it ends up looking like old black and white surveillance film when you are done. But my brother Jim at the time was kind of ahead of things and he was into what now is called circuit bending. He was working on an invention of one of the first electronic drum kits and in preparing for that show he tried this thing where he took acoustic drums and he attached acoustic guitar pickups to the drum set and then ran those into wah-wah pedals and fuzz tones and finally an amplifier on stage. It was a god awful sound. It was amazing. Nothing that we've ever done sounded like that again. Nobody would ever go for that sound on purpose because it was too difficult to do and it was uncontrollable but it was kind of ummm...now there's a whole movement of people that do this stuff called circuit bending, where they take toys and electronic instruments and make them do things that they weren't supposed to do.

"I'll tell you why I remember this night specifically. It's one of the only times that I was Boogie Boy all night. Leaving the mask on that long just suffocates you to wear it for more than a couple songs. It was a full head mask that closed off underneath. At least the original version did. The other reason I remember it is because I found something at a Salvation Army store called an Optigan and it was something that Sears had tried to put out in the 70s. It was like a home organ that was on a totally different system than any of the other home organs. It had optical discs that actually were quite interesting sounding. There were people who devoted their whole bands careers to Optigan music, which is kind of interesting, but we used the Optigan on the last song of the set and we hauled it out. It was like a $20 purchase at the time. But you could take these discs and turn them upside down so drum kits and guitar sounds would play in reverse but in perfect time. So it was a really kind of interesting thing. Years later I found out that The Beatles used it on Revolution #9.

"Yeah back in those days if there wasn't a physical confrontation we felt pretty good about it. It wasn't a full house I can tell you that. We had about 10 diehard fans in those days and there would be the unsuspecting 30 or 40 people who accidently would wander in and slowly filter out before the set was over. Gerry was China Man that night. He had these un-pc glasses that had plastic oriental eyes inside the black frame. We kind of borrowed them a little bit. We poked out the oriental eye parts and I just wore the frames. They were the same glasses I wore on the cover of our album Oh, No! It's Devo and Bob Mothersbaugh was a Clown back then and Jim was Jungle Jim. We were characters the whole night."

Wow! That was more than I expected to get from Mark! Some months after this I found another reference to this event in the book We Are DEVO! (SAF Publishing Ltd./UK) by Jade Delliger and David Giffels. In the book it states: "At one point, Mark (Mothersbaugh) walked onto the stage while the movie played and, pulling a trick from Ghoulardi's bag, used a long stick to point out various aspects of the film"

I also found one more reference to this event on a database for all live DEVO performances that referred to DEVO cohort Gary "General" Jackett as having been there. I never knew Gary, but we have a mutual friend who set me up with an interview! So when I got ahold of "General" Jackett, he gave me this recollection about the event:

"Dick Myers brought the film Pink Flamingos in to show in the University Auditorium and it was quite avant garde, even for Kent at that time. I remember that this was when Mark's brother (Jim) was playing drums for DEVO and I seem to remember that they wore their masks that night. I also remember Gerry had a tampon coat where he took, like, a doctor's white coat and either glued or soaked tampons that were dipped in paint all over the coat and then attached them using safety pins or something like that. That night would have been just at the beginning of DEVO as a musical band where they were trying to present a familiar sound. Like where people would begin to recognize that what they were doing was music. They were really born of that Captain Beefheartish, real angular school of music. That's what their sound was in the beginning. The whole concept of course was, they weren't trying to make pleasant music, they were trying to make offensive music basically.

"I remember it was a good crowd and it was mostly probably film students and art students, and I was there with the girl I was seeing at the time and all of DEVO's girlfriend’s were there, too. But as I remember it was a pretty good crowd — pretty raucous. But then when DEVO came on of course, ya know people didn't really get it. It wasn't really the sound of what was happening at that time. I think we were still at the tail end of the Crosby, Stills and Nash kind of thing so everybody was aghast and I can't remember if there was a mass walkout or not. All I remember were people saying 'what's this?' or 'this isn't music.'

"Ya know, since it was one of those early shows they were probably as stiff as they ever were. They hadn't developed their stage show or that much of one anyway at that point. I do remember that Gerry was China Man that night and he wore the tampon coat. It was a fun night for all of us who were DEVO-tees and that’s because they were finally doing it. It was in a legitimate nice setting just being in the old University Auditorium like that. In the early days there was nothing musical about what they were trying to do. Gerry was trying to get as far away from pleasant music as possible. It was really an art thing too ya know ... in a sense it was just like Pink Flamingos in that the intent was to assault the viewer. And it wasn't till they of course got to Hollywood and wanted to make it that they had to change their direction a little.

"I remember that I wasn’t in school at that time. I don't think any of them were in school either. Gerry might have been in grad school, I don't know. But he still had a link with Dick Myers because of course without Richard Myers the night wouldn't have happened, and it was kind of like the art school was starting to feel the effects of May 4 in the sense that there was all that loss of all that energy that had been created up until May 4 in the artistic, musical community, which was thriving in Kent at that time. So Myers was probably one of the last vestiges of that late 60s, beginning 70s art scene, music scene that was happening. Gerry knew him, although a lot of people knew Dick Myers."

Dick Myers ... hmmmm ... I knew Dick Myers. He was my landlord some years back when I lived in a house next to campus on Summit St. I recalled that he was a retired film teacher too. Maybe he knew more about this night. If you look closely at the original advertisement you will see that the event was sponsored by Tuesday Cinema, which was Dick Myers' long running film series at Kent State. It was his brainchild and he oversaw it's various incarnations from the 1960s through the 1980s. I contacted Richard Myers and I asked him about what Tuesday Cinema was and about his relationship with DEVO back in those days. This is what he told me:

"I started teaching at Kent State in 1964 and I am pretty sure we started showing films as Tuesday Cinema around 1966-1967 and in through there. We started in Van Deusen Hall, which is where the Art Department used to be. There was an auditorium in the back and we started showing films there on Tuesday nights. We chose Tuesday because Tuesday night was one of the nights that nobody was showing films. ACPB was always showing them on weekends and I think International were showing them on Thursday nights, and we started arbitrarily picking Tuesday for our stuff and we charged 50 cents to get in.

"It was interesting, it was kind of a hippie crowd, art crowd, English department crowd. They used to bring a soup kitchen every Tuesday night also ... a big pot of soup and they would put it up front for anybody who wanted a bowl of soup. We were always afraid to eat it because we kept thinking they were bringing the same pot of the same soup every week, but some of the kids didn't have any money and so they would partake of the soup kitchen. I'm sure they meant well. They would take this pot of soup around to various groups on certain nights and they called themselves 'the soup kitchen.'

"So we started off with the films of the 30s experiments by the French surrealists and then little by little we started adding schlock because we weren't getting that big of a crowd for just experimental films. So we started showing more contemporary experimental from the 40s, plus films from James Broughton and then we were showing the California filmmakers and the New York crowd, you know short films.
"We would show long experimental films, but they didn't do too well. The audiences wanted short bits, and then little by little we started showing the kind of cult films that we recognize as cult films today — Pink Flamingos was one of the first ones of that type that I think we showed. We were also trying to make money to buy equipment for the film program for the university, so whatever we made at the door went to ordering the next batch of films as well as buying cameras and tripods and all that kind of stuff for the film program. And then later we got some money from the Ohio Arts Council, and then we got money from the National Endowment for the Arts to help pay for these things.

"By 1975 we had Tuesday Cinema in Oscar Ritchie Hall, but we would occasionally hold a show like Pink Flamingos, Reefer Madness or the old black and white King Kong in The University Auditorium if we thought we were going to get a big crowd. We would have the Ann Arbor Film Festival every year in University Auditorium and I remember during the festival for Spring 1970 we were showing films for one of the last nights of the festival when the ROTC buildings were on fire. So that would have been Saturday night May 2, 1970. So from time to time we would be in the U Aud even back then.

"In general we had a hard time with the University Auditorium, so we weren't there all the time. We had to pay a janitors fee at the end of the night, and of course we always made a big mess and we had to pay for the projectors and a projectionist, which drove me crazy. We just couldn't keep on going in the U Aud. By the time you placed the ad in the Stater and paid for all this stuff we were spending $400, which is nothing today but still we were only taking in $250 sometimes."

Several people have told me about attending that Kent State film festival
hosted by Richard Myers and the School of Art on the night of May 2, 1970 and then leaving the University Auditorium to see that the ROTC building was going up in flames. Click here and here to see images from that film festival. Also check out these original posters from the Tuesday Cinema film series: Iconic late 60s early 70s poster(designed by J. Charles Walker), Fall 1972 Poster, Spring 1973 poster, Spring 1974 poster, Fall 1974 poster, Fall 1975 Poster. On the back of each of these posters is a list of the movies that would be featured that quarter/semester for Kent State's Tuesday Cinema. Films being shown include Casablanca, Rebel Without a Cause, The Experimental Films of Maya Deren, Federico Fellini's, Woody Allen's Bananas, Metropolis, Marx Brothers Film Festival, The Wizard of Oz, Scruggs, Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and a host of others.

Also keep in mind that at the time when these films were being shown on Kent's campus nobody had VCRs or DVD players, and this was still before cable TV and long before the Internet. Pretty much everyone had the same five to seven regular TV channels and their local movie theaters and that was it. So that should give you an idea of how inaccessible these movies were in this period and how special and authentic the Tuesday Cinema film series was.

Also, the John Waters film Pink Flamingos, which was shown on this specific 1975 night with DEVO, is famous for being one of the filthiest and most offensive films of all time. I remember seeing it when I was in my early 20s and thinking that I could handle any movie, no matter how distasteful. Without going into any detail about this film I can tell you it completely lives up to its hype, and I hope that I never see Pink Flamingos again for the rest of my life. Check out the trailer here. Don't worry, it's relatively tame compared to the actual film, but it will give you an idea of what kind of a movie it is. I actually scoured Youtube to try and find maybe a one minute clip that wouldn't be offensive so I could show some kind of example, but everything I came across went from foul to shocking real fast. Feel free to look for yourself, but don't say I didn't warn you.

A couple of other musings...

The front campus building that is now referred to as Cartwright Hall contains one of the oldest auditoriums on campus and is the "University Auditorium" that was used on this night. The building and auditorium itself opened in 1914, and I found a few interesting images of the interior of Cartwright Hall from all different eras in those old yearbooks. Click here to see the interior of that room taken from a Kent State Chestnut Burr yearbook dated to 1915 along with my 2011 rephotograph of the same image. It's a very large image so use your magnifying tool to click in real close to see the details. According to university records, the current capacity of that room is a little over 800. Take a real close look at the image from 1915 and you will see that there are many more seats towards the back of the room then there are today. Click here to see what the exterior of the building looked like around this same period. Now compare it with this current shot of the building showing the addition of a front facade resembling a Greek temple which was added in 1931. Here is another image of the room circa 1959 along with my 2011 rephotograph. And one more image circa 1973 along with my 2011 rephotograph. Obviously, the latter image would most resemble the room DEVO played in that night in 1975.

Last Fall, the Kent State University School of Art brought DEVO's Gerald Casale in to lecture on a host of subjects ranging from directing music videos, to the history of DEVO as well as discussing his times going to Theodore Roosevelt High School and his days as a Kent State undergrad and grad student. At one point while he was discussing DEVO's early days he paused, peered deep into the audience in the main lecture hall and asked "Is Richard Myers here today?" At which point a number of people pointed him out sitting with his wife Pat at the back of the auditorium. Then Casale addressed him and asked "Didn't we open for Pink Flamingos?" To which Richard responded "Yes, I believe you did." Gerry paused again, as if reflecting on some thoughts, and addressed Myers once more and said "Richard, you helped change my life." He then spoke to the rest of the room and said "I mean Richard was a single handed film department. He brought in all the greatest underground films being made by the people of the day to Kent State University."

Gerald Casale was a student of Myers in his undergraduate days and Myers told me that Gerry contributed to his films Confrontation at Kent State and Deathstyles back in the very early 1970s. Some time later I asked Richard Myers what he thought about his former student making such a public statement like that, and this is what he told me:

"I think it was great that he said it. I don't think he was talking just about my films. I think he was talking in general just about the films we were showing. But he also liked my films, and we would have talks and discussions here and there about it. But he was in the music scene by then. DEVO did a couple of shows for us back in those days of Tuesday Cinema, and I don't think we even paid them a dime. I think they just did it because they were just starting to get popular."

After the lecture, as everyone was hanging out at the reception, I snapped this image of Gerald Casale and Richard Myers. It must be noted that not only did Richard Myers run Kent State's film department for over 20 years, but he is also one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the area. Check out a clip of of his most famous feature film Akran here. It's an awesome spiraling and surreal audiovisual experience and was all filmed in the mid to late 1960s. Much of it was shot in downtown Kent with some scenes showing the old mill, and the decrepit train station that would later be the Pufferbelly restaurant as well as many other more than familiar downtown Kent shots! Everyone I have talked to from that old DEVO/art/music Kent crowd saw Richard Myers' Akran, and the way they recalled it leads me to believe that it left big impressions on all of them. Akran even features a cameo of a young Joe Walsh playing with his then band The Measles! Akran has been very difficult to find, but you can now purchase the movie here. Also check out Akran's early New York Times review here.

Some years later, when DEVO's career was taking off, their sound would be more defined by music like this and this. However, on this seminal night at Kent State in the old University Auditorium the audience probably heard and saw something more like this or this.

Also, think about this: two showings of Pink Flamingos, two performances by DEVO, an Optigan, circuit bending, Boogie Boy, The Clown and a god awful sound created by acoustic guitar pickups running through wah-wah pedals, fuzz tones and an amplifier. Talk about jumping off the aesthetic cliff and diving straight into the abyss. And here in Kent, Ohio? Really? This was a homegrown, original performance. And all done before DEVO were even well known or famous? YES

The people who attended this one-off show in what's now Cartwright Hall on the night of Friday, April 4, 1975, must still have some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience. I can only imagine what it was actually like to have been there. Viva Kent's underground and viva DEVO.

Images for this story are courtesy of The Burr, Kent State Student Media. (Reprinted with permission), The Daily Kent Stater and Department of Special Collections and Archives, Kent State University Libraries as well as Richard Myers, and the Mark Hughes Archives.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ben Opie February 29, 2012 at 03:18 PM
(Hope I'm not reposting this message) Dick Myers was my father's college roommate (at Kent) and they've been lifelong friends. I met Dick several times, including the times he's had film showings through the Pittsburgh Filmmakers back in the 1980s. In one group conversation the topic of music videos (a relatively new medium at the time) and DEVO came up. Dick said he used to hire DEVO for $50 to open for obscure art films, and people would show up to boo them off the stage.
Jason Prufer August 07, 2012 at 04:16 PM
amendum: It is believed according to various sources (including Mark Mothersbaugh's quote in this very article) that the footage at 5:26 in this rough cut from this forthcoming DEVO documentary is authentically from the night of this show in Kent: http://vimeo.com/11056614
Gerald Elekes August 07, 2012 at 08:02 PM
You took me back in time. I remember that event. The image of Divine still haunts me-- scantily so. Not so much Devo or their improvisational music. My group was more of a Measles, James Gang, and Glass Harp set. Spent many shiftless Friday and Saturday nights roaming Kent bars-- dancing, drinking, and puking greasy pepperoni pizza into the mighty Cuyahoga. The discretions of youth. In a twist of fate, I moved to L.A. I only then met and became good friends with General Jackett-- a brilliant artist and musical genius in his own right. His friendship is epic. Joe Walsh and General were tight. Walsh kept an eclectic warehouse full of sports cars and music equipment right next door to the General's warehouse/art studio off Roscoe. Went to one of Walsh's b'day parties at a fancy WeHo restaurant. After dinner, he lit a joint right at the table. Outstanding choice for dessert! During this time, Modern Props, a movie prop house near Venice, was a client. I maintained the electrical system. A Kent State Art School graduate co-founded it with several others. At the time, Steve-o Ladish, another off-beat musician, artist, and also a good friend, ran the shop. Devo had a small recording studio here. They were drifting apart musically at this time. I met Alan Myers, 3rd drummer for Devo. After he departed Devo, he worked for me as electrician. He later obtained his own C-10 license. He liked to take long lunches and wouldn't paper bag it. Musicians! Anyway, thanks for that time travel.
Jason Prufer August 07, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Thanks Gerald! I appreciate the feedback and I'm glad this story triggered your own....
Gary August 12, 2013 at 08:37 PM
I used to work for the art department at Kent in the late 60's and early 70's (after dropping out of school because my draft number was high and I didn't need the student deferment) and showed movies in classes and every (I think) Wednesday night in the auditorium. The fan favorite was "Reefer Madness". Also the "James Gang" with Joe Walsh (now with The Eagles) used to play every Saturday at JB's underground venue + I think Weds and Thurs nights... Back then I could take the mustache part of my beard and put the two sides behind my ears (just for fun). I also hid joints in my thick beard because I figured nobody would search there!! Who woulda thunk I'd eventually become a transactional real estate attorney??!!


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