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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Animal House

Long before John Belushi popularized rogue students behaving in unusual ways in the movie ‘Animal House’, me and my buds on the 16th floor of a downtown Pittsburgh hotel were warming up for leading roles in our own movie back in 1967.

’67 was pivotal for me – my first year of college. I selected a university as far away from home as physically possible, making it unlikely either of my parents could drop in unexpectedly. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. was a great choice – big city, bright lights, cheap beer. During the six hour drive, I mentally ticked off each of the 360 minutes as they passed.

Duquesne had an overflow of students that year, so much so that there was no room in the on-campus dormitories for 400 of us. They purchased a very old hotel in the downtown area, across the street from Point Park College, directing us there -- where we occupied 4 floors with Point Park students also living in another part of the hotel.

Instead of shared rooms with a common bathroom (as is found in most dormitories) we had luxurious accommodations: single rooms, private baths, a working phone, and an air conditioning unit. We had lugged my motorcycle with us in the open trunk of the family car, and before I could settle into my new digs I needed to find a place to park. A short reconnoiter revealed an empty lot across the street on PPC property, so I tucked my Honda in for the night there.

Once all of my belongings were safely ensconced in the room, I sent my parents packing. Watching them drive away was the happiest day of my teenage life at that point. I set about to meet all of my roomies on the 16th floor -- we were a ragged bunch, to say the least. Common interests included women and beer, followed by women and more beer.

The leader of the pack was a local Italian named Antonio. He was friendly but mischievous, with a defined pre-Belushi sparkle. He was also the first of our group expelled from school that year for a wide range of questionable behavior. The first order of business was an evening movie, of the most blue variety. Back in those days there was no defined porn industry, so unless you had relatives in Sweden that could smuggle poorly made 8mm copies of copies into the country, you had to make do with whatever was at hand.

There was such a stigma about even appearing in one of these films that they were released as negatives instead of positives so faces could not be recognized. Tony had one, and another guy located an 8mm projector. With a sheet thrown over the window to block the window light, we settled in to watch our first porn movie, sans popcorn. It was weird, even surreal, trying to adjust to a negative image on screen. The titillating aspects of watching someone ‘doing it’ on screen were lost in translation, but everyone declared the evening a great success nonetheless.

A deep-rooted comradery developed between all of the guys on the floor, except one: My neighbor across the hall, Al. Al was a great guy with a remarkable sense of humor, and we quickly became good friends. Al didn’t mix with the other boys on the floor because he was gay, a quality that did not endear himself to anyone else. He never made a move on me, so we explored the depths of downtown together like a modern day Abbott and Costello.

Around the third day there, I found a note on the seat of my Honda telling me this was private property and I needed to move it pronto. After a bit of thought I sauntered over to the office of the Dean of the College, a delightful young man only nine years my senior. We hit it off so well that later that year he asked me to photograph his wedding – my first commercial gig as a budding photographer. He contacted security and told them it was ok to park my cycle in the lot, saving me an enormous amount of grief.

Iron City beer, the official beer of the 16th floor, had many useful features aside from the more commonly used intoxicating ones. It was a great stain remover. Soaking an article of clothing overnight in a sink full provided glorious results.

Around this time we learned from the university that students could work a max of 18 hours each week -- and our hotel needed elevator operators. Before the advent of push button people movers, they were operated manually using a joy stick like handled device that swept a semi-circle on one wall of the elevator. Pushing the handle in one direction made it go up, in the other direction it went down. It was up to the finesse of the operator to know when to slowly push the handle in the opposite direction slightly, countering gravity with the appropriate amount of force to permit the floor of the car to align perfectly with the actual floor of the hotel. This was not an easy manipulation because it depended on the speed of the elevator and the total weight of the occupants.

It became quite a feat to accurately judge the meeting of the two floors gracefully, and those who could achieve it were held in the highest regard. Tony was one of the few who could accomplish this and was amply congratulated by the other operators for his precision and dedication. Unfortunately for him, his success was short-lived, brought on by an excess of Iron City one Saturday evening.

Being a student of science and having already conquered the task of performing mental and physical calculus to properly align an elevator to its corresponding floor, Tony mused aloud about gravity and its effect. He mused so loudly that evening that he opened his sixteenth-floor window and chucked his TV set out to see if it would explode on impact. It did.

Fortunately, no one was strolling by at the time, but the noise of this purely scientific inquiry did alert the police, who contacted the hotel management, who informed the university officials, who in turn phoned Tony’s parents. That’s when the real explosion occurred.

Tony was unceremoniously yanked down the hall by his father in full view of the rest of the guys, having been expelled that day. A mob hit would have been less egregious than the humiliation he endured in front of his friends. A week later he dropped by to say hello, to show us that all body parts were intact and that he had suffered none of the Yakuza-like machinations that Italian fathers are sometimes prone to under difficult circumstances.

We celebrated life (his in particular) and moved on to whatever was next. For me it was the advent of winter, and the nagging feeling that I didn’t want to leave my Honda exposed to the elements for that long. A plot was hatched and I enlisted several co-conspirators in a well-timed display of fortitude, courage, and deception. We figured if we pulled this off quickly enough most of the witnesses would be left scratching their heads and wondering what really happened.

I walked across the street and fired up my little Honda Sport 50. Driving it across the street, one accomplice helped me hoist it over the curb. Another was at the hotel lobby, ready and willing to open the main door on the signal. As I slowly rode on the sidewalk, lookouts stationed at each end of the block gave the all clear wave and I continued on to the open door. I drove my scooter through the lobby and directly into the elevator, which was being held for me by another pal. Once inside I killed the engine for the 16 story ride to the top. As the elevator door opened, I hit the kickstarter and the bike zoomed to life again. I rode down the hall to at least a dozen gaping wide mouths as my buddy Al opened the door to my room. I made the acute left turn, rolled into the room and killed the engine.

Four more friends rushed into the room and helped lift my motorcycle into the bathtub, where we gave it a thorough wash, to ensure no damage was done to the carpet. I drained the gas tank to avoid any hazardous conditions, and we placed my plastic tarp under it to further protect the room.

A couple of hours later there was a knock on the door. It was the dean of Point Park College. I cracked the door a bit, and the color drained from my face. He told me he had heard an outrageous tale of someone riding a motorcycle through the hotel lobby. Sheepishly, I opened the door and let him in. I back peddled and told him the whole story. He laughed and gave me the approval to keep my bike there for the winter.

The most unusual part of the story would not come to life for some time. My wife worked for the largest real estate developer in the Coachella Valley for many years. One of the perks made available to us in the mid 80’s was a membership to the gym and spa at Palm Valley Country Club. How unbelievable was it that I would find myself one day lounging in a hot tub opposite Bruce McGill, the actor who pulled off a similar motorcycle stunt in ‘Animal House’ around 10 years after me doing it for real back in the day.

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