Members of the Savage Club perform in Statler Auditorium during Reunion 2014

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Founded by Glee Club members in the late 19th century, the all-male town-gown performance group is a Reunion staple

By Joe Wilensky

A typical meeting of the Savage Club of Ithaca serves as a microcosm of the quirky performance group. After some 30 men share a hearty meal, sing the “Alma Mater,” and conduct a bit of club business, the entertainment begins: musical numbers and other acts, running the gamut from earnest and moving to offbeat and satirical.

Offerings include a classical piano solo; a story about a member’s real-life run-in with a bear; a song based on a Kipling poem; the theme from “Peter Gunn” on saxophone; and a satirical version of a classic tune from Fiddler on the Roof (“If I Were a Donor Man”) poking fun at higher ed.

A raucous musical toast starts each Savage Club meeting
Each meeting opens with a raucous musical toast. (Joe Wilensky/Cornell University)

“The major criteria,” observes member Lou Walcer ’74, “is a willingness to stand up in public and make a fool of yourself.”

In many ways, the 128-year-old Savage Club is a throwback: a men-only group that embraces a performance style and repertoire drawing heavily from the mid-20th-century American songbook, traditional Cornell tunes, and classical choral arrangements.

(For a sampling, check out their YouTube channel.)

The major criteria is a willingness to stand up in public and make a fool of yourself.

Lou Walcer ’74

Its ties to the University are long and strong, with numerous alumni members on its roster—and for many Cornellians, its annual Reunion show is a quintessential part of the festivities.

“We have a wide range of talents,” says Adam Perl ’67, BA ’68, the club’s choral conductor. “Some of the guys are professionally trained, some are just naturally good, and some are just singing from the heart—but they’ve got the enthusiasm. That’s what makes our club work: we love what we do, and it shows.”

The members of the 1895 Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin Club founded the Savage Club of Ithaca following their overseas tour
Members of the Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin Club founded the Savage Club of Ithaca following their overseas tour.

The group’s origins date to 1895, when members of what was then known as the Cornell Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin Club embarked on a performance tour of England—one that ended nearly as soon as it began.

“A rascally professional manager and a misunderstanding as to the English attitude toward a professedly amateur musical organization which charged admission fees resulted in the abrupt termination of the tour after one concert had been given,” member Louis Agassiz Fuertes 1897 later explained in the Cornell Era.

“The members lost their large deposits and much besides.”

Fortunately, the stranded Cornellians were invited to perform for the Savage Club of London, a gentlemen’s enclave devoted to arts, drama, music, and literature, and named for the poet and satirist Richard Savage.

As the Big Red club’s official history observes, the Londoners were “charmed by the Cornellians; and the Cornellians were equally charmed by the Savages. It was a delightful occasion all ’round.”

The Cornellians were given club privileges for the remainder of their stay, and they later asked permission to found a Savage Club back home. Early members included Fuertes (who’d go on to become a famed naturalist), Dragon Day founder and building namesake Willard Straight 1901, and future movie stars Adolphe Menjou 1912 and Franchot Tone 1927.

Ticket sales at Barton Hall for the Savage Club show at Reunion 1972
Selling tickets in Barton for the Reunion ’72 show. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

As its name reflects, the club was conceived as a town-gown entity. But over the decades, membership has shifted away from current students to comprise mainly local alumni—many from the Glee Club—along with faculty, staff, and residents.

Humor and lighthearted mischief have long been baked into the culture. “Wild bursts of applause will not be received,” a 1914 program deadpanned, “unless accompanied by flowers.” Its wildly popular Reunion shows debuted in 1929.

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The group’s repertoire is rooted in traditional Big Red songs as well as mid-20th-century standards for male voices—along with humorous and satirical pieces, some written by members.

Says club president Jack Roscoe ’71: “As it applies to this group, the term ‘eclectic’ should be redefined.”

Within the club are offshoots that perform at a variety of local venues, including nursing homes and community events. They include the rock band the Tarps (so named because “they cover everything”), a folk group, a jazz combo, and a troupe that recites poetry backed by interpretive music.

These subgroups sometimes feature guest artists—including (gasp!) women.

In 2020, the club purchased its first permanent home, an 1830s-era former church in North Lansing, a short drive from campus. It has since renovated it, creating a 100-seat performance space—with great acoustics, members note—that’s available for free to local groups.

In addition to Reunion, the club’s annual performance schedule includes fundraisers for community causes; in recent years, broadening its town-gown ethos, it has begun giving small arts grants.

But like many such groups, the Savages are facing the challenge of an aging membership. Jordan McMahan, a Cornell grad student and staffer, is (at age 29) the youngest Savage by about two decades; many others are in their 70s and 80s.

“We’re hoping to integrate with some other music groups in the area,” notes McMahan, the club’s publicist, “and see if we can cross-pollinate.”

Walcer first saw the Savages perform at the Reunion following his graduation (he’d picked up a job serving beer).

Cover of 1974 Savage Club show program
Show names are typically spelled backward. “It’s a tradition,” this 1974 program explains, “but no one seems to know why.” (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

In 2011, he returned to the Hill to run the Center for Life Science Ventures, and caught another Reunion show.

“The guys seemed to have so much fun,” he recalls. “I was so entertained.”

After attending a few monthly meetings as a guest, he decided to try out. Taking advantage of the fact that the auditions don’t have to be musical, he did a comedy routine.

“I’ve carved out a unique space for myself within the club,” he says. “We have baritones, bases, and tenors. I’m the only one who sings monotone.”

Top: Performing in Statler Auditorium during Reunion ’14. (Cornell University)

Published September 7, 2023


  1. gary brandt

    love you wee lads! great article

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