Humor at Marlboro

Written by Ben Rosen, archival processor

One example of Marlboro’s silliness is the “Marlboro Variety Award Letters” in which humorous honors were awarded to participants. Here, Serkin’s napkin-throwing skills are praised: “The Marksmanship Award goes to Rudolf Serkin for his unerring aim, his superlative pitching style, and his superior formation of paper napkin wads for use in Dining Hall recreational activities.”

Pianist Rudolf Serkin, co-founder and longtime artistic director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, was known for his love of practical jokes, crude humor, and other forms of childish fun, as Marissa has pointed out in her blog post on the Marlboro Music School and Festival records. According to some, he initiated the now famous Marlboro tradition of napkin-throwing wars in the dining hall, and whether or not he did in fact throw the very first napkin ball, he certainly participated with enthusiasm (as proven by his winning the “Marksmanship Award” in Marlboro’s Variety Award Letters – see image). Serkin’s antics went well beyond this, however, including long-lasting runs of back-and-forth practical jokes with certain Marlboro participants, some of which are documented in Rudolf Serkin: a life by Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber. But while Serkin is the most famous Marlboro jokester, and no doubt deserves credit for promoting a light-hearted atmosphere at the festival, the true comic maestro of Marlboro was their music librarian, Shirley Ann Weekley (who is responsible for the “Baacarole” in Marissa’s post).

The Rudolf Serkin papers, 1908-2003 contains folder after folder of Shirley’s hilarious puns, parodies, and inside jokes, which sneak their way into Marlboro’s official documents. In my opinion, the extensive run of Welcome To Marlboro packets are in themselves worth a trip to see the collection. For many years before Shirley came to Marlboro, these documents were exactly what you would expect given the title: a necessary but uninteresting collection of all the relevant information that a Marlboro participant might need–telephone numbers, hours of the dining hall, etc. Shirley, however, kicked it up quite a few notches and brought these once unremarkable packets to a level that one might dare say rivals the artistry of the Marlboro participants themselves. (OK, maybe not quite, but her commitment to the humor is definitely impressive.) Here is the cover page for the 1977 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet, with Shirley’s hilarious description of the packet, including intentionally terrible line breaks:

The cover page of the 1977 edition of Welcome To Marlboro

a compilation of concise factual info/rmation, titillating gossip, scandalo/us lies, trivia, and sheer fabricatio/n, with absolutely no indication as t/o what falls into which category, thu/s leaving this distinction solely to the judgment of the reader. edited b/y shirley weekley, mimeographed by d/avid white, map by david o. decker, /vertical alignment by the marlboro m/onster, musical examples drawn by a /team of presser building mice. conde/mned by the daughters of the america n revolution, approved by idi amin, /indexed by a chimpanzee, and collate/d by the peoples’ marlboro festival /chorus of the green mountain-white r/iver sanitation district.

The “Marlboro Monster” was one of many fictional characters created by Shirley to appear year after year in the Welcome To Marlboro packets. In the same 1977 edition, The Monster is introduced via footnotes running along the bottom of every page of the packet. The complete story (which is too much fun not to post) runs as follows:

The first of a series of footnotes introducing the “Marlboro Monster” in the 1977 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet

It would be very surprising indeed if you have not read or heard at least something about the possible existence of such half-mythological monsters as the abominable snowman. Serious scientists are even now looking for the Loch Ness monster. They have even given the monster a scientific name: Nessiteras rhombopteryx. In the midst of all this hullabaloo about such famous beasts as Nessie and Big Foot, the sightings of a mysterious creature in the vicinity of Potash Hill, Vermont have been all but ignored. Each night, as the mists rise behind the Presser Building, a hulking form emerges from the Music Library. It is the Marlboro Monster! Part human, part vaporous emanation of the combined thoughts of all past Marlboro participants, it materializes at the stroke of midnight from the seepage in the Presser basement hallway. Though it has never been photographed or even observed in action, ample evidence of its existence can be extrapolated from signs of its activities. Even in this issue of WTM you can see that the Monster has tampered with the vertical spacing on our IBM Selectric. There have been many unexplained instances of cards being removed from the schedule board, entire buildings being shrouded in sheets, cars being lifted bodily and replaced in a distant location, missing stands and parts. Since no human hand could have done these things, you may be sure that whenever such mysterious happenings take place, it is the work of…THE MARLBORO MONSTER.

NOTE: WTM is not responsible for, or necessarily in agreement with, the above irresponsible assertion or any of the opinions expressed herein.

Other recurring characters include “Euphemistica Glossovia” and “Casper Fenwick” a fictional musicologist and composer, respectively. The 1984 edition of WTM provides some biographical details on them, as well as the Marlboro Monster, who was still going strong 7 years later. Apparently all three characters knew each other. Here the Monster is affectionately referred to as “Em-Em” and I’ll omit its portion in the transcription below since we have already heard so much about it in the 1977 edition.

Biographical introduction of “Euphemistica Glossovia,” the “Marlboro Monster,” and “Casper Fenwick” from the 1984 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet

Ms. Glossovia is a frequent contributor to WTM. A musicologist who has covered rock festivals on the moon and discovered little known facts about the sex life of Fidelio Friedrich Finke (which were subsequently deleted from the biographical material in Volume 6, p. 584 of NEW GROVE by some timid editors), she is best known for her definitive biography of Casper Fenwick, of whom we shall hear more later. Her interests are not limited to music, however, and she has toured the country offering lecture-demonstrations on such topics as “The Many Uses of Dental Floss,” “Training Your African Violets To Do Useful Household Tasks,” and “The Nose-Flute: Musical Instrument of the Future.”


Both Euphemistica and Em-Em were close friends of the late Casper Fenwick, creator of monotonal music and composer of such classic masterworks as the NBC chimes, “Avon Calling,” for chime and sprechstimme (these were composed before he realized that music could reach its most expressive heights only when the composer limited himself to a single pitch), and the work [that] is perhaps best known to us, the “Marlboro Fire Alarm,” a dramatic work which is the only Fenwick composition ever to be performed at the Marlboro Festival.

The above humor comes in the form of marginalia and appendices to the main body of the text, but Shirley could be quite funny even in the informational sections. When warning participants to keep quiet in the dorms after 10pm, for example, she concedes that if “in a moment of intellectual excitement you may continue to recite Shakespear’s sonnets in an exceedingly loud voice until 10:01 P. M.,” that such persons will be pardoned.

The Welcome To Marlboro packets may have been Shirley’s masterpieces, but her entire oeuvre includes all manner of one-off documents, such as a Marlboro-themed parody of the Declaration of Independence, in which participants declare their independence from music conservatories and proclaim their unalienable right to the “Pursuit of Happy Hours.” Her work is so numerous and well represented in the Serkin papers that selecting examples is quite a task, and though I wish I could post all of it, I’ll keep this post to a reasonable length and stop here. Those interested in the full Shirley Weekley experience should look under the “Marlboro Music School and Festival” series heading in the Rudolf Serkin papers’ finding aid. The Welcome To Marlboro packets, which date from B.S.W. (Before Shirley Weekley) in 1967 to 1987, where her jokes were surely more than weekly (I think she would appreciate the pun) can be found in Folders 34-47 of Box 141. Additional material can also be found in the Marlboro Music School and Festival records. But beware the Marlboro Monster!

2 responses to “Humor at Marlboro”

  1. Hi Ben – My name is Tony Checchia and I have been an administrator at Marlboro Music for many years. Just a short note to tell you how much I enjoyed your Shirley Weekley piece. It brought back many wonderful memories. One minor correction — I believe Shirley Weekley started at Marlboro in 1961. All the best, Tony

    • Hi Tony, Thanks for your response! I was guessing about Shirley’s dates based on the evidence that survived in the collection, so it’s helpful to have your information.

      I don’t know if you’ve found them already, but I hope you get a chance to check out the other Marlboro/Serkin posts on this blog–one by another archivist is linked in the post you read, and I also wrote one about Serkin and his papers here: (though I am still not entirely sure about the Beethoven fingering Serkin is suggesting, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I misinterpreted it).

      From working with these papers it seems like Marlboro was and is a very special place. I hope one day to make it to some of the concerts!


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