"Hey, you must be the short, depressed kid we ordered. Glad you made it." — Meatballs, 1979 (Reitman)
I highly doubt that camping pioneers such as Ernest Balch or Frederick Gunn would have approved of Bill Murray's counseling methods as Tripper Harrison, Camp North Star's head counselor in Meatballs. But today, the typical American consumer is much more likely to see a summer camp depicted as crazy or scary than as a positive place for personal growth and character development. How did this happen? As the American Camp Association (ACA) celebrates its centennial and camp celebrates 150 years, it's a great time to reflect, with a grain of salt, on how perceptions of our industry have changed since the nineteenth century.
The Early Years
Prior to World War I, most popular culture discussions of summer camp were in either magazines for adults or books aimed at teenagers. One of earliest was Alfred Balch's 1893 recollection in McClure's Magazine of his brother Ernest's pioneering camp, which operated from 1881–1889 in New Hampshire.
In "A Boy's Republic: The Story of Camp Chocorua," Alfred Balch describes with great enthusiasm how the day-to-day life of Chocorua aided the physical and spiritual development of boys. Balch writes: "The story of Camp Chocorua, of the healthy, open-air life, of the high standards so rigidly lived up to, of the fun they had, of the work they did, and of the lessons in manliness they so unconsciously learned, is really written in the memories of the boys who, during those nine summers, spent their time on that little island."
This confident and optimistic view of the camping movement was echoed again and again at the turn of the twentieth century with enthusiastic descriptions of tan campers throwing off the evils of city life. Carlyle Ellis, writing in Everybody's Magazine in 1913 is not shy in summing up his view of the camp experience, calling it "the nearest thing to a perfect system of education in existence," and noting that the "chief work of the summer camp is to save children from their parents." In the monthly magazine The World's Work, educator and camp director Dr. Winthrop Tisdale Talbot (1905) passionately promotes the effect of camp on boys, writing, "In camp, poor and rich lads stripped to their swimming trunks are on an absolute equality; the best man wins. Courage, generosity, goodwill, honesty are the touchstones of success in camp."
The most common fictional accounts of camp were in book series aimed at teen girls and boys. For girls, numerous accounts of the Camp Fire Girls were published in novels after 1912. Many of the books described girls' experiences at summer camp. The founders of Camp Fire Girls of America (now Campfire USA), Luther and Charlotte Gulick, were from a family that founded several camps that exist to this day. Boys had pulp novels such as the High School Boys in Summer Camp, featuring athlete and hero Dick Prescott. While Dick and his pals don't go to an organized camp, their adventures camping and saving their town from small-time thugs were likely enough to encourage teen boys to try a residential camp. And it must have helped young master Prescott, because in later novels he goes on to West Point, fights on the Western Front, and then saves America when the Germans invade the East Coast.
In 1918, the Girl Scouts created what might be one of the earliest surviving film depictions of summer camp. Titled The Golden Eaglet: The Story of a Girl Scout, the silent film follows a girl to a camp with her troop. Exciting moments include watching the girls tie knots, wash-up in the morning, and learn semaphore in long skirts. It's a far cry from today's slick DVD promotions for sure, but the film depicts the young Girl Scout organization as a positive and organized option for girls of the day.
In the interwar period, camp became very common for American youth. Magazines such as Boys' Life prepped scouts all year for a summer experience and ads for organized camps filled the backs of national magazines. A 1937 (Anonymous) LIFE article claimed that 3 million U.S. youngsters were enjoying camps both "swank and plebian" while profiling Camp Dudley in New York and the Aloha Camps in Vermont. They even noted that the Aloha Camps were employing Russian cavalry colonels to teach equestrian skills. A Camp Dudley counselor is shown reading Bible verses to hi s pajama-clad campers, a gi rl reads next to a bunk with stuffed animals on it, two young boys duke it out in boxing gloves, and dishes of ice cream are prepared by the dozen. Camp is presented as a civilized and well-run summer option for families that could afford the $200–375 tuition for the summer.
The year 1937 also brought a major Hollywood motion picture featuring a summer camp. Make a Wish (Nuemann) stars Basil Rathbone and child crooner Bobby Breen. Breen's character is attending a Maine summer camp near to where Rathbone, a writer of musicals, is vacationing while struggling to write his next hit show. Intrigued by the campers and their enthusiasm, Rathbone wanders over to the camp, befriends the boy, and learns that the child's mother is a former stage singer, and well, Rathbone gets his hit show. While not exactly a musical, the movie features several songs, including some sung around the campfire. The camp's motto, "A healthy mind in a healthy body!" echoes the prevailing industry attitudes of the day. What is refreshing about Make a Wish is that the camp and its staff are portrayed positively, a far cry from the stereotypical camp movie of today. While a strange man would not be welcomed today if he strolled into a camp and began talking to boys, the film reflects an innocence that we have lost in modern America.
In 1941, LIFE once again featured summer camps in a multi-page article about Camp Greystone, a camp for girls in North Carolina. Two years later, the magazine, which reached millions of households each week, profiled Camp Dudley campers on a canoe picnic with girls summering in a nearby resort town. The story is a bit sappy but feels somewhat upper-class. One of the boys is a student at Phillips Academy, Andover. His date, a coed at Sarah Lawrence, plays a concertina as the boy paddles. The short accompanying text is sentimental, calling the picnic trip "an au revoir to the lake they loved and farewell to a summer they would remember always" (Anonymous, 1943). The perception that camps were for the privileged is mentioned in the popular East Side Kids film series focusing on a gang of troublesome but likeable New York teens. In the 1940 film Boys of the City (Lewis), the gang gets in trouble and is told that they're being sent to a summer camp in the Adirondacks. One of the teens responds, "Summer camp? Sissy stuff!"
"Yippi-i, Yippi-a, Yippi-o!"
Into the Television Era
In the 1950s, summer camps continued to be portrayed in a positive light, and the industry now had an ally in a new medium: television. One of the most popular shows of the decade, the Mickey Mouse Club, featured The Adventures of Spin & Marty, the exploits of a rich boy and a poor boy together at the Triple R Ranch Camp. The contrasting social classes of the boys showed that camp was for everyone, and the uniqueness of the ranching summer camp showed that the industry was more than just traditional camps on northern lakes. The Spin & Marty shorts ran for three seasons and included Annette Funicello when the boys started having romantic interests in girls. Comic books featuring Spin and Marty were also popular. The shorts are wonderfully positive and depict camp as structured but fun, with caring, knowledgeable staff. In many ways, they're among the best depictions of campercounselor and camper-camper interaction that have ever been filmed.
Another change that is apparent in the postwar period is an increased corporate interest in camp. The National Dairy Products Corporation ran full page ads in 1946 urging camp directors to serve a quart of milk per day to the active child. In 1954, Baker's Coconut tapped into the camp tradition by running a national advertisement that allowed kids to win a free summer at camp. Kool-Aid ran similar contests in the early 1960s.
Also during the 1950s, there seemed to be an increase in national attention on camps for children with special needs. In a 1958 article, LIFE featured the work of the Ramapo-Anchorage camps in the Hudson Valley of New York with emotionally distressed children. The article was not shy in showing the struggles of the children, but emphasized that a summer at camp can help ameliorate some the campers' problems.
"I Went Hiking with Joe Spivey"
A revolution in how camps are portrayed in popular culture began in 1961. In that year, we see two very different depictions of summer camp. First, there was the classic Disney movie The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills as twin sisters separated as babies and reunited by accident at summer camp. The film is an adaption of a 1949 German novel, Das doppelte Lottchen, or The Double Lottie, which has been made into films in the UK, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Iran, and India (five times), along with several American versions. In The Parent Trap, we still see a respectful depiction of a summer camp. Sure, the camp leadership is a bit comical, but the camp runs well and the campers are disciplined and expected to follow rules.
But in the same year as the sugary Parent Trap came publication of William Butler's novel The Butterfly Revolution (1961). Echoing Lord of the Flies, campers at a boys' camp take over their camp and the nearby girls' camp and impose a totalitarian regime. Rebellion by campers would become a recurring theme in movies from this point on. In one of the last pages of the novel, Winston, the boy that tells the story through diary entries, states: "I know one thing, though. I will never go to summer camp again. Never!" This negative view of camp is a complete reversal from the prevailing theme of nearly all popular depictions that came before it and can be considered the first of two important events that changed the role of camps in popular culture.
The second came in 1963 with the release of the third album by former game-show producer Allan Sherman. My Son, the Nut contained the song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," a novelty song about a boy at a horrible summer camp. The song reached number two on the Billboard charts for three weeks in the summer of 1963. Despite an upbeat ending, never again would the public see camp as the utopia it was often portrayed as in the first half of the century. A second version with different lyrics was performed by Sherman in 1964 on The Tonight Show, and then a board game called Camp Granada was released by Milton Bradley in 1965. In the game, players had to drive a broken-down bus in an attempt to be the first to escape a rotten summer camp. Not exactly LIFE Magazine.
After the publication of The Butterfly Revolution and the release of "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," the bulk of all camp depictions in popular culture show camps as scary, rundown, zany, or a haven for misfits. The 1971 film Bless the Beasts and Children is a horrible depiction of summer camp. Outcast kids are tortured, picked-on, doused with urine, and isolated in a cabin together with a mean counselor. Eventually, they run away to save a herd of buffalo from slaughter. The movie is tragic and endearing in a way, but camps come across as horrible places. The animated characters Davey and Goliath did good things at their Bible camp in 1975 ("To the Rescue"), but Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang end up at a camp in 1977's Race for Your Life Charlie Brown, which has mean kids and apparently no supervision as the kids go on a long, overnight rafting trip without any counselors.
In the late-1970s, camp-related movies exploded in popular culture, but few portray the kind of camp that ACA would want to promote. Two distinct genres of camping movies became very common: the scary camp movie and the zany camp movie.
"You See, Jason Was My Son, and Today Is His Birthday . . ."
Scary Camp Movies
The cult classic Piranha, released in 1978, is one of the first modern camp horror movies. The movie's heroes race downriver to stop the voracious fish from eating swimmers at a summer camp. Two years later, Friday the 13th was released and slasher films would forever be connected with organized camping. The very premise of the movie was that counselors failed to properly watch a camper and the young boy drowned. His angry mother seeks revenge on all future camp staff. It's a good lesson in the consequences of poor waterfront safety, but probably not great for the industry's image. Two sequels, Friday the 13th: Part 2 and Friday the 13th: Part 6 — Jason Lives, also feature summer camps or staffers, but more importantly, Jason's mother also created a new genre of movies. The summer after Jason rose from the waters of Crystal Lake, 1981's The Burning was released. Pranksters at Camp Blackfoot set out to scare the mean camp handyman and he ends up horribly burned. Years later, he returns to a nearby camp to terrorize campers with hedge clippers.
Friday the 13th begat The Burning, which begat Madman (1982), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Friday the 13th: Part 6 — Jason Lives (1986), Summer Camp Nightmare (1987, based on The Butterfly Revolution), Cheerleader Camp (1987), Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988), Camp Blood (1999), Bloody Murder (2000), Bloody Murder 2: Closing Camp (2003), Camp Slaughter (2005), Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008), and Spirit Camp (2009), to name just a few. This list excludes other sequels that don't directly have summer camp scenes, like the rest of the Friday the 13th movies. Over a dozen movies in just a few decades featuring death and mayhem at camps! If movies are any indication, summer camps are among the scariest and most unsafe places in America.
"It Just Doesn't Matter!"
Zany Camp Movies
While The Parent Trap and other early camp movies feature camper antics, the modern camp comedy starts, of course, with 1979's Meatballs. The campers and counselors spend much of the summer trying to bend the rules, hook up, or cause trouble. But Meatballs certainly has a sincerity that many of its successors lack, and the care that B PROFESSIONAL ill Murray's Tripper shows for Rudy is genuine. But sadly, many of the camp comedies that have followed barely even acknowledge a functioning camp or show any care toward the campers.
After Meatballs came the following: Summer Camp (1979), Little Darlings (1980), G.O.R.P. (1980), Oddballs (1983), Meatballs 2 (1984, featuring the plausible plotline of campers discovering an alien), the madefor- television Poison Ivy (1985), Space Camp (1985), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Camp Cucamonga (1990), the TV-series Salute your Shorts (1991), Meatballs 4 (1992), the "Kamp Krusty" episode of The Simpsons (1992), Indian Summer (1993), Addams Family Values (1993), Camp Nowhere (1994), It Takes Two (1995), Heavyweights (1995), the "Fat Camp" episode of South Park (2000), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Happy Campers (2001), Camp (2003), American Pie Presents: Band Camp (2005), Summerhood! (2008), Camp Rock (2008), Bratz Girls Really Rock (2008), South Park's "Crippled Summer" (2010), and Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (2010). Phew! On average, this is about one nationallyreleased movie or television show per year that emphasizes not character-building or personal growth, but wild antics. Some are certainly more poignant and touching than others, but very few show a realistic camp experience. Indian Summer is probably the most serious of the films, but even it falls back on camp pranks to get a laugh. Camp directors in these movies are nearly always over-enthusiastic idiots or ruthless dictators. Camp staff members are generally shown as either rule-breaking hooligans or over-eager dorks. Furthermore, camps in these movies are often run-down and dangerous. Bunks are dark and messy with broken screens. Mattresses smell bad. The waterfront is unsafe. The food is horrible. Rarely is a camp used as a setting for a story. Most often, it is a negative character.
So, should we care? Obviously, many of these movies are just fun entertainment and I enjoyed many of the films I screened for this article, but it would be naïve to assume that they don't affect how people see our industry and our profession. Staff expecting hijinks will be disappointed. Campers expecting non-stop zaniness may be disillusioned with rules, chores, and strict schedules. Are there accurate depictions of camp in mass culture? Sure, there are documentaries such as Stagedoor (2005) and Summercamp! (2006), but even most camp documentaries focus on niches within the industry rather than traditional residential or day camps. There are also some good books for teens, such as the Summer Camp Secrets series by Katy Grant, Secrets at Camp Nokomis by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, and Mike Lupica's Summer Ball; but naturally, these don't reach the same audience as a major movie release.
Although fun, the movies of the past three decades tend to trivialize the centuryold mission of ACA and the foundations of the summer camp movement. Can we stop them? No, but we must ensure that campers and new staff realize that camp is something quite different, and hopefully better, than what they see in movies or television. When we have positive stories of camping, we must make every effort to publicize them with the hope that our message reaches as many people as possible.
Anonymous. (1937). Young America (3,000,000 of them) is spending the summer at camp. LIFE, 3(7).
Anonymous. (1943). Life goes on a canoe picnic. LIFE, 15(12).
Balch, A. (1893). A boy's republic: The story of Camp Chocorua. McClure's Magazine, 1(2).
Butler, W. (1961). The butterfly revolution. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Cunningham, S. (1980). Friday the 13th [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.