Greenwich Village is known as the home and birthplace of many a cultural movement — The New York School of Painters and Writers, the modern LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement, many notable advances in African American and women’s rights, the Ashcan School of painters, and so much more. One popular art form less strongly associated with the neighborhood but nevertheless a deep part of its milieu and its contributions to the broader culture is comedy. For generations, comedians, comedy writers, and some of the best comedy clubs in the world have been drawn to or found a home here.
One manifestation of that tradition is the highly successful and influential comedy film Animal House, which was released on July 28, 1978. The film earned $141 million on a $2.8 million budget and set a box-office record for comedies. From today’s vantage point, the film seems dated at best, deeply problematic at worst. The production included a number of people with ties to Greenwich Village who were or would become household names, (some of whom would die early deaths not long after the film due to drug use), including actors John Belushi and Kevin Bacon, as well as writers Harold Ramis and Douglas Kenney.
John Belushi lived in the West Village and was already well-known as a break out star of Saturday Night Live when the movie premiered. He was the star of the film, with the role of John “Bluto” Blutarsky written specifically for him. One of the most acclaimed comic actors of his time, the role is still considered one of his signature performances. A number of his scenes have become widely quoted cultural references, such as his speech when rallying his fellow frat brothers with the line lines “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?“
In then mid 1970s Belushi lived at 376 Bleecker Street. He lived at 64 Morton Street in the West Village at the time of his passing in 1982.
Kevin Bacon was an unknown actor when he was cast in the role of Chip Diller, a freshman antagonist of Belushi’s Delta Tau Chi fraternity. Bacon moved to New York in 1975 to pursue an acting career and one of the first places he honed his craft was the Circle in the Square Theater School. The Circle in the Square Theater School is located in the Theater District but has Greenwich Village roots. It was an offshoot of the Circle in the Square Theater, the world’s first non-profit theater, which was located for many years at 159 Bleecker Street, between Sullivan and Thompson Streets. Unfortunately the theater closed and most of its building demolished over Village Preservation’s protests in 2004.
Doug Kenney was a comedy writer who co-founded National Lampoon in 1970, which grew into a franchise of stage shows, comedy albums, and eventually Animal House and other films. He was an influential part of The National Lampoon Lemmings, a 1973 stage show at the Village Gate that helped launch the careers of John Belushi and many others. The show opened at The Village Gate on January 25, 1973, and ran for 350 performances.
Even after earning almost $3 million for National Lampoon, Kenney lived sparsely in his Greenwich Village apartment for three years, until he moved to Los Angeles. There his drug use spiraled out of control, which contributed to his death at only 33 years old when he fell from a cliff in Hawaii.
Harold Ramis was one of the film’s three writers along with Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller. In 1974, Ramis and Bill Murray moved to New York City to work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which was the successor to National Lampoon’s Lemmings. The National Lampoon Radio Hour would evolve into Saturday Night Live, when almost all the writers and performers were hired by Lorne Michaels, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase.