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EXTRAVAGANZA – By #20745 Jake Bolster

“Extravagant,” “Fun,” “Exciting,” “Surprise,” “Bring your ‘A game’.” These are some of the many expressions Dudley and Kiniya alumni conjured when trying to describe extravaganzas.

The exact origin of the extravaganza at Dudley is about as hard to pin down as the activity is to describe. According to Last Whistle archives and alumni testimonials, non-athletic activity block programming took off during Willie Schmidt’s tenure as Camp Director, and many alumni credit him for helping create division-wide extracurricular activities sometime during the late 70s. Still, no one is sure exactly when the term extravaganza entered the Dudley and Kiniya lexicon. 

Prior to the late 70s at Dudley, and late 2000s at Kiniya, there existed a rich tradition of non-sequitur programming on both campuses. At Dudley, the leader chases and pageants of the early and mid-twentieth century provided a break from the normal athletic routine and gave leaders and campers an opportunity to display their wackier, creative sides. In the early days at Kiniya, it was traditional for campers and leaders to invent songs poking fun at camp rules and partake in camp-wide ceremonies marking the beginning and end of the summer.

Group shot during the ’70s in front of a soap box car. 

Soap Box Derby Commentatary Standing L-R Bill Brouse, Steve Wertimer, T.C. Canning, John Tredwell.

The earliest extravaganzas at both camps were known for their creativity, scope, and rumored penchant for causing bystanders to whisper, “No safety there!” to their companions. #10649 Steve Wertimer, who spent eleven summers at Dudley—his first as a Junior in 1968 and his last as the Cub Division Head in 1978—insists the Soap Box Derby was amongst the greatest extravaganzas he’s ever seen. “The first year, the materials they gave the kids were pretty rudimentary. The wheels were wooden. We started at the top of the hill by the office and went down to Cub beach. There were hay bales lining the route on each side. These carts were not real sturdy; the wheels would break off, and several people exited the course altogether.”

Steve continued, “The next year, they had rubber tires with ball bearings in them. This made the cars much faster but no safer because these were kids who were building the cars. Leaders had to keep pushing the starting blocks farther and farther down the hill to reduce speed, so it was hard to gauge who was the overall winner. But it was very exciting. They had a couple of leaders who would commentate the whole thing as if they were the Saturday afternoon guys on Wide World of Sports. So that was a lot of fun.”

Pictures from various Camp Kiniya Extravaganzas in 2009, including Halloween.

Much like the pioneering extravaganzas in the 70s at Dudley, campers’ excitement and enthusiasm reached new heights in the nascent Kiniya extravaganzas of the late 2000s. #21412 Gretchen Willmuth has been at Kiniya since the summer of 2009 and served as Division Head last summer in the Cub division. Her long tenure at Kiniya means she participated in Kiniya’s first formal extravaganzas. “I do remember my first extravaganza. It was the summer of 2009. I was in Cady cabin—which at the time was the youngest cabin in Kiniya—and I was nine years old. The extravaganza was Halloween-themed, and we went around trick-or-treating and doing fun things like dunking for apples.” 

Gretchen says, “I remember collecting candy and that was really fun because candy at Camp was always so exciting. I had no idea it was coming because it was my first year, so I just remember feeling very wondrous. I couldn’t even tell you what all the stations were…I just remember running around getting candy. This was somehow more exciting than what I was doing every day. I just ate it all up.”

Later, as a Division Head, Gretchen grew to appreciate the sometimes fickle nature of planning these elaborate, high-energy events. “It’s so hard. I’ve planned ‘ganzas where I was thinking ‘This is the best one yet! We’re really gonna get them with this! This is gonna be awesome!’ only to have the campers say, ‘This wasn’t your best one.’ What makes a good ‘ganza is centering it around something campers are interested in and making it age-appropriate.”

Perhaps more important than ensuring buy-in from campers is establishing enthusiasm amongst the leaders; after all, these are the people responsible for putting on the show. Leader buy-in was a particular focus for #20725 Ragon Willmuth as Senior Division Head in 2018. Ragon, an eleven-year Dudley veteran and brother to Gretchen Willmuth, mentioned that “The best ‘ganzas are the ones that are fun for the leaders and the kids. I personally probably had more fun putting them on than participating as a camper.”

Ragon spoke to the challenges of stringing together a coherent series of games in a fixed amount of time: “Usually you have blocks of an hour and a half, maybe three hours, so right there you have to come up with an entertaining idea for something within that time frame. But then there are activities within that. If you do something where the campers feel like they could have planned it themselves, they’re automatically disengaged—especially in the older groups. If you find a way to keep everyone in the game, it’ll be successful.”

Left: Tropican Extravaganza – 2019. Right: Kiniya Extravaganza – 2021

Today, extravaganzas are as successful as ever, and a few have become Camp-wide traditions. Mellowfest began at Dudley in the mid to late 80s as a way for the Junior division to distinguish itself from the rambunctious Cubs and Plebes; it eventually became the Camp-wide extravaganza so many enjoy today. At Kiniya, Mellowfest has been a staple of girls’ summers for roughly the last decade.

Like Mellowfest, today’s most memorable extravaganzas pair a division’s personality with a unique game or theme. #25444 Magdalena Manastra has spent three years at Kiniya, starting in 2019, and has vivid memories of her extravaganzas. Her first was called “Home Alone” where Leaders ALs, and JLs all left their cabins while the girls were still asleep, only to materialize in the dining hall under a sign that said “Paris.” The extravaganza ended with the entire division watching “Home Alone” together.

Magdalena’s favorite extravaganza was something called Senior Night. It started with cards in the dining hall; leaders suddenly turned off the lights and it changed into a murder mystery party. Magdalena describes, “The victim was part of a band and she had three back-up singers who were suspects. We were split up into teams of five or six people, and we basically just asked suspects questions. There were other clues around the dining hall, too. I remember in the bathroom there were cards taped to the mirror with codes that we had to figure out. It was really fun.”

Mellowfest throughout the years, various Camp Extravaganzas.

Extravaganzas are mostly fun and games, but every former leader who spoke about their role in the Dudley and Kiniya fabric insisted that they play a serious role in the trajectory of a camper’s summer. 

“Extravaganzas are a great way to break the routine,” Ragon pointed out. “The beauty of Camp is it feels like everyone gets a chance to do everything, and extravaganzas are an important part of that. A different set of activities is crucial because it can be limiting if you just repeat the same thing every day.”

“It was meant to be different,” echoed Steve, “and take campers out of this hyper-competitive team structure and have a good time. Kids who weren’t necessarily good athletes could participate in a big way in a lot of extravaganzas.” 

Gretchen sees extravaganzas as “on top of the special” that is the daily Kiniya routine. “For me, when I had that first extravaganza, everything was already so wonderful. The extravaganza is beyond wonderful. It’s that special event that stands out in your mind. It’s something that you look forward to throughout the session and then, after it happens, spend the rest of the session talking about.”

Maybe that’s what has kept extravaganzas thrumming with such fervor for all these years—their ability to seamlessly emphasize the strengths of the many and the outlet for creativity it gives leaders and campers alike.

Or maybe it’s as simple as Magdalena put it, “It’s stuck around because it’s so much fun.”

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