That Streaking Fad

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On April 2, at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, a naked man ran across the stage as David Niven was reading an introduction. Niven was shaken but recovered his customary urbanity fast enough to quip, “Just think, the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings.” The incident marked the high point—or low, if you prefer—of a practice that vied with Pet Rocks for the coveted title of Dumbest Fad of the 1970s: streaking.

Streaking, or running naked through a public place, began on college campuses in the late fall and winter of 1973. Unsurprisingly, it was most popular at warm-weather schools. At the University of Georgia the phenomenon grew and grew until more than fifteen hundred people participated in a mass streak. Students finally had to parachute naked onto the Georgia campus to attract any attention. (Seventy miles west, in Atlanta, after a few people had streaked a city bus, the driver was asked if they were male or female. He replied, “I couldn’t tell—they were wearing masks.”) Even in the North a few hardy souls challenged the elements, including groups in Calgary, Alberta (four degrees below zero), and Anchorage, Alaska (eight below). A different sort of bravery was shown by several dozen cadets who dared to streak West Point (and reportedly escaped without punishment).

By March streaking had become a nationwide craze. Time and Newsweek jumped all over the story, grateful (like National Geographic ) for any chance to print photographs of bare-breasted women. Academics and experts contributed their opinions as well. The Christian Century called streaking “an expression of praxis. … It is Kierkegaard’s leap of faith; Tillich’s courage to be.” A more likely explanation is that too much Kierkegaard and Tillich were what had made bored college students run around naked in the first place.

In Davie, Florida, residents of a local nudist colony turned the tables by running through town with clothes on. At Columbia University a group of forty naked men invaded all-female Barnard College in an attempt to recruit volunteers but, as usual, attracted no interest from the students there. The next day’s events showed the reason for Barnard’s standoffishness: When one bold woman disrobed and mounted the campus’s statue of Alma Mater, hordes of overeager Columbia men started pinching her until she had to be removed under protection.

Dozens of pop songs were rushed out to capitalize on the fad. Most successful was “The Streak,” by Ray Stevens, which stayed on top of Billboard’s sales chart for an improbable three weeks. Stevens was best known as a novelty artist, although his previous number one hit had been a serious-minded plea for love and tolerance titled “Everything Is Beautiful.” After countless newspaper photos of overweight streakers proved the falsehood of that title, Stevens went back to comedy, and while he never had another chart topper, he did achieve some success with a 1977 remake of “In the Mood” performed by clucking chickens.

Even a beleaguered President Nixon got in on the act. When asked about the gray hairs on his temple, the President replied, “They call that streaking”—generally conceded to be his best one-liner since “I am not a crook.” Comedians and cartoonists across the nation picked up on the theme of presidential streaking, with the phrase cover-up figuring prominently in most cases. Literary scholars recalled Bob Dylan’s prescient line from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: “Even the President of the United States must some times have to stand naked.”

And then it was all over. A month and a half after the Academy Awards incident, Dr. Joyce Brothers explained streaking’s sudden demise by saying, “The challenge of finding new and unusual ways to streak was no longer there.” Or maybe it was just finals. Whatever the explanation, streaking vanished from America’s college campuses, to be reborn in the 1980s and 1990s in the guise of “Coed Naked” sports and “Nude Olympics.” The revival demonstrated once again the truth of Karl Marx’s famous dictum as applied to American popular culture: History repeats itself—the first time as travesty, the second as farce.