CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — What exactly is a hasty pudding? Funny, actress Michelle Pfeiffer asked the same question.
Hasty pudding is cornmeal, milk, and molasses, but 200 years ago, when the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard College was formed, the name of that simple dish took on a new meaning.
Now, each winter the Hasty Pudding Theatricals stages its traditional all-male comedy revue, and to kick the season off, the members choose a woman who has made ``lasting contributions to the field of entertainment'' as their Woman of the Year.
Last week, Ms. Pfeiffer, star of ``Age of Innocence'' and ``Batman,'' graciously accepted her corny prize - a brass pudding pot. And today, Tom Hanks (of ``Philadelphia'' and ``Forrest Gump'' fame), will be named Man of the Year to inaugurate opening night of ``A Tsar is Born,'' this year's Hasty Pudding production.
``This is probably some of the most fun I've ever had,'' Pfeiffer said at a press conference on Feb. 13. ``It's a really good time,'' she said of her day at Harvard, which included lunch with the officers of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a short parade through Cambridge, and her own sneak preview of ``A Tsar is Born.'' (The show, set in 19th-century Russia, has a plot about townsmen who must find brides in order to evade eviction. The catch is no women have been seen for 20 years.)
The Hasty Pudding Club started with a group of students meeting secretly in their dormitory rooms to eat hasty pudding, relax, and shoot the breeze. Soon bored with talk, the men began parodying the debate societies that proliferated on campus in the early 1800s.
In 1844, the mock trials were replaced by a rowdy rendition of ``Bombastes Furiousos,'' a popular show at the time. In a dormitory room, the fellows dropped their decorum and dolled themselves up for the women's parts. Thus began the long tradition of drag musicals that has continued, except for a four-year hiatus during World War II.
In the 1950s, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals branched off from the Hasty Pudding Club, which still exists as a social club with a membership of about 200. Today, the club is coed, and though the cast of the theatricals is men only, women write, produce, and work behind the scenes in all capacities.
``The bottom line is that it's great entertainment,'' says Tamara Lipper, a senior who is one of three students with membership in both the Hasty Pudding Club and the theatricals.
``It's great experience to put on a professional-quality show and just be a bunch of college kids,'' says Liz Levy, a 1993 Harvard graduate who worked in the Hasty Pudding's business office and on its technical crew for three years.
Individuals who performed in the undergraduate Hasty Pudding Theatricals and then went on to achieve fame of a different kind include: Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, actor Jack Lemmon, and Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Actors and actresses from Elizabeth Taylor to Steve Martin, and Robert Redford to Jodie Foster have been named Woman or Man of the Year since 1951 for women, and 1967 for men.
The Pudding comedies run every night for a month in Cambridge, then travel to New York and Bermuda. Ms. Levy says meeting the famous performers and the week in the Caribbean are nice perks but ``that's not the whole story,'' she says.
Affiliation with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals makes students a part of a rich tradition, the students say. ``It's a legend that deserves its longevity,'' Ms. Lipper says.Former Harvard undergraduates who performed in the theatricals include a Supreme Court justice, a newspaper baron, a Hollywood actor, and a Massachusetts governor.