Dec. 31, 2009
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Spotlights shine on two swimmers in the pool performing a comedy skit. A packed crowd laughs at their antics. A full orchestra provides the soundtrack. An enormous backdrop gives the production a theatrical flair. On the deck are two gymnasts ready to amaze the crowd with their acrobatics. Throughout the life of the Fieldhouse Pool, this yearly event, known as the Dolphin Show, was as much a part of the pool’s history as the swimming and diving it was built for.
The history of the Dolphin Show stretches back to 1918, when the Eels Club was organized to promote aquatic sports at the University of Iowa. In 1921, the Eels Club consolidated with the Dolphins of Illinois to form the Dolphin Fraternity, Iowa served as the national headquarters of the fraternity. At first, the Dolphins did shows and exhibitions on the Iowa River, such as proper canoeing safety and life saving techniques. Over time, the Dolphins began producing elaborate annual shows, which became a yearly highlight for the participants, as well as the adoring fans. Swimmers and gymnasts would perform a wide range of acts, from trapeze stunts, to synchronized swimming, to even having an athlete, in a specialized suit, lit on fire and jump into the pool!
Three-time letterwinner and long-time “voice of Iowa Swimming” Bob Stein participated in Dolphin Shows during his time as an Iowa student (1951-1955). He describes a typical weekend of hard work, and fun, during a Dolphin Show.
“We would typically have an 8 p.m. show on Thursday and Friday, and then two shows on Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m. The admission price was $1, and with minimum wage being 50 cents per hour, a buck was significant. We would have acts going on in the pool as well as around the pool. We would have a big painted backdrop that was hung against the south wall. People would be flying on the trapeze and there would be skits going on in the pool.”
The shows not only entertained the audience, but were a great source of income for Iowa’s swimming program. With an entry price of $1 per-person, these shows could earn up to $8,000. Even when factoring in the expenses, such as the backdrop and the paint, the money was significant and helped fund various program activities and scholarships. Stein had a Dolphin Scholarship, so the money earned from these shows helped put him through school.
Preparation was crucial to the shows in order to ensure everything went as planned.
“We made sure all of the dangerous stunts, like the fire diver, were very safe,” says Stein. “This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation.
In 1977, the 55th and final Dolphin Show was performed because of concerns from new Swimming Coach Glenn Patton. He thought the time commitment towards these shows limited the swimming team’s potential to be a Big Ten and NCAA contender. It was a controversial decision, as the Dolphin Shows were very popular to students and alumni alike. No one will deny Patton’s success at Iowa, but the decision to end the Dolphin Shows ended decades of spectacular entertainment that helped define the history of the Iowa Field House Pool.