The Animated Magazine Comes to Life
By Mary Seymour ’80
Photos courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections
To fully understand the intent and reach of the Animated Magazine, one needs to gain some understanding of Hamilton Holt, Rollins’ eighth president. No easy task, given the complexity of this charismatic man, who lived his life in three acts: journalist, international peace activist, and educator.
By the time Holt came to Rollins in September 1925, he had spent two decades as editor of The Independent, a progressive weekly magazine of national influence. He’d written a book about the lives of common men and rubbed shoulders with U.S. presidents. After stepping down as editor of The Independent in 1921, Holt redoubled his efforts to bring America into the peace-minded League of Nations. In 1924, he was the Democratic Party’s pick for the U.S. Senate seat for Connecticut but lost by a landslide. With his life at a crossroads, Holt received a letter from author Irving Bacheller, a frequent Independent contributor, friend, and trustee of Rollins. Bacheller asked if Holt was interested in becoming president of the College. The answer was a definite yes.
Holt had no experience as an educator, but he had a P. T. Barnum-esque gift for showmanship as well as firm ideas about learning. He upended traditional notions of college education, instituting a “conference plan” that called for student-centered classrooms dominated by enormous oval tables, with teachers serving as supportive resources rather than strict authority figures. The fact that Rollins trustees and faculty agreed to this radical plan—even embraced it—is testament to Holt’s charisma.
His first faculty appointment went to Edwin Grover, who was anointed “Professor of Books,” in winking agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that “colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and I think no chair is so much wanted.” In another publicity-savvy gesture, Holt appointed writer Corra May Harris ’27H “Professor of Evil.” Her course on the definition and nature of evil garnered plenty of press, including a TIME magazine piece in 1930 that quoted her: “Evil is one of the oldest classics of human nature. It is usually taught by people morally illiterate and mentally corrupt, when it should be an important part of the education of youth.”
The Animated Magazine was a shrewd publicity move but also a genuine effort to bring culture to the swampy hinterlands of Central Florida. Holt had countless literary and political connections and was eager to put them in service to the College. In a further act of canny showmanship, he created a new tradition: Founders’ Week, held in February to celebrate the College’s inception. In fact, Rollins was chartered in April 1885, and its first classes were held in November of that year. February had nothing to do with the College’s founding, but it was a balmy time of year in Florida—a time when famous people were most likely to accept a speaking invitation, and a little college might attract big crowds and even bigger press.
Holt’s instincts were spot on. The Animated Magazine grew steadily in size and fame over the years, keeping pace with (and, to some degree, inspiring) Florida’s booming tourist trade. TIME touted the event in 1932; for years, CBS Radio in New York broadcast selections and the New York Herald Tribune published the program event in its magazine section. At its peak in the ’30s, “Animag” attracted 8,000 to 10,000 people, who traveled by bus, train, and car to sit on bleachers and campstools in the Sandspur Bowl (the Rollins College playing field), the only venue large enough to accommodate the masses. Dressed in their Sunday best, they good-naturedly packed together in sardine-like circumstances, creating a literal sea of people. Remarkably, the Animated Magazine was only rained out twice. On those occasions, it was held in Knowles Memorial Chapel and the Congregational Church in Winter Park; speakers were taxied between both venues to present their contributions.
Holt’s far-flung, high-flown acquaintanceships brought a remarkable parade of luminaries to campus. Speakers included journalist Edward R. Murrow ’49H; actors Mary Pickford ’52H, Greer Garson ’46H, and James Cagney ’55H; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover; civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune ’49H; U.S. Army Generals Omar Bradley and Jonathan Wainwright ’48H; and authors Carl Sandburg ’40H, Willa Cather, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ’39H. Each paid his or her own traveling expenses and did not receive a speaking fee—again, remarkable proof of Holt’s powers of persuasion. Many received honorary degrees from the College.
Not everyone, however, fell under President Holt’s spell. Robert Frost owed a debt of gratitude to Holt, who, in his days as editor of The Independent, was the first to publish Frost’s work. The famously crusty poet acknowledged the debt but nevertheless turned down Holt’s invitation to speak at the 1936 Animated Magazine, writing:
I can never be drawn into a show like your living magazine. My talents, such as they are, don’t lend themselves to crowded programs. It is the rarest thing for anyone to ask me to speak or read in chorus. People have learned that my modest kind of entertainment is better when it has the occasion all to itself.
The 1936 edition was hampered in far bigger ways than Frost’s peevish refusal: several days before the magazine was to be “published,” Holt’s wife died of pneumonia. Within 24 hours of her death, Grover’s wife was killed in an automobile accident. That tragic time marked the first—and only—year an issue of the Animated Magazine was canceled.