Each day from noon until 1 p.m., the bells of South College ring out across campus, playing tunes from the Wesleyan Fight Song to the theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” However, few students or faculty know of Bell and Scroll, the somewhat secret society of students who climb the steep spiral staircase at the top of South College to play the bells each weekday.
The name Bell and Scroll comes from the bells they play, and the name of the group’s first member, Holly Schroll ’02, according to Professor of German Studies Peter Frenzel, who oversees the bell ringers.
The room that houses the bells is cramped and dusty, and Frenzel noted the peeling paint on the walls as he expressed his desire for the University to hire someone to clean the room once a week.
Despite the condition of the room, it is home to the six members of Bell and Scroll. The small room contains the levers that control the bells as well as a smaller practice station, which rings a set of chimes that can only be heard within the bell room. A small window looks out over High Street, and in one corner stands a desk covered in sheet music, including “The Wesleyan Song Book,” “The Disney Collection” and “71 Great Hits From Today (circa 1969)”. The notes to “Umbrella,” by Rihanna, are written out on a piece of scrap paper.
The six members of Bell and Scroll split up the week, with four students playing alone each day and two splitting the fifth day between them.
This past Friday, one of its members, S.F., who wishes to remain anonymous, sat down at the bells and opened a book of popular sheet music to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Fists descended onto the heavy wooden levers, moving up and down the instrument in quick circles.
Ringers decide which songs to play on their own, and many members of Bell and Scroll have chosen contemporary music over more traditional bell tunes.
“Some people in the group play church hymns,” S.F. said. “I like playing things people will recognize. I’ve taken some popular tunes and modified them for the bells. Stuff like Coldplay, Dave Matthews and the Harry Potter theme.”
The only song S.F. is sure to play each week is the Fight Song, which closes each performance.
“This is one song you can’t mess up,” S.F. said.
South College has housed the campus bells since the original 11 were donated to the University in 1918 during Stephen Olin’s presidency. The original set of bells required more than one ringer and it soon fell into silent disrepair.
In 1966, the bells were rescued by an anonymous donation, which paid for five new bells and a complete renovation of the system. The anonymous donor was later discovered to be President Victor Butterfield, who donated the money in his last year as president.
In 2005, several years after the creation of Bell and Scroll, the South College Bells officially became a carillon—a set of 23 bells or more—thanks to the donation of an additional eight new bells.
“We have 24,” Frenzel said. “We’re just qualified.”
The Royal Dutch Bell Foundry cast the bells in Holland, and in September 2005 they were installed over a period of three weeks. The installation of the bells was a tricky process, considering that the largest new bell weighed 693 pounds. They were hoisted by crane into the South College tower and installed with the use of precision lasers.
Today Bell and Scroll, as well as the entire student body, enjoy the South College Bells.
“You get to play a concert once a week,” S.F. said. “What musician doesn’t want that?”
The following Monday, A.I., another member of Bell and Scroll, opened an hour-long performance with the Fight Song. It is A.I.’s peel, a signature tune that some ringers use to identify themselves when they play.
“It’s a way to tell who’s up here,” A.I. said. “It’s like your identification.”
The peel is just one aspect of the secretive nature of Bell and Scroll. Although the group is not officially a secret society, its members enjoy their anonymity, particularly while playing the bells.
“When you’re playing there’s no performance anxiety even though you’re performing in front of a ton of people,” A.I said.
However, as Professor Frenzel pointed out, the instrument has one fatal flaw.
“The only problem is that if you make a mistake everyone hears,” he said.