On July 31, J.K. Rowling — and her beloved fictional character — celebrate their birthdays. Bryn Mawr regularly shows up on lists like the “Top 10 Colleges for Potterheads” and every four years the campus goes all in as a Hogwarts doppelgänger with a themed dinner celebrating all things Harry Potter.
To celebrate the birthday of the world’s most famous wizard and his creator, we’re sharing a behind-the-scenes look by Hannah Chinn ’19 at what it takes to pull off the special event.
“It looks a little like Hogwarts exploded in my office,” Richard Clow apologizes when I step through the door.
He’s not wrong. On the day of my visit, less than a week before Bryn Mawr College’s famous Hogwarts Dinner, every surface in the Dining Services Assistant Director’s room is piled high with Rowling-esque props. There are Ministry of Magic “Wanted” posters on the table and a Ravenclaw banner unscrolled under the window, a box of wands and a bag of prefect pins sitting on the floor. I catch glimpses of other relics from past holiday dinners as well — a Captain America shield, an astronaut mask, a blue lightsaber.
The first Hogwarts-based dinner that Bryn Mawr Dining Services hosted was eight years ago; they host one every four years. Themed “special dinners” have long been a staple of campus life, but in the fall of 2010, the managers were determined to do something that had never been done before.
“Someone suggested that we do it in [College Hall],” Richard recalls, “and it kind of snowballed from there.” That year, they managed to pull the dinner together in just under three weeks, an achievement that he acknowledges was “a little ambitious.”
For the second Hogwarts dinner four years later, they partnered with the Deans’ Office and started early: planning décor, “casting” for well-known characters, and even booking a wizard rock band.
The third and most recent iteration of Bryn Mawr’s Hogwarts Dinner is by far the most formidable. Students reserve tickets according to their chosen house weeks before the event — free admission is limited to Bryn Mawr students only (sorry, Haverford). The dinner itself, as well as the following Yule Ball, features a hall full of floating candles, house heads in full costume, an a cappella performance, two wizard rock bands, and Clow’s hand-carved wands. (He started carving them in 2014 and “got carried away,” he says; now, he goes to ComicCon every year and sells them as a side hobby. “I’d never done anything like it before, but it’s kind of funny how much people want them.”)
It’s not just Hogwarts, though. Bryn Mawr Dining Services has hosted award-winning special dinners for years, featuring all kinds of themes: Moulin Rouge, Star Wars, Marvel vs. DC. “It takes at least one of us [managers] being really into the theme,” says Clow, “and usually it’s Steven [Sensenich], Ray [Bevidas] or me.”
He laughs. “Steven’s always been big on making costumes, doing props. He did it that way before any of us even conceived of it. I don’t know how he finds time for it, he’s instrumental in all of this … when he did Star Wars he made all these Ewok hats. By hand.”
“We have a costume closet back there with quite a lot in it,” he adds, gesturing across the room. “We try to keep everything in case we use it again.”
The students may be on break this July, but BMCDS isn’t. In addition to hosting summer events on campus, Clow says, they pitch and plan all their fall specials — culminating with the holiday dinner, of course — over the summer months. “Every year we like to challenge ourselves: how can we make this more fun? More interesting? The food’s always great, but one of the components of this is the production value … how can we enhance a costume, or do a new set piece, or have better props?”
Because the primary motive of special dinners, Clow says, isn’t really the awards or the pictures. It’s the excitement of each new project.
“No one tells [BMCDS] to do these things, we just choose to do them. I think it’s just part of our department.” He pauses. “It’s a point of pride for us, I guess.”