Vassar’s raucous, sold-out bi-annual parties at The Chance Theater, Poughkeepsie’s punky music venue, are a long-running staple of the school’s social scene. But the beloved location of “50 Nights,” Vassar’s yearly celebration of seniors’ waning time on campus, now finds itself in the middle of a national controversy.
The Chance Theater’s owner, Frank Pallett, has come under fire from Hudson Valley residents for his decision to invite country band Confederate Railroad—a group whose logo features a steam engine flying the Confederate flag—to perform at the venue on Sept. 20.
Confederate Railroad was once an acclaimed band within the country music scene. The group has released numerous charting albums via Atlantic Records since their formation in 1987, and their 1993 hit “Trashy Women” even earned the group a Grammy nomination. Yet this summer, the band has lost gigs at two local fairs—one in Illinois, and one in Poughkeepsie’s bordering Ulster County.
The Ulster County Agricultural Society removed Confederate Railroad from the fair’s lineup just one week before their scheduled performance in the face of protests from community members. Ulster County residents took to social media to decry the band’s moniker and logo as offensive emblems of racism and white supremacy. The band’s performance was also a direct violation of the Ulster County Agricultural Society’s license to use the county fairgrounds, which prohibits the sale of merchandise with Confederate Flag imagery.
After news of Confederate Railroad’s Ulster County cancellation broke, Pallett jumped to welcome the group to The Chance, located in Ulster’s eastern neighbor, Dutchess County.
All of The Miscellany News’ attempts to reach Pallett were denied. When I requested to speak with Pallett, The Chance Theater’s receptionist stated that he is out of town until after Labor Day. Editor-in-Chief Mack Liederman ’20 later went to The Chance in hopes of taking photos of the space for this article, but was told that reporters from The Miscellany News would not be permitted into the building.
Pallett has, however, been direct with other publications on his stance: He does not see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate. Pallett insisted to Spectrum News reporter Ben Nandy, “As far as anybody saying the band is racist or that we have any racist bones in our body is ridiculous. There’s room for interpretation that [the Confederate flag] represents the South, not necessarily racism.”
Pallett also urged Poughkeepsians to be more open-minded toward the flag’s multifaceted symbolisms.
Professor of Political Science Katherine Hite is one Poughkeepsie resident in vehement opposition to Pallett’s excuses. She asserted, “As a professor who grew up in Texas and made the city of Poughkeepsie home, I suggest this self-proclaimed ‘history buff’ pick up the Texas secession or any of the secessions, look at the principles, and tell me with a straight face that this still represents Southern culture. We Southerners are appalled. It appalls and saddens me. I remember my son going to concerts at The Chance.”
The Confederate Railroad has garnered attention from news outlets such as Rolling Stone, CNN and USA Today this summer for its impassioned refusal to change its band name. The group’s founding member and David Shirley has bemoaned “political correctness” gone amok as the reason for the uproar. Shirley, the group’s lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, sees the backlash as an attempt by Northern city dwellers to suppress Southern rural culture.
I attempted to contact The Confederate Railroad for comment, but the group’s representative Travis James swiftly rebuffed my request. In his response, James lamented that objective journalism was rare these days, and offered an unsolicited comment about the political leanings of one of my family members.
Whether Pallett’s decision will impact Vassar’s lengthy relationship with The Chance remains unknown. The Senior Class Council organizes “50 Nights” each spring, but its incoming president Heather Phan Nguyen ’20 declined to comment on the matter, as the council has yet to meet in person to discuss their course of action regarding the controversy.
Vassar Student Association’s Programming Committee, which organizes Vassar’s fall semester party at The Chance, also has yet to confer about their response. But Chair of Programming Emily Chong ’21 expressed in an email correspondence that the Confederate Railroad performance will undoubtedly influence how she approaches event planning in the upcoming school year. “It is disappointing that The Chance is not listening to what the community has to say about the band and has not acknowledged the racist values associated with the image,” she stated. “Supporting a venue that does not see the harm in the Confederate flag, in my opinion, conflicts with Vassar’s values.”
Chong also emphasized that Vassar’s campus-wide parties could easily be held elsewhere. “Different venues for this event have been discussed in the past. The Chance is not the only venue in Poughkeepsie, and I am sure if we start planning early, we can find another place if needed that can accommodate our event size,” she shared. “I want everyone to feel welcome at our events, and we want the whole campus to have the opportunity to come together and have a good time in a comfortable space.”
The Confederate Railroad are set to take the stage alongside fellow country groups Whiskey Crossing, 90 Proof and Farmer Phil Band.