Jack Blum, Bill Murray, Russ Banham, Keith Knight, and Matt Craven in Meatballs, 1979. (Photo: Paramount/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives)

Almost 40 years ago, the Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray film Meatballs set the standard for summer-camp comedies. Murray was a new Saturday Night Live member, and Reitman took on directing his first mainstream movie after John Landis turned him down in favor of The Blues Brothers. Some more members of the successful crew from National Lampoon’s Animal House bonded together to make the film, most notably Harold Ramis, who needed his $1,700 screenwriting fee to buy some furniture. The team of Reitman, Ramis, and Murray would go on to even greater cinematic success in Stripes and Ghostbusters, but Meatballs was their breakthrough film.

For some reason, Vanity Fair is celebrating “summer of ’78” in 2017, and is featuring an oral history of Meatballs. As you might expect, there were a lot of hijinks both on and off camera. The filmmakers convinced an actual camp in Ontario to let them film there while camp was in session, using the campers as extras. This turned out to be disastrous when the young campers found extra life to be rather tedious. Location coordinator Kay Armatage recalled, “The campers started to mutiny and sabotage. It was wild… They deflated the tires of the dolly. And those tires, they weren’t filled with air. They were filled with hydrogen or something like that. It wasn’t a simple matter of just pumping up the tires again.”

Other cast and crew remember a lot of intermingling on the set (Jack Blum, who played Spaz, recollected, “I can certainly remember stealing a canoe and going out onto the lake in the middle of the night with more than one young lady, I can tell you”), as well as a party that resulted in sinking a boat on the lake. Even after the main shoot was over, the film underwent a major rewrite to focus on the relationship between Murray’s Tripper and Chris Makepeace’s shy young camper Rudy, which functions as the heart of the movie. It was a smart move to give more scenes to Murray: In his first top-billed movie, he was bound for stardom, as his own “it just doesn’t matter” speech makes perfectly clear, ensuring Meatballs’ cinematic success.

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