The East Coast had Woodstock—a counter-culture music fest for the 70s hippie generation. The Midwest had Sleeze Lake…never heard of it? Sleeze Lake was a giant party put on by Midwestern counter-culture hippies that took place on Memorial Day in 1977. This incredible event is documented in Nick Nummerdor & Andrew J. Morgan’s Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest & Best.
Sleeze Lake is a fictional resort created just on the outskirts of Chicago. The documentary revolves around a group of disaffected Americans looking for some semblance of community in a post-Vietnam America. They hit the open road in vans that were converted into essentially Shag-carpeted mobile shacks. These folks needed to unwind and detach from the capitalistic grind they were living.
A “van club” would be formed called Midwest Vans Ltd, and on Memorial Day weekend in 1977, the club built its own utopia around a small pond just outside the city and dubbed “Sleeze Lake.” Instead, what should have been a small gathering turned into the biggest party no one ever heard of. It’s so unknown that Wikipedia has no page dedicated to the event.
Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest & Best is a documentary with the singular goal of capturing the history of this amazing pond party for posterity. Like many of these off-the-grid stories, no one outside the actual event ever heard of it, and when looking back, it generates a flood of nostalgia from those involved and equally incredible comes the fact that Sleeze Lake ever happened.
“…built its own utopia around a small pond just outside the city and dubbed ‘Sleeze Lake.'”
The documentary pieces together Sleeze Lake’s history as best it can, considering photos and film were the only way to capture real-life events at that time. Nummerdor and Morgan interview some of the remaining organizers and participants and present dozens of archival photos and films from the event. What the documentarians had available was limited, but they do a fantastic job adding some movie magic to make every piece of history look exciting and make us feel like we were there.
Sleeze Lake boasted over 5,000 vans, 15,000 attendees, an all-night boogie, and the world’s largest kazoo band at its height. What’s also amazing is that as large as this event got, there was no formal organization running it and no organization in running it. Like all cool movements, who needs permits or security to ensure its participants’ safety. Fifteen thousand attendees running around with no structure, what could possibly go wrong? It’s also the 70s, so I’m sure there was a lot of medication around in case someone got sick, ill, or bored.
Again, this documentary exists for posterity’s sake. Sleeze Lake is still there today, but it’s a shadow of its former self. We’ve already heard similar stories of veterans’ hardships returning from Vietnam and the mess the United States was left in post-war and post-Watergate. Still, the documentary is fascinating to watch and informative regarding a time not so long ago.
Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest & Best wisely runs at just under an hour and worth watching for anyone fond of Americana and modern American History, and for anyone who wants to hear about something completely insane that really happened. It may also spark a few ideas for anyone wanting to unplug from our current problems and escape.
"…Fifteen thousand attendees running around with no structure, what could possibly go wrong?"