Joan Harrison ’81

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hailing from a family of six children in Westbury, New York, as a freshman Harrison felt a bit at sea. But in her first semester she was blown away by a Mask & Wig show. She knew it was open only to men and had the idea of creating Penn’s first performing arts group for women. She stayed on campus that summer to lay the groundwork. That September, with the help of her roommates Amy Albert and Barbara Finklestein, Harrison founded a group she called Bloomers, named for the journalist and suffragette Amelia Bloomer. The group was the first all-female musical sketch comedy troupe in the nation.

At the time, Penn was less than 30% female, and Bloomers was the only creative environment on campus where women could take charge in writing comedy and showcase their comedy talents. The crew and band were also female, and remain so. Harrison directed the first show, “Fruit of the Bloomers,” which debuted in March 1979, and fell in love with the creative process. So she shelved the idea of going to law school, and started interning at television networks in Philadelphia. After graduation, she went on to build a long career in television mostly as a network programmer in Los Angeles.

Founding Bloomers greatly influenced Harrison’s career, and in 2015 she wanted to give back in a meaningful way. She founded the Bloomers Alumnae Association hoping to solidify the Bloomers community–there are more than 500 former Bloomers–and give the the troupe financial support. She and a handful of her Bloomers classmates have come together as if they never stopped being friends. They vacation together and talk constantly.

And the relationship between the alumnae association and the current troupe is also blooming. There is an annual Alumnae Retreat during which alums draw upon their professional expertise and life experience to help younger alumnae learn practical skills to ease into life after Penn. Harrison says that the younger Bloomers give the alumnae “hope for the future in these trying times.” The alumnae especially admire the “fierceness of our students.” She thinks that there is “something to be said about learning to manage fear and instilling confidence when you do comedy on stage…when you write it, when you perform it, when you contribute to producing it.”

As for advice for budding artists, Harrison says “practice, practice, practice” meaning: keep writing, keep performing and keep refining your talents, especially in a competitive field like comedy. Harrison has complete confidence in Penn grads trying to make it in Entertainment. She said that pretty much everyone finds their footing, and praises the LA alumni network in Entertainment for how it supports young grads.