"In between the tents the crowd jostled
and laughed. Barkers in fantastic costumes rivalled each other
in advertising their attractions.
Bewitching girls in German costume sold
pretzels and sandwiches and enticed crowds to the German restaurant.
The candy, lemonade, and ice-cream booths were surrounded by a
continual throng, until the demand exceeded the supply and business
stopped. . . . Into the retreat of the gypsy fortune tellers went
anxious or expectant faces, and out came smiling or crestfallen
ones. The fun grew fast and furious. Then, when the last ice-cream
cone had vanished, the last performance had ended, and the booths
began to be shorn of their gay streamers, the merry company broke
up amid shouts of laughter and congratulations on the success
This is not an early account of a country
fair but a description of the 1910 Northwestern Circus, then known
as the College Carnival, that appeared in that years Liberal
Arts syllabus. By 1932, the last year it was held, the "The
Worlds Great Collegiate Circus," as it was billed,
looked like the genuine article complete with a parade,
a midway, sideshows, trapeze acts and even the occasional elephant.
Introduced in 1908 by the YWCA as a fundraiser
for the University Settlement, the circus (then called the County
Fair) was held in Willard Hall, where "there was little room
for stunts and more attention was given to the booths where dainty
eatables and Christmas gifts were sold." In 1910, the YWCA
joined forces with its counterpart mens organization, changed
the events name and its venue (to Patten Gymnasi-um) and
expanded the program to include a circus, a vaudeville show and
"the famous Red-headed Band."
The circus was held every year except
1918, during the nations entry into World War I. By the
1920s, the circus was a highly anticipated and well-choreographed
annual fund-raising event that brought together the University
community with socialites from Chicago and the North Shore.
In the 20s and early 30s, the circus was
organized mostly by fraternities and sororities and grew so large
that it took a board of 48 students and almost an entire years
planning to pull it off. The 1932 syllabus described the annual
event as a "high pinnacle . . . even higher above any other
college circus on any basis."
Truth be told, there is no evidence that
any other colleges ever held circuses, but in 1931, the Northwestern
myth was held as fact. A huge three-ring "tent" show
was constructed in Patten Gymnasium, "rivalling any but the
greatest of the professional circuses in size, a lot
north of the gym filled with many more and larger concessions
and attractions, made this years production live up to the
expression, a part for every student, even more than
in the past."
The account in the 1932 syllabus proved
somewhat apocryphal, however. Legend has it that 1932s was
the biggest and best Northwestern Circus ever. It was also the
last. Before the Big Top folded and the last elephant left the
ring in Patten Gymnasium, the administration cancelled future
circuses because planning the event took too much time from the
real purpose of the University.