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  Northwestern University
January 25, 2001
Vol. 16, No. 14  
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Northwestern Circus Northwestern Circus }
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Northwestern Circus was one of University's greatest shows

"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 achieved."

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 year’s Liberal Arts syllabus. By 1932, the last year it was held, the "The World’s 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 men’s organization, changed the event’s 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 nation’s 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 year’s 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 year’s 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 1932’s 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.

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Monica Metzler, Director. 847-491-1500; . Last revised 03/09/01.
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