In the 1932 Syllabus yearbook, five members of Lambda Chi Alpha pose together. Four are clowns. Another wears blackface. The NU Circus had come to town.
In 1908, the NU Circus became a University tradition much like today’s Dance Marathon. It was a monumental fundraiser for the Young Women’s and Men’s Christian Association (YWCA, YMCA). At its peak in 1930, the circus raised $183,819 (when adjusted for inflation) with elephants, massive parades and incredible university support.
At the beginning, the circus was hardly a blockbuster event. It was originally a YWCA fundraiser for the Northwestern Settlement, a home for Polish, German, Irish and Scandinavian immigrants. Called “The County Fair,” those early iterations of the circus took place outside of Willard Hall, with circus– goers meandering through booths selling trinkets and Christmas decorations.
In 1910, the YMCA joined the cause, and Northwestern renamed the event: “The College Carnival.” Later, the location moved to “The Big Top,” the recently built Patten Gymnasium. The 1913 Syllabus yearbook highlighted the impact of the new location, saying: “The new Gymnasium offered ample opportunity for really elaborate arrangements . . . A large bill of students appeared, including a circus, a vaudeville show and the famous Red-headed Band.” The circus exploded from there.
It was in 1914 that the circus board decided to create an “oldfashioned circus with a parade and all that goes with it,” according to the 1928 Syllabus yearbook. This change allowed student groups to create floats. One float in 1922 characterized “The N-U Spirit” as “laziness, dates, lack of unity, indifference of students, faculty and alumni.” These floats cruised down Sheridan Road with multiple platforms, meticulously painted words and interactive exhibits; memorable displays include a steamroller and a dinosaur float.
The circus kept growing, and by 1924, a water circus debuted on campus. It was so well received that the circus board brought it back the following year. Four Northwestern Olympians – Sybil Bauer, Caroline Smith, Ralph Beyer and Richard Howell – helped to organize and plan the event. This exhibit of speed and agility became so popular that the performers had three shows in 1930, and in 1931, the Water Circus featured “fancy diving” and a “fraternity motor boat race.” The 1928 circus program advertised, “the world’s greatest aggregation of human fish – the only water circus in the country,” which cost just 50 cents to attend. Many considered it a highlight of the circus.
Northwestern Greek Life served as one of the circus’ greatest supporters. Greek houses hosted their own events around campus, including shows in the Big Top. In 1929, Sigma Nu hosted the “Americanized Bull Fight” and Delta Tau Delta ran “Grecian Urn.” During that year, the University only gave awards to sororities and fraternities. Certain events focused entirely on Greek life, including the “intersorority relays.” Award categories included a clown contest, a side ring contest, a center ring stunt contest and and an all-circus cup.
The circus also had its share of bigotry. On November 22, 1910, The Daily Northwestern reported that “Indians decked with war-paint and robes skulked among the whites,” and in 1929, Beta Sigma Omicron hosted an “Indian Pow Wow.” In some photos, clowns wear outfits that resembled those of the Ku Klux Klan and many students wore blackface. In one parade photo, a crowd of clowns head down Sheridan in white robes and pointed hats.
The theme of suffrage also emerged at the circus. One parade float read: “Senators Arise! There’s a Lady in the crowd.” The poster endorsed Ruth Hanna McCormick’s bid to the House of Representatives.
While politics and racism made a significant impression around campus, fireworks made a bang in the sky in 1931. The circus fired off Northwestern’s “largest display of fireworks” over the lake on both Friday and Saturday nights, and the circus board praised it as “a fitting climax to the Circus program.” The fireworks display ended with an American flag “waving high in the breeze in various colors.” This event was free to all circus-goers.
Despite the circus’ incredible success, it ended in 1933, after the Northwestern University Sesquicentennial newsletter called it “the biggest and best [circus] ever.” The University decided that it took too much time away from its core purpose: academics. The following year, a “Greek Fraternity Ball” took its place in the calendar year and the Big Top never rose again.