History of the ThurtenE Carnival

The first ThurtenE Carnival was still twenty-eight years into the future when its proverbial grandfather appeared at Washington University.  The “Younivee Surrkuss,” was the conception of the Senior Men’s Honorary, Pralma. Touted as a “Grand Gigantic Galaxy of Gorgeous Glittering Generalities,” the event took place on May 8, 1907 and lasted seven hours.

The festival was run much like a real circus and featured sideshows and a main attraction.  General admission was ten cents, sideshows were a nickel, and proceeds were donated to the Athletic Association.  The side shows made claims of dubious sincerity and featured things as “Wahsousa, the Three Legged Wonder.”  This, incidentally, turned out to be nothing more than a three-legged chair chained to a post.  Dual performances of the main show contained a tightrope act, magic tricks, acrobats, and a quartet.  With a crowd of approximately 400, the event was declared a success.

In the following nine years, the Surrkuss remained located at Francis Field, but changed its name several times in what seemed to be an ongoing joke.  Before a general consensus of “Univee Surrkuss” was reached in 1912, the event also went by the likes of “Younivee Surrkuss,” “U-N-I-V Surrkuss,” “Pikeway Surrkuss,” and “Univee Surrkuss.”

In 1910, Pralma changed the main attraction from a ring circus to a Vaudeville talent show in an effort to build the event's popularity. Rides also began appearing with the inclusion of a “Freshman Powered Merry-Go-Round” in 1914. The event was expanded further by the addition of a dance sponsored by the Sophomore Men’s Honorary, Lock and Chain.  

ThurtenE, 1907

Thyrsus, the university drama club, made the 1916 Surkuss one of the most talked about.  It produced a silent motion picture entitled “The Maid of McMillan.”  The story featured “Jack Tower, Captain of the Track Team, in love with Myrtle Maroon.”  Following a university track meet, Jack is seen retrieving Myrtle from McMillan Hall, the women’s dormitory at that time.  The two elope to Clayton but not before a bout with a couple of highwaymen.  Jack gives them the thrashing of their lives and the couple is married.  The film was considered to be quite good and was released to local theaters.  Don Stewart and Dan Bartlett, the writers of the script and the men who played the evil highwaymen, were members of ThurtenE. 

The May 5, 1917 edition of Student Life simple headlined “No Surkuss.”  And so it was, the Surkuss became another casualty of the Great War for the next two years.  In the spring of 1919, however, Francis Field was once again the site for the annual event.  ThurtenE Honorary participated in this and other Surkusses by running a soft-drink bar. Pralma made donations to various university organizations.  This was also a period in which St. Louis took notice of the Surkuss.  Films of the 1921 Surkuss were shown in local theaters in what could be considered the equivalent of television coverage.

Pralma did more than just sponsor the Surkuss, and began to concentrate its efforts into the “Pralma Vaudeville.” As a result, the Surkuss lay dormant from 1927-1929.  This made it possible for another student group, the Women’s Self Government Association, to try their hand at organizing the festival.  Relying primarily on the participation of fraternities and sororities, the event was located in the Field House as in previous years, but held in December.  Poor attendance and the vandalism of the scenery made this “Univee Karnival” a questionable success.  Since this revival attempts did not exactly encourage repeat performances, the Surkuss was not seen in any form from 1930-1933.

February 24, 1933 marked the establishment of the chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa at Washington University.  This National Senior Men’s Leadership Honorary was similar to the already established Pralma, and for a year, the two shared the campus.  As the months passed, the two societies began to realize their similarities and talk had turned to a possible merger.  Pralma, disappointed by the lack of interest in its annual Vaudeville, was also working to retrieve the Univee Surkuss once again.  In May of 1934, an announcement was made that Pralma would be absorbed by Omicron Delta Kappa and that the Surkuss would be the last official undertaking of the local honorary.

This event went by “Univee Carnival” and “Pralma Carnival” and was held on the parking lots south of the tennis courts.  This carnival featured games, concessions, and two rides.  The games were paid for by tickets which had to be purchased at a central ticket booth.  At the end of the two-day affair, the student groups with the most tickets won prizes.  Phi Delta Theta captured first, followed by none other than ThurtenE Honorary.  The Junior Society ran a game in which contestants tried to knock over milk bottles with baseballs.  

In the spring of 1935, Dean of Men, George Stephens spoke with the President of ThurtenE, Harry White.  The Dean opened the meeting by saying, “Harry, it is an honor to be in Thurtene and an even greater honor to be elected president, but an honorary should have a purpose.”  The two discussed new directions for the society until White proposed the idea of continuing the Carnival – an event which had no future at this time.  The ThurtenE Honorary contracted for the rides with D. D. Murphy Carnival Shows, and directed student groups as they planned for their booths.  “ThurtenE to Back Carnival May 17, 18” headlined Student Life on April 23, 1935, and the show was on.  Over 15,000 game tickets were sold at five cents each and Sigma Chi Fraternity took first place in receipts with its egg toss.  The profits from this “first” carnival were split between the Campus Y and the University Athletic Association.  The tradition assumed the name of its rescuers and has been known as “ThurtenE Carnival” ever since.  

Through the upcoming years, the springtime activity did not alter its format much, but did become part of a larger, “all-university” festival from 1940-1942.  This larger event was intended to attract area high school students to the University.  The weekend featured invitational high school track meets, fraternity open houses, exhibition baseball, physics demonstrations and, of course, ThurtenE Carnival.

Like World War I, the Second World War also created difficulties, and 1943 became the only year in which the Carnival was not held.  After this brief intermission, however, operations resumed and even included the faculty performing for donations.  A brief revival of the “all-university” carnival took place in 1948, but the event was dropped the following year. 

Each successive group of ThurtenE Honorary tried to outdo their predecessors as the Carnival grew in size and scope.  The event had now expanded to forty-three booths and several rides.  The Carnival was also relocated to the tennis court parking lots in 1949; it would remain there until 1983.  The Carnival expanded to include such unique attractions as live shows, a barber shop, a kissing booth, and a synchronized swimming exhibition held in Wilson Pool.  Phi Delta Theta introduced its annual movie in 1955, and it easily took first prize among all other attractions.  Facades in which live performances were shown became more elaborate each year as the structures began to dwarf everything in the midway.  This was not necessarily the best thing, as it made them more susceptible to the elements.  Fierce winds ripped through Carnival grounds in 1962, causing these wooden structures to collapse.  Two students working on the facades received minor injuries when the winds hit the night before the Carnival was to open.  The damage was thought to be extensive enough that local radio stations announced the cancellation of the Carnival.  While everyone frantically rebuilt, members of ThurtenE had to contact the media and “cancel the cancellation.” The event took place as scheduled, but the following year, restrictions on the size of facades were introduced.  

The annual event, which now contained forty-seven booths, nine facades, and six rides, was able to make several gifts to the Washington University community.  Among these were cash gifts to the Campus Y and the University Medical School as well as a basketball scoreboard, TV for the student center, a centennial flag for the University, and a set of Westminster chimes and exterior lighting for Graham Chapel.  In the 1970’s, the phrase “It’s For the Kids!” became a slogan as underprivileged children in the St. Louis community were brought in as the guests of ThurtenE.  Tens of thousands of people visited the Carnival each year, making it the largest student-run carnival in the United States.  Newspapers, radio, and television provided coverage of the event and the Mayor consistently declared carnival week as “ThurtenE Week in St. Louis.”

In 1982, the construction of the new athletic facilities made it evident that the Carnival had to be relocated. In the fall of the same year, the issue was debated. In light of the cost of the move and problems caused by the large crowds, University officials decided it best to cancel the Carnival.  Several articles in Student Life supported the decision, but these were soon shown to be full of inaccuracies.  Jim Burmeister, Advisor to ThurtenE, and Mitch Walker, President, met several times with the administration to see what could be done to save the tradition.  ThurtenE mounted a campaign to bolster support for the Carnival by enlisting the help of several student groups.  The Student Union responded by printing a full-page resolution in favor of ThurtenE.  Lisa Miller, the President of the Junior Women’s Honorary “Chimes,” instigated an important idea to raise money for the move.  The ideal called for a temporary raise in the Student Union fee; a motion that would provide half of the needed funds.  To be binding, the idea had to be put before a vote of the student body and the Student Union Elections were less than two weeks away. In the largest voter turnout in election history up to that point, the motion passed with a resounding 84% of the students in favor of the fee increase.

While busy with the elections, ThurtenE had also been researching ways to solve problems inherent in the move or the new location for the Carnival.  It was decided that a fence enclosing the carnival grounds as well as increased police force would solve the security problem.  Detailed plans were also made for installing the most costly component of the Carnival, the electrical system.  The impact of the student vote and these other plans encouraged the University to reconsider its decision.  They agreed to help with the funding and gave permission for the Carnival to be held on the parking lot in front of Brookings Hall.  The 1983 Carnival, the first in front of Brookings, was considered at the time to be the “best carnival ever.”  The event was expanded to include a record eighty lots and thirteen rides.  The Carnival was held without security problems or the anticipated monetary losses.  The success of the event was so impressive and reassuring that it was decided that ThurtenE Carnival should remain there for the foreseeable future. Due to major construction on the east end of campus in 2017, ThurtenE Honorary worked closely with administration to establish a new site for the Carnival. Many options were considered, but the Carnival now finds itself largely in the parking lots of the Athletic Complex and Simon Hall, where the tradition began so many years ago.