The History of Carnival

Each year's Spring Carnival at Carnegie Mellon University produces something unique, something that separates it from the last one. Spring Carnival is certainly the largest, costliest, most time-consuming, and highly anticipated event of the year at CMU. Started as a standard all-campus celebration, Carnival has become anything but. It is filled with the most important performances, most important competitions, and best parties of the year.

Modern day Carnivals evoke thoughts of sleek buggies, intricate booths, and high-profile concerts, but Carnival has not always existed in its current form. Carnival evolves with the will of the students, at times both officially interrupted by war and effectively interrupted by apathy. The path of Carnival's history is long and winding: many traditions have come, gone, or changed practically to the unrecognizable. Those same events seen as mainstays of the Carnegie Mellon year started respectively as a relay race based on Greek one-upsmanship; non-competitive bland fundraising booths; and a series of campus-wide, Institute-sponsored dances.

To celebrate this, the diamond anniversary of Carnival at Carnegie Mellon, The Tartan presents this condensed history of campus's eminent annual celebration.

Carnival Prehistory

The University-wide party we now call Carnival started in 1914, not long after Carnegie Tech was founded. It started as "May Day," and back then, school spirit events were were limited to individual schools: Applied Science, Applied Design, the Trade Schools, and the Women's School (later Margaret Morrison Carnegie College). By 1920, those events had merged and expanded into a cohesive celebration called Campus Week.

The first Campus Week saw the birth of one of the most unique and recognizable aspects of Carnival and Carnegie Mellon in general: Sweepstakes (then popularly called "BlitzBuggy" or just "Buggy"). The first buggy race started at 9:30 am on May 14, 1920, with what a witness called "a conglomeration of rain barrels with bicycle wheels, four wheeled orange crates, and three wheeled ash cans." The first few years saw the essence of Sweepstakes change rapidly. The original buggies were propelled by two-man teams composed of a pusher and a driver. Not long after the sport was invented, a pit stop was added to the course. All buggies were required to make pit stops, during which the team would do two things: first, switch the right and left rear wheels, and second, switch places themselves, so that the original pusher would drive for the second half of the course and vice versa. In 1926, the first multi-day buggy competition was held, using the time trials/finals system still in place today. That year, the buggy record was set at 3:22. In 1927, a fifth pusher was added to buggy teams; the following year, the course was altered to even up pushers' workloads.

In 1923, the girls on campus started a Sweepstakes event of their own, a scooter race. The scooter race soon turned into a roller skating race, which became an installation at early Campus Weeks and Carnivals. A long-standing tradition that began in 1922 was Call Day, during which the Campus Queen was crowned and all of the honor societies (Scimitar, Tau Beta Pi, Delta Skull, ODK, Cwens, etc.) on campus called the names of new members for induction.

By the end of the '20s, Campus Week was more popular and uncontrolled than ever. Raids on fraternities during 1929 and chaos on campus prompted President Baker to cancel Campus Week events for that year, partially as retribution and partially for the general safety of Tech's students and reputation. Buggy races were allowed to continue, but were the only event of the year. Students, disappointed with the lack of Institute-sponsored events, protested and worked with the administration to return Campus Week the following year. Spring Carnival was given administrative assent in winter 1930.

The 1930s

The first decade of Carnival proper was during the Depression, which hit Pittsburgh especially hard. The replacement of Campus Week with Carnival in 1930 was partially designed to combat the drab sentiment around Tech. Carnival combined the decade-old Sweepstakes race with Institute-wide social and competitive events. A float parade was established as the major design competition between houses, and nominations continued for the role of Campus Queen, a position that had existed in some form or another since 1922. The Campus Queendom was expanded from a titular role to an active leader during Carnival festivities.

The last spate of radical changes to buggy rules were made in the early part of the decade. The sport was officially named the Interfraternity, and new rules prevented varsity track athletes (and later, all varsity athletes) from pushing. Also, in 1932, the buggies competing in the design competition were made to race, after officials discovered that some entries in that contest in previous years could not actually roll. Finally, the first of the major buggy dynasties began in the '30s; Kappa Sigma won Sweepstakes every year between 1934 and 1942, with the exception of 1935.

Carnival during this period also marked the end of hazing for first-year Tech students. Every year, plebes - as the students were then called - were put through elaborate initiation rites. During Carnival, they were considered equals to the upperclass students for the first time, and they buried of a coffin full of their initiation rites to mark the occasion.

Back when Carnival started, entry was not free. Tickets, which cost $2 in 1930, were required to get into the dances that were the main Carnival events at the time. Admission tickets would allow a Tech student and his guest into Carnival's main ceremonies and dances. Outdoor events like buggy continued to be open. 1938 had the first Scotch 'n' Soda show, No Strings, held in Carnegie Music Hall. Their first show was underwritten by Westinghouse, and they have continued producing a show annually for Carnival since. Later S'N'S shows have taken place in Skibo Gym, Skibo Student Center, and the University Center.

The 1940s

Marked by subdued celebration during the war years, Carnival was the event that held campus together amidst crisis. Because of the war, campus shifted Carnival to the fall in 1941, even though the U.S. was not yet formally engaged, so that students graduating in December could have a carnival. The first Fall Carnival took place in October, and the last took place the following year. Spring Carnivals were still held during both years, but were much smaller, with no Sweepstakes or other signature events. The 1942 buggy races were postponed from May to October, and the next three years' were canceled entirely. In 1945, an already-abbreviated Carnival (scheduled to last only one day) was canceled entirely because of President Roosevelt's death. The 1945 Campus Queen was crowned after Greek Sing; other traditional events were not held. One item of note from 1942 was the Carnival theme: "Coney Island." The first Ferris wheel at a Tech Carnival appeared as a result.

The end of the decade paralleled the post-war boom with resurgence in spirit. The war cut Kap Sig's buggy victory streak short, and after it was over the house could not regain its former glory, possibly due to membership changes. Instead, the second dynasty began; Delta Tau Delta won every year from 1946 to 1952 with the exception of 1947, when Delta Upsilon took the top honor for the only time in its history.

Food has been an important, if not oft-thought-of, part of Carnival since the very beginning. As late as 1946, sororities were selling food as their booth fundraisers, but in 1949 Alpha Phi Omega took over concessions duties with a stand in the center of the midway, and it remains Carnival's food purveyor to this day.

1947 saw the restoration of one longtime Carnival tradition only previously run in 1939: the canoe tilt. The canoe tilt involved two teams of two people at a time standing in canoes in Panther Hollow Lake. Each team would attempt to knock the other into the lake by shaking the other canoe, wrestling, or fencing with oars; the dry team at the end of the single-elimination competition was the winner.
Student organizations have always been involved in Carnival. In 1947, WCIT (now WRCT) held a music contest before festivities began as a creative way of announcing the Carnival bands. The station played songs by each of the two Carnival bands from that year, and announced that it would give free tickets, valued at $15, to the first caller who could identify the artist and title of both songs.

The 1950s

The '50s were the peak of Carnival as it evolved from a largely mobile format, between Sweepstakes and the parade, into a more stationary form. With the 1950s came the advent of competitive booths and a larger scale midway than had previously been constructed. Booths brought with them the end of float construction. Several changes were made to primary Carnival events in the 1950s: Among them 1953's addition of a large sorority Tug-o-War competition and 1954's plank jousting for men and RolleRelay for women, which would continue for over 20 years.

Plank jousting was sort of an evolved version of canoe tilting. Combatants from teams of fraternity men were put on wooden planks over mud pits. Each jouster was given a pillow, and the man left standing after a one-on-one battle was declared winner. Each team had seven members; the team with the most winners advanced in the tournament.

Introduced at the same time as plank jousting, the RolleRelay was a next generation version of the old roller skating competitions that were invented to give women another event during Sweepstakes. In the new version, each team of roller skaters carried an egg on a spoon, which was passed instead of a baton in a relay race. Any dropped or touched egg resulted in the skater having to repeat the lap.
1954 was also the transition year between floats and booths. Booths had existed for over a decade, but they were nothing like the booths built on Midway today. 1953 saw the last judged float parade; in 1954, a costume parade was held instead, and in 1955 booth awards were given out. Early booths were nothing more than moneymaking schemes; as noted by a visitor to Carnival who described Midway as full of pickpockets. Beta's booth was among the most popular: for a small fee, a passersby could try to drop a Beta brother wearing a nice suit into a dunk tank. Sororities also had booths at the time, making Booth one of the few activities during early Carnivals in which men and women could participate equally.

In 1953, the editor of the Scot, a campus newspaper, challenged the Editor-in-Chief of The Tartan to a duel on the first day of Carnival. A banner headline reading "!J'ACCEPT!" topped the following issue of The Tartan. At Carnival, the two editors (each claiming to represent the forces of good) mounted their loyal steeds (random horses), rode at each other on their chosen field of honor (the Cut), and did battle (with custard pies). The battle was declared a draw after both parties had expended their ammunition and were sufficiently custard-covered.

Also of note is that non-fraternal organizations first regularly entered Sweepstakes during the decade with the running of a buggy from the men's dorms - though to no avail as most of the decade was dominated by Alpha Tau Omega (ATO). Though ATO lost their presence on campus several years ago, it remains the most dominant single organization in Carnival history. ATO brothers earned the first-place cup in Sweepstakes every year from 1953 to 1962 except for 1959, and managed to take second place as well in both 1953 and 1955. On top of that, they won first place in the float competition in 1954 and the top spot in booth in 1957.

Sweepstakes officials got serious about safety in the '50s. The first buggies were often nothing more than barrels with wheels attached or gigantic metal frames, and injuries in the early days were not uncommon for buggy participants or fans; one early driver was paralyzed from the neck down in a buggy crash. In 1951, buggy organizers decided that brakes would be required on all buggies, and in 1954, fences were erected alongside the buggy course after a Pi Kappa Alpha buggy ran into a spectator's leg.

The 1960s

The beginning of the '60s continued the fierce rivalry of the 1950s, but several years later, Carnival was declining in importance. With campus construction in the early '60s, Carnival was moved off of its historical home on the Cut and into the parking lot of the new Skibo Student Center.
Carnival became as out of control in the mid-1960s as it had been 40 years earlier. The 1965 event was marked by the boycott of a racist PiKA booth that depicted a minstrel show, and assault charges being filed after a fight between Tech and Duquesne students on Midway over a female Tech student. Other years' booths were less controversial: One involved a theme on the '20s letting groups build contemporary booths from that era before booth was a competitive event.

The 1960s brought with them the peak of the Ugliest Man on Campus contest, sponsored by Alpha Phi Omega. Contrasting the nature of the Campus Queen, UMOC was a philanthropic event where students could - for a small fee - vote for any of the homely candidates proffered by fraternities (and later, large non-Greek organizations) on campus.

The anti-organization sentiment of the era saw the creation of independent teams for competition in booth and buggy. In 1966, a survey showed that only 40 to 50 of the 700 non-Greek students at Tech bought tickets to Carnival. Fringe, created by architecture students for independents on campus, successfully ran an art student in the campus queen contest, then in its last years. The creation of such independent organizations was not without controversy: Greek organizations opposed vehemently the creation of non-residential-based student organizations for Carnival.
The complaints that Carnival had bottomed out in importance for student life prompted the Carnival resurgence in 1969, starting a period of consistent focus that remains today. Organizations restarted the staunch competitiveness of the '50s and began examining Carnivals based more on demand rather than tradition. The 1969 renaissance of Carnival began the upswing of ever more extravagant Carnivals each year. It was not without incident, either. Before the opening day of the festival, an eight-year-old boy caught himself in a noose hanging from the Beta Sigma Rho booth. He was unconscious, but was eventually discharged from Children's Hospital in good health.

The 1970s

The 1970s brought change to Carnival events; Though older events such as plank jousting continued, the formal nature of carnival was ending. 1970 saw the last Campus Queen, a position considered antiquated. After the creation of independent organizations for students to participate in Carnival, the '70s' focus shifted to include independents more, rather than just those in Greek organizations. At the same time, long-time campus traditions such as gazorching started. Gazorching, a combination shot put and water balloon fight using a large rubber band, was started as an official Carnival event in 1974. One account of gazorching has ATO taking the distance competition, shooting its balloons over 100 yards, while DU suffered retaliation for launching eggs from their porch instead.
In 1977, Carnival held its first "Gong Show," a replica of the then-popular amateur game show. The success of the event prompted its return for several years thereafter. After some controversy in the 1975 Sweepstakes, they started campus's first women's competition toward the end of the decade, leading to some of the best-attended rolls in history.

Among the new independent organizations during the decade was CIA, the Carnegie Involvement Association. CIA was still establishing itself on campus as a Carnival organization when it attempted to build its first booth in 1978; its geodesic dome design that year was blown off its foundation by a gust. The inclusion of ever more booths led to the creation in 1969 of a sorority Booth competition. In 1976, an independent category was added because of the rapid expansion of non-Greeks on Midway.

Probably the biggest effect of the 1970s was the new concentration on entertainment during Carnival. Concerts had been held during Carnival for decades, but with the creation of the Activities Board earlier in the decade, ever larger acts and recognizable names in entertainment graced the CMU campus all year and especially during Spring Carnival. A renewed commitment to music and comedy during Carnival brought out such acts as B.B. King and Carlos Santana, the highest-profile musicians at Carnival since Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey 40 years earlier.

The 1980s

The '80s were the decade of the independent organization in Carnival competition. Organizations like Pioneers quickly adapted to Carnival and were taking silvers by the end of their second and third years. The infancy of such organizations during the '70s prepared them for it, but CIA's record-setting buggy victory in 1981 - the first such win by a non-Greek organization - was nevertheless unexpected. Their pace and a four-year streak for CIA women's was followed by the coming of SPIRIT in 1987.
Racial tensions were running deep in 1987. In fact, several brothers in ATO were arrested for racial harassment and starting fights during Carnival. Beta commandeered the awards ceremony to threaten SPIRIT, which won its first Sweepstakes on account of weather canceling the three final heats, even though Beta's finals time was better than SPIRIT's preliminary. SPIRIT returned the next year to place with a time of 2:06.2, setting a record that stands today. This was only one year after three ATO brothers were injured in a buggy fire that started while the brothers were greasing the buggy's wheels; the driver was already in the buggy.

Carnival continued to provide strange events for students to partake in: 1981 brought Victor, a 650-pound wrestling bear, to grapple with students. Victor, fueled by rewards of 7-Up soda, easily brought down all students who attempted to best him. At the same time, Carnival mainstay events like the faculty egg toss were waning in popularity. The egg toss became a free-for-all in 1983 when virtually no faculty elected to participate. It was canceled the following year.

The '80s also saw Alpha Phi Omega add another essential tradition of Carnival: selling funnel cakes on Midway.

Carnival provided novel theme ideas for the decade's midways. In 1980, DU built one of its earliest booths based on its interpretation of the Carnival theme, New York. Though most groups built to commemorate famous buildings and landmarks, DU built a tribute to the 1977 blackout. DU went on to be the dominant force in booth of the '80s, taking five titles in seven years.

Recent history

The Tech-Mellon Institute merger in 1967 changed campus drastically, but the transformation was not complete until the middle of the 1980s, when the administration developed a new campus plan and more integrated campus identity. That identity included a move toward high technology and innovation.
This was mirrored in the next decades' Carnivals with more streamlined buggies and new takes on old campus favorites. In 1996, a CMU student created Carnival's first virtual booth - a website based on the Carnival theme where students could play a game. A Tartan editorial announced the virtual booth's launch. Some were angered by this student countering the outward social nature Carnival is supposed to embody, but other technological advances in Carnival remain popular today. The University introduced Mobot, a slalom race for small robots in front of Wean Hall, in 1995. Mobot is one of several events run at the same time as Carnival each year, but not connected formally to the event. Others include the student art shows and the continuing tradition of Scotch 'n' Soda shows.
The evolution of buggies occurred amidst changing rules about safety requirements and the first relaxing of regulations in several decades. More innovation in buggy technology - advances in body design and the eventual standardization of most vehicles - was the major change during the early part of the decade. Despite these changes effectively leveling the playing field, PiKA and SPIRIT took every Sweepstakes championship from 1986 until 2000 because of those organizations' competitiveness in Sweepstakes.

At the same time, Phi Kappa Theta had a six-year hold on the fraternity booth competition, the longest such streak in the history of Carnival. PhiKap had languished in Booth for many years before deciding to concentrate on the event. Their streak of championships after a decade completely dominated by DU is a testament to the rewards of effort in Carnival, as is Zeta Psi Sigma's taking a booth title in their first year.

The last two years have been marked by unusually good weather and a renewed sense of community in Carnival. Rivalries had started to pull campus apart as winning became the most important aspect of Carnival during the '90s, but current patterns place the event over the organization. The efforts the University has taken to include all students in Carnival are the key. Smaller organizations could now participate in an abbreviated booth competition - Blitz Booth - and Sweepstakes saw its first entrant sponsored primarily by a sorority when Kappa Kappa Gamma rolled in 2004.


The evolution of Carnival makes one thing evident: Carnival is no one set of events and competitions. New ideas are integral in keeping Spring Carnival the foremost distraction from academics each year; as with many things, the synergy of current trends and old traditions is what will continue to change Carnival according to what students want and - by some accounts - need.