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History & Heritage

Happy 86th Anniversary Gamma Phi Circus! 

1929-2015

General History

Gamma Phi Circus is the oldest collegiate circus in the United States. Its story began in 1926 when Clifford "Pop" Horton, a gymnastics instructor at Illinois State University, organized a small group of men to perform pyramids and tumble at basketball and football games. This led to the founding of Gamma Phi in 1929 as a fraternity that was dedicated to physical education, fitness, and gymnastics.

Originally, Gamma Phi was comprised primarily of gymnasts and, at "Pop" Horton's direction, would perform at different events. The Bloomington-Normal area had been a hotbed of circus activity since the late 1880s, playing the role of winter quarters for such famous trapeze acts of the day as the Flying Wards and the Conciellos. Pop Horton, a circus fan, instructed some of the circus performers at the Bloomington YMCA. It was only a matter of time before the circus performers and the Gamma Phi members met and began to exchange ideas and knowledge.

By 1931 the Gamma Phi fraternity renamed itself the Gamma Phi Circus. The group's first annual circus performance on the Illinois State campus took place that same year at McCormick Gymnasium. The first tickets for that first performance were priced at 25 cents. Horton, who served for many years as the University's athletic director, headed Gamma Phi in its initial incarnations for 19 years.

The annual shows were held at McCormick until 1963, when the performance was moved by circus directors Arley Gillette and Wayne Truex to Horton Field House. Since 1994, in large part due to the efforts of director Jerry Polacek, the Gamma Phi Circus has performed in the Redbird Arena Big Top to audiences of up to 7,000 people.

Gamma Phi Circus began to separate itself from the typical Greek social organizations and began to develop more along the lines of a performing arts organization. The name Gamma Phi has been kept for historical purposes. Over the years the group has developed circus acts such as tight wire, teeterboard, trapeze, Russian swing, Russian bar, partner balancing, juggling, rolling globes, and much more while keeping its gymnastics roots close at heart.

 

Gamma Phi Circus Historical Milestones

1926 - Clifford "Pop" Horton organized a small group of men to perform pyramids and tumble at basketball and football games.

1929 - Horton received approval from university administration to found the Alpha Chapter of Gamma Phi. The first meeting was held at the Rogers Hotel in downtown Bloomington. The initial group had 22 male students and three honorary members.

1931
- The Gamma Phi Circus performed its first annual show on Illinois State's campus. The Gamma Phi troupe was joined by students from Illinois State University men's and women's physical education classes, Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's School, Thomas Metcalf Grade School, and the University High School Tumbling Club.

1938
- Female students began performing with the troupe in 1938.

1940
- Women began being elected into Gamma Phi Circus.

1941-1947
- The Gamma Phi Circus suspended performances during the war due to limited membership.

1947
- The Gamma Phi Circus took the show on the road, performing in Mendota. This was the first of what is now termed the "road show".

 

Continuing Legacy

Gamma Phi alumni are performing or working with several well-known circuses, including Cirque de Soleil, Circus Vargas, the Shrine Circuses, the Circus Kingdom, Roberts Brothers Circus, Kelly Brothers Circus, the Great American Circus, Circus Alleluia and The Runaway Circus. Some alumni have performed at venues including Disney World, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios-Florida, Great America, and Club Med, as well as performing for audiences at NBA and WNBA half-times and on television.

Gamma Phi Circus alumni have created shows, such as the Circus Jenzac, and others have founded performance trade organizations, such as USA Wheel Gymnastics, or developed circus arts programs that educate in skills and performance. 

 

Distinguished Leadership

Dr. Clifford "Pop" Horton - Director for 19 Years
Dr. Arley Gillette - Director for 18 Years
Dr. Wayne Truex - Director for 7 Years
Dr. Jerry Polacek - Director for 28 Years
Mr. William Jaeger - Director for 2 Years
Mr. Al Light - Director for 6 Years
Mr. Marcus Alouan is the current director since 2010

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Illinois State University

Gamma Phi Circus
Campus Box 5000
Normal, Il 61790-5000
Phone: 309.438.2690

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