by Virginia O’Donnell | April 13, 2023

For nearly nine decades, ThurtenE Carnival has served as a late spring occasion for WashU students to let loose. The event is the largest student-run carnival in the United States and includes games, dramatic entertainment, rides, and other forms of amusement.  

The tradition harks back to the early 1900s, when the men’s honorary society Pralma hosted a festival called Younivee Surkuss, primarily featuring circus acts. Over the years, the festival morphed into a vaudeville talent show intermingled with classic rides such as the “Freshman Powered Merry-Go-Round.” The 1916 Surkuss was especially noteworthy, as it featured a critically acclaimed silent film by the university drama club called The Maid of McMillan, which was later released to St. Louis area movie theaters. (More recently, WashU historians have undertaken the painstaking work of preserving and retouching the film for the university archives.)

In 1935, WashU’s ThurtenE Honorary took ownership of the festivities, and the event has been known as ThurtenE Carnival ever since. In the years following their takeover, the size and scope of the springtime celebration expanded considerably. For example, new iterations included efforts to draw local high school students to campus, faculty performances, quirky attractions such as a synchronized swimming exhibition, more rides, and relocation to the tennis court parking lots.

Meanwhile, the sets for live performances grew taller and more elaborate each year. In 1962, several of the unwieldy structures collapsed when fierce winds tore through the carnival grounds. Area radio stations responded by announcing the carnival’s cancellation, but members of ThurtenE promptly called all media outlets to “cancel the cancellation,” instead establishing size limits for next year’s scenery.

Thurtene through the years
ThurtenE Carnival poster, 2011

Over ensuing decades, ThurtenE Carnival became a prominent fixture within the broader St. Louis community, launching activities for underprivileged children and drawing the attention of Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. during the 1980s, who advertised “ThurtenE Week in St. Louis.” Despite major relocations from the front of Brookings Hall in 1983 to, more recently, the parking lots of the Athletics Complex and Simon Hall—where it still takes place today—the event has retained its beloved status.

Today, ThurtenE Carnival is primarily funded by sponsorships, and revenue is donated to a community partner. After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event provided a much-needed outlet for reconnection in 2022 at a time when community was never more important. The university seeks to continue this momentum for ThurtenE Carnival 2024: Once Upon a Carnival, centered on the theme of magic and imagination. Please join us for this historic and now quintessential university event, which has become the community’s annual spring antidote to St. Louis’ cold and capricious winters—a chance to connect, enjoy, and savor your WashU memories.