Illinois State’s Gamma Phi Circus dates to 1926, and is the oldest collegiate circus in the United States and one of only two still in existence.
Bloomington-Normal has a rich circus history going back to the 1880s, and served for decades as the winter home for several nationally known performers. Athletic Director Clifford "Pop" Horton was a fan, and 1926 he organized groups to tumble and perform pyramids and the University's football and basketball games. That led to the formation in 1929 of the Gamma Phi fraternity, renamed Gamma Phi Circus in 1931. The circus held its first annual show in McCormick Gymnasium that year. Aside from a hiatus during World War II, annual performances were held in McCormick until 1963, when the shows were moved to Horton Fieldhouse. Since 1994, Gamma Phi Circus has performed shows at Redbird Arena every April, drawing crowds of up to 7,000 people.
Gamma Phi Circus is not part of the Greek system on campus (the name “Gamma Phi” has been retained for historical purposes). Rather, it’s a program within Illinois State’s College of Applied Science and Technology. Gamma Phi Circus members perform a variety of acts commonly associated with traditional circuses, and its alumni perform for and work with numerous circuses throughout North America.