By: Seth Culp-Ressler | The Duquesne Duke
This year marked the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Mellon University’s annual fair, the Spring Carnival. To celebrate, they decided to bring back some long-lost traditions of the festival, while still embracing the newer events that have sprung up over the years.
CMU’s Carnival is a festival held each spring to serve as a break for the students and teachers, as classes are cancelled Thursday and Friday. Anne Witchner, assistant dean of student affairs and director of orientation, was the Carnival advisor for over 20 years. She explained that Carnival was originally a “circus kind of thing,” started by students who just wanted to have fun. It has evolved over the years.
“It changes each decade, or every five years,” she said. “It really is reactive to technology [of the day]. And students are more sophisticated now.”
She explained that while every Carnival hosts many events, there are three big traditions that currently are practiced every year — Midway, Buggy and Scotch ’n’ Soda.
Midway is the name for the parking lot full of massive booths that are built by student organizations every year. She explained that the planning committee chooses a theme each year for the booths to be built around, everything from adventure to books to New York City. The themes are typically left open ended so that students can interpret them as they want.
Last year, when the theme was “Fractured Fairytales,” many of the booths were constructed to look like medieval castles. The booths are judged, and the most competitive entrants incorporate some sort of interactive game, and can be up to 20 feet high. She said that over the last 50 years Midway has evolved to where rides and other forms of entertainment are also incorporated into the lot’s colorful landscape.
“It’s very competitive while it’s happening,” Witchner said, “but there’s no hard feelings after it’s over. They’re out there tearing down these booths; they have to come down so that we can turn it back to a parking lot. It’s amazing.”
Tim Leonard, the current advisor for Carnival, explained that this year they chose the booth theme “Best of the Best,” hoping for organizations to highlight some of the most notable past Carnival experiences.
“Student organizations who were building were allowed to select any sub-theme that they wanted to reflect being the best,” Leonard said. “Our initial hope was that student groups would select a design from one of their previous years’ constructions, but many chose to interpret the theme in a different way by selecting a design that they thought would be the best we’ve ever seen. It resulted in a wide assortment of booth designs, but it turned out awesome.”
The second big event, Buggy, is a sophisticated boxcar race throughout the roads around CMU’s campus in which a student lies down in a tiny custom-made car while being pushed by teammates. Thousands of people come out to cheer on the teams as they zip around the course.
And finally, as Witchner explained, Scotch ’n’ Soda is the campus theater program of 76 years that puts on a production every Carnival. She said that while the shows may not be as popular as Buggy or Midway, they still are an essential part of the festivities.
“They did the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and they had four shows in the University Center, and that’s a rich part of the schedule as well,” she said.
Another more recent addition to the festivities is an annual concert on Friday evening. This year Mac Miller and Icona Pop were the headlining acts. Witcher said around 4,000 people attended the concert.
Leonard pointed out that some old traditions were brought back as well as putting on the more recently-established events.
“Spring Carnival Committee rekindled two traditions,” he said. “Plank Jousting, that involved two individuals pillow fighting on a plank suspended over a pit of mud, and Chain Stamping which involved stamping the graduating year of a particular class on their respective link of an iron chain.”
Jackson Gallagher, one of two student co-chairs on the Carnival Committee this year, said Chain Stamping was actually a graduation ceremony for 30 years before it was stopped during World War II. Originally, a link would be made for each class at the school, and they were formed into a chain of former classes. At this year’s Carnival, alumni from the missing 70 classes were invited back to campus to attach their link to the chain.
“We wanted to pay tribute to things that happened in the past because Carnival itself has done insanely weird things over the past 100 years,” Gallagher said. “Everything from greased up pig racing to a live circus to wrestling a 650-pound bear to canoe tilts.”
As Witchner put it, in the end it’s that quirky environment Carnival has that makes it so special. She said the practical application of student’s skills into Carnival is what makes it unique among spring festivals. It allows the students to have fun while applying their newfound knowledge.
“It’s really unique that these components come together that don’t really seem to have much in common,” she said. “There are kids who are working on all three [big events] … so it’s really a cool thing. Students can practice engineering outside of the class, and that’s really cool.”
Gallagher summed it up, saying that in the end it’s the laid-back atmosphere that makes Carnival so great.
“I think what’s really cool is the nature and the spirit that the student body brings every year,” he said. “It’s this event that the student body really looks forward to.”