Since 1947, the expression of “running away to join the circus” has been a real option for students at Florida State University.
Seventy-five years later, a new generation of students continues to create magic beneath the twin cupolas of the grandiose tent that is home to the Florida State University Flying High Circus.
“The circus really is kind of woven into the fabric of FSU and its history,” said Chad Mathews, director of the FSU Flying High Circus. “This is just as much a part of this university and its tradition as anything else could be, and you just can’t find it anywhere else.”
An extracurricular activity under the Division of Student Affairs, the FSU Flying High Circus is one of two collegiate circuses in the United States along with Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi circus, and the only one with a big-top tent.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the FSU Flying High Circus will dazzle audiences this month in their spring show “Cosmic,” a science fiction-themed performance that takes viewers on a space odyssey through galactic dimensions and stellar structures.
“The science fiction show is probably one of our most ambitious themes that we’ve tried to do in a home show series,” Mathews said. “It’s a little different than anything we’ve ever done before so we’re really excited about it.”
The remarkable program has unique beginnings.
When the Florida Legislature designated the Florida State College for Women as the co-educational Florida State University in 1947, administrators wanted to offer the newly admitted young men things that might be expected from college life, such as football. They also wanted to make for a co-educational experience in which both the women already on campus and their male counterparts could share.
Enter Jack Haskin, a recreational director from Wisconsin and FSU’s first Assistant Football Coach. When he arrived at FSU in 1947 to work with the emerging football team, Haskin also established a semester-long “Introduction to Circus” course that would teach juggling, tightrope walking, and rigging and appeal to both men and women. Apparently, Haskin’s passion for the circus carried over to the football field, where he had players line-up in three rings for pregame warm-ups.
The intro to circus course became so popular though that by 1948 Haskins had shed his football title and was the full-time Director of the Circus, booking the performers for a European tour and establishing a circus summer school in Callaway Gardens, Georgia.
Although Haskin left FSU for Kent State in 1960, he started an indelible tradition that continues today. Haskin, who passed away in 1993, was inducted into the FSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1979 and was recognized by the Florida Legislature in 1986 when it named the Flying High Circus complex in his honor.
After Haskin left FSU, Addison Gilbert took over until 1964, followed by Adrian Catarzi (1965-1972) and Richard “Dickie” Brinson (1972-2007), who was then succeeded by Mathews.
“I did not ever in a million years think I’d be doing this,” Mathews said.
Mathews didn’t even know that FSU had a circus when he arrived in 1993. He was introduced to the program through a physical education course his freshman year and fell in love with it.
A full-time position as assistant director with the circus became available after Mathews graduated with a degree in Philosophy in 1998 and he took the opportunity. About a decade later, Mathews was named director of the FSU Flying High Circus.
Since then, Mathews has watched the circus grow in many ways. In 2011, a $1.2 million project brought a brand-new, bespoke Italian-made tent, with new seating and flooring installed. Now, the tent stays up most of the year and can seat 1,300 people. Under Mathews’ leadership, the FSU Flying High Circus launched a summer camp for kids that has proven to be a tremendous outreach for the Tallahassee community.
The Circus hopes to continue this growth and expansion over the next 25 years before the 100-year anniversary, although Mathews said he plans to be retired by then.
“We’re launching a very ambitious fundraising campaign this year to try to expand our facilities to accommodate more students and expand in ways we’ve never considered before, like recreational circus programs for students or community-based projects that we currently just don’t have the space for,” Mathews said. “We want to expose this great, unique activity to more people.”
The Circus Expansion Project will provide a new entryway to the Circus, new teaching spaces for performers, storage facilities for its growing equipment inventory and public amenities for its sold-out shows.
Kristen Harold is a senior majoring in criminology and political science. She had plans to try out for FSU cheerleading, but when she found out about the circus on a campus tour, she auditioned her freshman year.
Now, as a senior, Harold is trained to do various aerial acts like the Spanish web, an aerial circus skill in which a performer climbs and performs tricks on an apparatus resembling a vertically hanging rope. She’s also trained to perform acrobatic feats on the lyra, a 45-pound suspended “hula hoop.”
“Performing for the FSU circus is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Harold said. “Especially being the 75th year, that is so special and I’m just so lucky to be here for that.”
Originally from Atlanta, Harold said she’s made friends for life through the circus and that joining has made her experience at FSU more unique than she could’ve ever imagined.
“Anytime I go into an interview, and they see the circus on my resume it’s an instant conversation starter,” Harold said. “I know having the experiences from the circus, because they are so unique, they’ll help carry me through whatever I need to in the future.”
Performances of “Cosmic” will take place on weekends April 1-16 at the John Haskin Circus Complex, 269 Chieftan Way. Showtimes vary. Performances are free for FSU students with FSU ID, and prices for the general public vary from $8-$27. For more information, visit circus.fsu.edu.
To make a gift to FSU Flying High Circus Expansion Project Fund, visit give.fsu.edu.