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It hasn’t been a good week for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. It hasn’t, for that matter, been a particularly good few years. On Sunday, national fraternity officials abruptly closed the University of Oklahoma chapter after a racist video surfaced. In 2013 Bloomberg reported that SAE had the most fraternity-related deaths of all fraternities. And SAE is not the only fraternity being asked to answer for a culture in which allegations of sexual assault are disproportionately high and photos from racist parties leak.
When LIFE went to an SAE circus party at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1946, shenanigans ruled the night. Fraternity members transported sorority girls to the party in a 30-foot mobile lion cage pulled by a sad-eyed elephant. Guests dressed as cowgirls, sailors and bearded ladies, with at least one dancing couple sporting blackface. The night concluded with the “capture” of three students from rival University of Southern California, who were “soundly paddled and had their heads shaved.”
LIFE’s tone was lighthearted, reporting on revelers’ “carnival spirit” in the final pages of the last issue of 1946. Photos that might give readers pause today—women in cages, elephant as chauffeur and white faces painted black—would have been standard fare for readers then. Al Jolson had appeared in blackface just one year earlier in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue.
Times have changed, to be sure, but Greek life, as an institution, seems to lag behind.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.