In 1974, the Pickle Family Circus was founded by Peggy Snider and Larry Pisoni. Ten years later, San Francisco School of Circus Arts was founded by Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli as a project of the Pickle Family Circus, and the school was then located at the Pickle's headquarters in an old church on San Francisco's Potrero Hill. It took two years for Hannah Kahn to take the control of the school, directing it over the next 10 years. In 1990, Master instructor Lu Yi was hired with the mandate of developing the most comprehensive Chinese acrobatics program outside of China. Three years later, the school was incorporated as a separate non-profit corporation, and moved into a vacant Polytech high school gymnasium in the Haight-Ashbury district. In 1996, the San Francisco Circus was established, and later that year the school staged its first student production, Zoppo!, a show that played to a sold-out house at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason.
Four years passed before the San Francisco School of Circus Arts purchased the New Pickle Circus from the Santa Cruz-based non-profit organization that had produced the company's shows since 1993. All of the purchase price was raised from contributed sources, and from this date on, all of the organization's professional productions are staged under the banner of the New Pickle Circus. Student productions are produced under the name "San Francisco Circus". The Clown Conservatory program was then started with a grant from the NEA as the only year-long professional circus clown training program in the United States. In 2001, the board of directors changed the corporation's name to Circus Center, reflecting the fact that the organization now encompasses more than a school.