At the end of every Chicago summer into the early fall, a little circus with a big presence and even bigger community impact bring their show to the Chicago Park District.
“Midnight Circus is a full-on, world-class intimate-theatrical circus,” says Jeff Jenkins, Co-Founder of the Midnight Circus in the Parks.
After high school, Jeff auditioned for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was accepted into their clown college, and toured with them. He ran away from the circus back to Chicago where he met his wife, Julie Greenberg.
Julie wanted to work in the theatrical area and Jeff wanted to do something a little more intimate.
“We wanted to bring circus to the people,” Jeff said.
So they did just that. Combining their skill sets, they created Midnight Circus. In its early years, the show was performed in large named theaters throughout Chicago.
“We really wanted to use this special thing that we had created to really help our community and our city,” Jeff explained.
Every year, bringing in performers from all over the world, the Midnight Circus adds more shows and more parks to their schedule.
In 2018, performing for over 20,000 people across the city of Chicago, the show reaches neighborhoods from the south side to the west side and back up north finishing in the park it all began – Welles Park in Lincoln Square.
A percentage of the ticket sales, all of the proceeds from the advertisement book and all of the concession stand earnings go right back into the park in which the show is hosted.
“Originally it started out that we would raise money to rebuild the playground,” Jeff says.
Since 2007, Midnight Circus in the Parks has raised over $1 million for the Chicago Park District, helping restore the field house at Holstein Park in Bucktown/Logan Square and the playlot at Wells Park in Lincoln Square among many others.
Lucy Jacobs, one of the founders of the Friends of Holstein Park, says that the fundraising group was always looking for new ways to make money for the park.
“I happened to be on the north side one day and I saw this circus going on, and I said ‘I want that in my park’,” Lucy said.
“It’s special because it has allowed us to maintain this building for another hundred years,” says 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack. He’s talking about the 106-year-old field house at Holstein Park which was recently able to undergo restoration and renovations thanks in part to over $100,000 that was donated from the Midnight Circus.
“That was the push that we needed to get the park district, and the city and the state to say ‘these buildings are a gem and we need to invest in them,” Scott said.
There is only one animal in the show and that is Jeff’s highly trained dog, Rosie Rae, a rescued pit bull.
“A big part of our work is animal welfare,” Jeff said. “A big part of my life outside the circus is working with young people and their dogs, particularly with bully breeds to bridge that gap [creating] empathy for the breed and empathy for each other.”
With the circus being a family affair, two of the biggest stars are Jeff and Julie’s children, 13-year-old Maxwell Jenkins (Max) and 11-year-old Samantha Jenkins (Sam).
Max and his mom, Julie, were unable to be at the show at Holstein Park due to filming the second season of the Netflix series reboot of Lost in Space (Max plays the lead character, Will Robinson), which allowed his sister Sam to lead the performance.
Sam, who has been performing in the circus since she was five years old, is featured in various acts displaying her acrobatic abilities on an aerial hoop called a “lira,” walking the tightrope, riding the unicycle, and much more.
“You just have to have energy,” Sam says is the most important trait of being a circus performer. “The audience in the back can’t see you if you don’t have much energy, so you have to be overflowing with it.”
Sam is a typical sixth-grader who enjoys hanging out with her friends after school and playing basketball and volleyball when she’s not in the middle of circus season. During that time of the year, the cast of the Midnight Circus spends many family dinners together, and some of the performers who travel will bring souvenirs back for Sam.
Sam’s favorite feelings from the show are “when the crowd cheers” and she looks behind her to the other performers who “are all smiling.”
“It’s just a big tent full of joy which is amazing,” Sam explains.
The most rewarding part of the performance for Jeff is seeing the faces on the children and their parents after the show when they are allowed to rush into the ring to get autographs and take pictures with the performers.
“At times we can be a really divided city,” Jeff says. “But when we bring that circus to a neighborhood park, and when we bring folks from all over the city and they come down and share the experience in this little, intimate tent, all of a sudden we realize that we have more in common than what separates us. I feel like we’re a better city because of that.”
For more information on the Midnight Circus visit www.midnightcircus.net.