Midnight Circus’ little big top attracts world-class performers to support local parks

CHICAGO -- An uncommon sight springs up in parks across Chicago every summer: a blue-and-purple circus tent, seemingly rising from the grass overnight like a magic mushroom.

Inside, kids and parents sit cross-legged around the ring, fidgeting in anticipation, until a DJ perched atop a spray-painted balcony fires up Icona Pop's triumphant "We Got the World." Then a parade of world-class talent steps out, aerialists, jugglers and clowns like you would expect to see (from much farther away) in an arena show at the United Center. It all seems much too big for the tiny ring that holds it.

But this isn't Barnum & Bailey. This is Midnight Circus.

At the center of it all is ringmaster Jeff Jenkins. Jenkins says he and his wife Julie originally created their show as a smaller production catered to theaters in the U.S. and Europe. After experiencing neighborhood circuses in European parks and piazzas, they were inspired by their ability to unite neighbors from all walks of life.

"There was this incredible sense of community," Jenkins said. "In the circus you get to know people because you're bumping elbows."

Then while living on the North Side in 2007, Jenkins says they heard their neighborhood park was trying to raise funds for a new playground. They figured a show could be a great way to pitch in, and they were right — hundreds of neighbors turned out, and they raised over $20,000 for Welles Park.

And so the idea for Midnight Circus in the Parks was born: throughout the summer, they pitch their circus tent in parks across Chicago, invite everyone in the neighborhood to come, and give the profits from the (usually sold-out) shows back to the parks that host them. While Jenkins says there has been pressure to raise prices in the past, they always keep tickets cheap, so anyone can afford to come out.

"This is something I always wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to run away and join the circus, and I wanted to run home and start a circus," Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he grew up in a typical blue collar family on the Northwest Side, so it came out of left field when he decided to run off and join the circus after high school. He traces this uncommon path back to fourth grade, when the Ringling Bros. Circus came to the Chicago Stadium, and he snuck backstage.

"A clown caught me, and instead of booting me out... when he went out to perform he brought me with him and let me sit right there on the ring curb," Jenkins said.

After getting a glimpse behind the scenes, he was hooked, and eventually performed as a clown with the Ringling Bros. circus for over 10 years. Later, after the initial success of Midnight Circus, he and his wife got their very own big top made by a legendary tentmaker in Illinois. It's small, so the performers can set it up themselves without forklifts and machines and it doesn't do any damage to the park itself.

"It’s the tiniest thing on the globe," Jenkins said. "We call it the, 'intimate little big top.'"

The show itself is truly a family affair, with their daughter Sam and son Max both stepping into the ring as well. After growing up around the circus, Jenkins said they were eager to take part.

"What kid doesn’t want to join the circus? Especially when they can sleep in their own bed at night," he said.

The intimacy and unique nature of the show also helps them attract world-class talent, Jenkins said. There are aerialists swinging and spinning from ropes and silk, acrobats walking tightropes and diving through hoops, jugglers, tumblers, clowns, and of course, Rosie Ray the rescued pitbull.

Many of the performers even live together in the same house, eating dinner and hanging out throughout the summer. Then after their eight-week season is over, many of the performers travel around the world to join up with Cirque du Soleil and some of the premiere circuses in Europe.

"People recognize themselves and their family in that ring - and they say, 'it looks like you all love each other,' and we do, and that radiates," Jenkins said.

While some of the major circuses like Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey are no more, Jenkins said he hopes Midnight Circus helps carry on those traditions.

"I think its important to keep it alive, to give kids something to aspire to do, to take risks – and not just in the circus," Jenkins said.

So far, the circus has raised over $1 million for parks in the hometown he left as a teen. And years after a clown decided to give a boy a ringside seat instead of kicking him out, that clown's daughter, Aerial Emery, joined the Midnight Circus.

In that ring, it's all come full circle.