Ten years ago, when Jeff and Julie Jenkins wanted to raise money for their local Chicago park, they turned to something they knew best: the circus.
As the founders of the critically acclaimed Midnight Circus—a Cirque-style troupe of acrobats, aerialists and eccentrics that was performing in Chicago theaters at the time— they certainly knew how to put on a show. Still, the couple wasn’t exactly sure if an open-air performance in Welles Park would draw folks in to make a difference. “We thought we’d be lucky to bring in a couple of hundred bucks,” recalls Jeff.
But, as hundreds of excited families walked hand-in-hand through the park to an opening weekend of shows, he knew “we were on to something.” Those first two performances raised over $20,000 for the Welles Park Advisory Council and set in motion what has become a highly successful grassroots fundraiser.
The Big Top Hits the Big Time
Today, Midnight Circus tours parks across the city as part of the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks initiative; in 2016 it was expected to bring in nearly $1 million in total raised funds. The Park Advisory Councils have used the money for a wide variety of improvements, from programming to equipment. “For example, muchneeded gymnastic mats at one park, a tutoring program at another and swings, slides and other playground equipment at many parks, which is how this all started,” says Jeff. “The councils work closely with park supervisors to determine what the best use of funds will be.”
But, while the money is big, the show remains intimate, both artistic and decidedly high-level. The 10th anniversary cast, for example, hailed from some of the world’s premier circus companies, like Cirque du Soleil, featuring artists performing on the singlepoint trapeze, tight wire and aerial hoop as well as jugglers and acrobats.
Above all, the show is about family. “That’s part of the charm of what we do,” says Jeff, the show’s ringmaster. Julie also performs, along with the couple’s son, daughter and two pit bull dog rescues (the definitive crowd favorites). “I always feel bad for the performer who has to follow them,” says Jeff, laughing.
The 2016 tour kicked off on Chicago’s South Side at Ogden Park in the Englewood neighborhood, where the circus has performed for the past three summers. Thirty other stops through mid-October also brought the show to parks in every region of the city.
Building a Community
With tickets priced $5 to $20, Midnight Circus is “a really perfect example” of the Chicago Park District’s mission to “make art accessible in people’s backyards,” says Krista Bryski Richard, program and event manager in the Cultural, Arts and Nature Department for the Chicago Park District.
The shows help families meet their neighbors and introduce thousands of people to the parks, furthers Richard. Because the advisory councils evenly split ticket revenue, volunteers have incentive to help all locations sell out their shows. This “creates a great spirit of working together” and gets people into other neighborhoods to build a greater community, says Jeff.
“A lot of folks don’t necessarily associate a public park with a place to see a high-quality, live circus,” so creating this awareness can take some time, says Jeff. He even performs mini pre-shows in some communities to help get the word out.
When the Circus Comes to Town
Council volunteers help out in organizing the event, as well as selling concessions and program book ads, and rallying the neighborhood by networking with aldermen, churches and community groups.
Richard also works with a small-butmighty special events team at the Chicago Park District to plan the tour (as well as other Night Out in the Parks events). They coordinate closely with Jeff and Julie Jenkins to arrange permits, secure vendors for electrical, seating and fencing needs and erect the show’s magical blue-and-purple tent, which the Park District permanently supplied several years ago so the show could go on (even with the city’s fickle summer weather).
For the Jenkins, who have aspired to bring sophisticated circus arts to the heart of Chicago like they’d seen in the piazzas of Europe, it’s all been a dream come true. “It’s turned out to be a remarkable fundraiser and community builder,” says Jeff—one that leaves an inspirational footprint long after the tent is gone.