By Lucy Domino

When the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to the United Center, a family of four can get ringside seats for about $300, including parking and the usual gee-gaws and gimcracks at the concession stand. Or that same family can pay $70 for four tickets to the Midnight Circus this weekend at Holstein Park and be twice as close to the action. But I warn you: a hot dog will cost you another two bucks.

This is the seventh year that the Midnight Circus has been bringing its peculiar mix of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, clowns––and one trained dog––to Chicago’s neighborhood parks. Its arrival is heralded by the sudden appearance of a huge blue and purple big top tent. The rigging inside has tightrope walkers and trapeze artists performing only 15 or 20 feet off the ground, but it’s not the derring-do that keeps audiences coming back. It’s the magical transformation of a bare patch of Chicago grassland into a living, breathing spectacle of fun.

The Traveling Circuses of Europe

The circus is the brainchild of Jeff Jenkins and Julie Greenberg. Jenkins is a former teacher at the Ringling Clown College in Florida, and his wife Julie is a Chicago actress. They live in Lincoln Square with their two children, but in the winter, they would often go to Europe to follow the one-ring circuses that travel around the small towns of Italy and France creating mystical environments in the plazas and small parks.

When their local Welles Park was trying to raise money for a new playground in 2007, they saw the same opportunity to bring together a troupe of friends and fellow performers to do their own circus in Chicago.  Setting up for only a weekend they raised $16,000 for Welles, and Circus in the Parks was born. The next year, they added Chase Park to the agenda, then extended it over the following summer to Holstein, Commercial, Independence, Hamlin and Mt. Greenwood Parks. This year, the circus will visit 11 parks raising money for individual park programs. The theme is “Rebuilding parks one circus at a time.”

Circus in the Parks turns out to be a unique collaboration between the not-for-profit circus and the local park advisory councils. Ticket sales, concessions, publicity and event management are all provided by the local park advisory councils. After paying performer expenses, the local parks share in proceeds that over the last seven years have amounted to over $450,000 for local park programs.

New Friday Night Show

Although the tent only holds 600, over 100,000 patrons have seen the circus in its neighborhood venues. Holstein Park this week will host five shows: A special Friday night performance at 7 PM; Saturday performances at 2 and 5 PM; and Sunday shows at 1 and 4 PM. Tickets can be purchased online at or on site. (Some shows do sell out.)

This year, with direct funding coming for the first time from The Chicago Park District, Circus in the Park has also taken its act to four inner city parks in Grand Crossing, Englewood, Garfield Park and Lawndale. The last event in Douglas Park was held in conjunction with Dwyane Wade’s “Live to Dream” celebration and featured the Miami Heat basketball star wrangling a hula hoop on stage beside Mayor Emanuel.

The Midnight Circus opens with a lilting ukulele tune inviting kids into a world of enchantment and ends with the rap driven acrobatics of Boyz In The Hood. In between, there’s everything you want in a Circus, enough excitement to think city life can be pretty darn spectacular––if you are willing to suspend your disbelief.

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