Budget cuts force Midnight Circus to return to original venue in Welles Park

CHICAGO — Since 2007, the Midnight Circus has been entertaining Chicagoans. But the beloved show is back at its original venue in Welles Park due to a fight over funding.

In a converted garage on the Northside, which now serves as the practice place for the dedicated professionals of what could be called the greatest show in the city, the Midnight Circus is about to take flight once again.

Bella Diaz, a native of the Austin Galewood neighborhood, told WGN News she began gymnastics at the age of three and considers being a circus performer a chance to show other kids to dream big.

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“I feel so proud as someone from Chicago to go back to these communities and then see how I was as a little kid. To be like, ‘Hey, you know you could grow up and do this.’ It’s not so completely outside the box and anything is completely possible,” Diaz said.

Diaz is one of about 20 performers whose opening night is a little over a week away. Joining her is Midnight Circus performer Ariel Emery, who comes from a circus family.

“My parents are circus performers. They met in the circus and they had me and I got to travel around with them until I was like seven or eight,” Emery said.

Midnight Circus is life’s labor of love for Jeff and Julie Jenkins. In 2007, their neighborhood’s Welles Park was in bad shape and with two kids of their own, they say they took it personally.

The Jenkins got the blessing of their then-alderman Gene Schulter to put on a show, eventually raising $25,000 to put back into Welles Park for improvements.

“It was wood chips and aluminum slides,” Julie Jenkins said. “It was a hazard.”

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The fundraiser was such a hit that then-Mayor Richard M. Daley caught wind of it. Soon, the Midnight Circus was receiving Chicago Park District funds to bring their brand of artistry to parks across the city.

Over the years, the performance has raised $2 million, most of which has gone to improving other city parks.

“It brought neighbors together in their park, so they got involved and invested,” Jeff Jenkins added.

Under Rahm Emmanuel, who succeeded Daley in the city’s mayoral office, Midnight Circus became the blueprint for the ‘A Night in The Park’ program. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, however, funding was drastically cut.

“Rahm Emmanuel came to us and said, ‘I want you to go citywide. I want you to take it to every corner of Chicago,’” Jeff Jenkins said.

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In 2023, the Park District offered a fraction of its previous funding – $25,000 – adding that the circus performance be limited to two locations in what would be called a hybrid model. Shows at Foster Park in Auburn Gresham would be free of charge and at a reduced cost at McKinley Park. 

But the financial setback puts both performances and hopes for a citywide tour in doubt. As a result, the Midnight Circus will now return to its original location at Welles Park. The Jenkins believe it’s a classic case of bureaucratic bumbling.

“We perform for up to 20,000 people a year. This is a winning combination,” Jeff Jenkins told WGN News. “We did the shows for free during the pandemic because people needed it.”

The Jenkins hopes Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson reconsiders the city’s funding.

“I would like to invite Mayor Johnson to the circuses this weekend,” Julie Jenkins said. “Because I think, like with previous mayors, when they witnessed the circus, they saw possibility.”

In the meantime, the show must go on.

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The Jenkins will continue to work with Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward) on securing more private and public funding for next year. Upcoming shows are Sept. 9-10 in Welles Park, with a Saturday matinee show now added due to high demand. 

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