CHICAGO — Samantha Rae Jenkins, 10, is dreaming of opening a circus one day — if her parents aren't still running the Midnight Circus, that is.
Sam and her brother, 12-year-old Maxwell Jenkins, have performed with their parents' Midnight Circus for most of their lives. The circus, founded by mom Julie and dad Jeffrey Jenkins in 1995, travels to parks across the city to entertain neighborhood residents and raise money for the Chicago Park District.
The Jenkins family perform along with their two rescued pitbulls, Junebug and Rosie Rae, and a host of artists. The circus has raised more than $900,000 for Chicago parks in every area of the city, Julie said.
"We bring community together and Chicago, I think Chicago needs more community," Sam said.
Max started performing when he was 2½, he said, and developed a comedy and balancing act with his dad. Sam was doing a low trapeze act by 5.
The kids have developed into stars with their own solo routines and they help guide the audience through the show, Julie said. Max does a rolla bolla act — juggling, hula hooping and balancing on top of a tube — and walks a tight rope while Sam does an aerial hoop act 12 feet off the ground along with comedy spots.
Max (left), 12, and Samantha Rae Jenkins, 10, perform together at the Midnight Circus. The two have been a part of their parents' circus for most of their lives. [Sharon Gaietto Photography]
The kids have honed their skills through years of practice and with the help of their "circus family:" The performers who have worked with their family and the Midnight Circus. Though the Midnight Circus rotates its performers every year, they get close when practicing eight hours a day in the family's home and eating at least one dinner a week together, Julie said.
The family is surrounded by those "really, intensely creative, interesting" performers for three months every year during the circus' practices and performances, Julie said.
Max's "favorite part about being in the circus is probably the awesome people who I become family with over the whole tour," he said.
Sam agreed: "I love hanging out with the performers and they teach me stuff," she said.
It was an artist who went through the show in 2013 who first showed Max how to rolla bolla. Max was "mesmerized" by the act, Julie said, so Max's dad, Jeffrey, made his son a tube and board so Max could practice his rolla bolla in the back lot during shows. A year or two later, Max told his parents he wanted to do rolla bolla for the circus and he put together an act.
This year, an acrobat who specializes in rolla bolla gave Max more tips on improving his performance, Julie said.
"That's the awesome thing about circus: You can never perfect it. You're constantly working," Julie said.
Samantha Rae Jenkins, 10, is an aerialist artist with the Midnight Circus. The circus travels across the city to raise money for the Chicago Park District. [Sharon Gaietto Photography]
Sam's a natural comedian, Julie said, but she was always "taken" by the show's aerial artists. Julie asked an old friend, Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez, to train Sam, and the girl now spends every summer at the Actors Gymnasium working on her routines and has been coached by Cirque du Soleil's Kevin Beverley.
This season, aerial hoop artist Thula Martin, a member of the Midnight Circus, created an act designed to challenge Sam throughout the performance season.
And the two young performers don't just use their talents for the circus: Max has appeared on several TV shows and even filmed a remake of "Lost in Space" for Netflix over the winter. When he wasn't filming, Max said he'd juggle or work on his rolla bolla while people from the show's crew watched.
The two do their circus work on the weekends while attending a Chicago Public School on weekdays, Julie said, giving them "the best of both worlds." And because the circus travels throughout the city, Sam and Max get to "feel the richness of the different neighborhoods," giving them a stronger connection to the city, Julie said.
"They're really just normal kids. They want to do a million things. I'm excited for them that they've had this opportunity to grow up being surrounded by really interesting, creative artists from all over the world," Julie said. Laughing, she said she doesn't "know if they'll want to run a circus or if they'll rebel and get sensible jobs like doctors and lawyers."
Sam said she wants to continue working with the circus and might even open her own night circus if her parents ever retire the Midnight Coircus. Max has talked about attending circus school in the past, Julie said, but ever since filming "Lost in Space" he's been talking about become a director of photography.
"I love doing circus and it makes me feel really great to do it," Max said. "I definitely know that it's going to be a part of me for the rest of my life."
Max Jenkins (left) started performing in the Midnight Circus when he was 2 ½, he said. His sister, Sam Jenkins, was doing a low trapeze act by 5. [Sharon Gaietto Photography]