July 9 2014 01:24 PM

Original founders are resurrecting the popular grassroots organization

circus banner
From left: Juggler David Kamatoy; Pietro “Pop” Canestrelli; and Jamie Adkins
Photos courtesy of Cindy Zimmerman and Bob Greiser

Most evidence of John Highkin and Cindy Zimmerman's former circus lives is gone or hidden away. A few visible traces remain: a pair of juggling clubs on a wicker end table outside; hand-painted circus signs leaning against a wooden fence; a toy piano beside a sofa. For the most part, though, Highkin and Zimmerman could pass as an average, albeit artsy, married couple edging closer to their calm, comfortable twilight years.

"We're in a big transition," an energetic Highkin says, shattering the quiet façade as he heads inside the couple's North Park home, which, starting this month, will double as an office for Fern Street Circus, the nonprofit they founded in 1990 and are in the midst of resurrecting.

"Today's the first day of the rest of our circus lives," Zimmerman adds as she settles in next to Highkin, who's in front of a computer loaded with a slideshow featuring images from the circus' long, proud past.

For 20 years, Fern Street Circus put on popular performances and became well known for its after-school program, which offered free circus-arts education to kids in Golden Hill, with satellite locations throughout the region. In 2010, however, years after both Zimmerman and Highkin left the organization in the hands of a new management team, the circus put on its last show. By 2011, the board voted to officially close.

Dissolution of a nonprofit can take years, however, so when Highkin recently approached the organization's last executive director, Laura Stansell, Fern Street Circus was still a few weeks away from fully shutting down.

"I told her I'd be interested in at least taking a whack to revive it," Highkin says. "And she said, ‘OK.'" 

Money was owed to Fern Street Circus performers and designers, so everything the organization owned—mainly, thousands of dollars' worth of equipment— was auctioned off to help pay down part of those debts. That means Highkin and Zimmerman are essentially starting from scratch. All they have is the name, the reputation, the intact nonprofit status and the computer on their dining-room table. But coupled with their energy, will to succeed and deep-rooted connections to the local circus community, the two say they're confident Fern Street Circus will be ready for its full-fledged return by spring of 2015.


Colorful photos of clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers and aerial acts reflect off the lenses of the couple's black-framed glasses as they flip through photos of Fern Street Circus' early days.

"It was kind of a DIY thing," Highkin laughs, looking at a photo taken in 1991 at Fern Street's inaugural performance at Grape Street Park in Golden Hill. Highkin homes in on the whimsical wooden columns that were handcrafted from disassembled pieces of a set The Old Globe Theatre had tossed in a dumpster.

"I don't mind going back to that," Zimmerman says, "but I want a real ring curb; I don't want to go back to that chalk."

It took a few years for Fern Street to earn enough income, through grants and fees collected from performances at private and public events, to purchase proper equipment, including sidewalls to enclose the circus, the ring curb that separates the audience from the performers, a floor mat, rigging for aerial acts, trampolines and more.

"I loved that floor cloth," Highkin says, flipping to a photo of a large, bright-blue circular mat with a big red star in the center. "The Pickle Family Circus up in San Francisco gave that to us."

Highkin rolls up his left sleeve to show off his only tattoo—a red star.

Yet even before Fern Street Circus had the fancy equipment, the community had embraced the group—seemingly starved for a circus because the only real acts at the time we're confined to the occasional street performances inside Balboa Park. It's estimated that 500 people showed up to their inaugural performance at Grape Street Park.

Aside from annual, two-weekend shows, which eventually moved to Balboa Park, plus the other one-off performances at events like the Linda Vista Multi-Cultural Fair, people became increasingly fond of and reliant on Fern Street Circus' after-school program.

"It changed my life," says Molly Murcia, who, with her partner, Rebecca Starr, tours internationally with her aerial act.

Murcia's parents drove her 40 minutes twice weekly, from age 7 to 17, to take advantage of Fern Street's free training program. She says the skills she gained were useful from a technical standpoint, but she also learned self-discipline, to practice until close to perfection and to overcome challenges through hard work. Those lessons influenced the way she views and navigates the world.

"I mean, it gave me my career," says Murcia, who started making a living through her act as soon as she graduated high school. "But it taught me so much more beyond circus."


John Highkin and Cindy Zimmerman
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Highkin pulls up a black-and-white image of Fern Street Circus' original hand-drawn logo.

"We're actually going back to that," he says. 

"I don't know if we are; you think we are," Zimmerman laughs. "I just think that for every old idea we had 25 years ago, we need to match it with a new idea. For every old strategy, for every old performer we had, we need a new one."

During the next few months, Highkin and Zimmerman will work on reconnecting with people they've worked with in the past—folks like Cheryl Lindley, who went on to open Sophia Isadora Academy of Circus Arts in North Park. They'll also reach out to a new generation of circus performers who've sprung up in San Diego since they left the scene.

While Highkin and Zimmerman assemble a crew, which will include musicians to provide a live score for the bigger performances, they'll also be fundraising, grant-writing and otherwise securing funding to keep the organization viable long-term. For several years in its heyday, they say, the circus enjoyed a relatively robust budget.

Highkin says he knows where some of Fern Street Circus' old equipment ended up after the auction, so he'll work to at least borrow enough for their planned first show next spring, which they hope will take place in Balboa Park just in time for the park's centennial celebration and Fern Street Circus' own 25th anniversary.

Highkin recently left his job as executive director of Young Audiences of San Diego, which works to connect the arts with education, to pursue his dream of reviving Fern Street Circus. Zimmerman, a visual artist and community college arts professor, will keep her career but plans to invest a significant amount of time and energy in the project. They've named themselves co-directors as they continue defining their individual roles and determining the scale and scope of the new Fern Street.

"I know how to create and sell the circus," Highkin says. "I can hold it in my hands, and people can see it and it gets in people's guts and it gets in their hearts and it gets in their heads. Bringing it back just more and more started making sense to me…. It just seemed to be this thing, at least in my head, that was steamrollering." 

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com and follow Kinsee on Facebook or Twitter 


See all events on Friday, Dec 2