Traveling with the Zoppè Italian Family Circus

By Janice Therese Mancuso

Da generazioni la famiglia Zoppè affonda le proprie radici nella vita circense; con parentesi cinematografiche ad Hollywood lavorando con Orson Welles la storia dei Zoppè si sviluppa e continua fino a giorni nostri. Determinati a portare il Circo di Famiglia e le sue tradizioni nelle nostre citta’ gli Zoppè continuano la tradizione cominciata ancor prima del 1800 in Italia e sviluppatasi poi qui negli Stati Uniti.

For most of us, travel offers a way to leave our everyday life, to seek a new adventure or take some time to relax. For some, travel is part of the job -- a requirement that may elicit equal parts anticipation and reluctance. For the Zoppè family, travel is their life; not only providing the means to keep them connected to their heritage, but also bringing a piece of 1800s Italy to America. 

In 1948, Alberto Zoppè -- under the most unusual circumstance -- left his family circus in Italy and came to America. He was persuaded by Orson Welles, John Ringling North and Cecil B. DeMille, but the unusual circumstance was that he was traded for an elephant.

Alberto was an acclaimed equestrian acrobat, and his layout somersault -- a backward flip from one galloping horse to another -- caught the attention of Hollywood legend Orson Welles. Through Welles, Alberto met Ringling, who was coordinating circus acts for DeMille’s movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. Ringling wanted Alberto to perform in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the States and also offered Alberto a part in the DeMille movie. Alberto agreed on the condition that as the star attraction of his family circus, he be replaced by another star attraction until he could return. No elephants had survived the fighting of World War II in Italy, so Alberto requested an elephant for his circus.

The Zoppè Italian Family Circus was established in 1842, when Alberto’s great-great grandfather, a circus clown, eloped with a circus ballerina, settled in Venice and created a family institution, a traditional Italian circus that has one central story. The traveling circus -- a one-ring show with clowns, jugglers, trained animals, acrobats and more -- is still common in Italy, and was the root of Alberto’s talent and desire. After his contract with Ringling was over, Alberto, with his wife and children, stayed in America and decided to bring the circus of his youth to the American public.

Today, Giovanni Zoppè, Alberto’s son, is the force behind the Zoppè Italian Family Circus. He performs as Nino the Clown, a combination comedian, acrobat, juggler, trapeze artist and equestrian. In a recent telephone interview, Giovanni said he has been performing in the show “on and off since I was a baby” and by ten years old he had become “a regular part of the show.”

The most important part of the show, though, is making sure the audience enjoys the performance -- and the Zoppè family excels at it. Before the show, while people line up to enter the tent, members of the family often entertain outside the tent with a pre-show. Once the audience is seated, the main show begins. Giovanni notes, “The artists welcome the audience. Not one person [in the audience] is more than 20 feet away. The performers invite the people in the audience to be part of the show.”

How does the audience get involved? “They may be part of a hand balancing routine, or ride a horse or hold a rope for a wire walker.” Giovanni explains, “We take them on a journey through time. The circus is about making people happy. Everybody becomes part of our family when they come to the show.”

Traveling back through time, the performers wear typical costumes of 1820s Italy and, Giovanni remarks, “The music is very welcoming…like a little town in Italy… like going to someone’s home.” The intimate setting of the 500-seat tent, surrounding the 42-foot ring, helps create an atmosphere that “emphasizes Italian culture through family.”

“Families all over Italy in the 1800s were traveling and performing,” Giovanni states, [but] “we were one of the first tent circuses in Italy. As far as I know, we’re the only circus family with roots to the Italian circus.” With roots so deeply entrenched, Giovanni has many memories. One of his most vivid was when a lioness escaped from her cage, but his fondest memories are “the performances with my father.” (Alberto died in March 2009.)

Giovanni is committed to keeping the circus authentic. “Family is Italian…circus is Italian…Italian is family. If it can’t be real, then I don’t want it.” He has three dreams: to “get the show back to the antique style of a fun, joyous place;” to “put the show in old circus wagons” when it rolls into a town, and to “travel back to Italy and perform.” His last dream will bring the Zoppè Italian Family Circus to full circle.

The Zoppè family will travel just about anywhere, keeping the tradition of the Italian family circus alive. For more information about the circus, visit www.zoppe.net; for information about bringing a traditional Italian family circus to your town, visit www.newworldclassics.com.

Janice Therese Mancuso is the author of Con Amore, a culinary novel; and founder of Thirty-One Days of Italians, an educational program to promote Italian and Italian American history, culture, and heritage. For more information, visit http://home.earthlink.net/~31italians, www.jtmancuso.com, or email jtmancuso@earthlink.net.