Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Zoppé Family Circus

Today, while Doug Higley was writing about the “new” Ringling Bros. Circus, I attended one of the final local performances of the Zoppé Family Circus. Zoppé is a throwback, not a hundred years, but over a hundred and fifty years. The family has been in the circus business since 1842.

They now run a single ring, 500-seat tent show. It really is an intimate family affair. That girl who sells souvenirs, she is also an acrobat. Another beauty selling lemonade works the trapeze. The guy hawking the cotton candy and popcorn juggles and dances on the slack rope.

83-year-old Poppa Alberto Zoppé came to America in the early 40s when he appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. His son, Giovanni is NINO the clown and the center piece of the show and the business.

He revived the show and has been trying to make a go of it ever since. The competition from larger shows, gas prices, and an uneducated public make it a tough go. They don’t carry with them the trappings of other small circuses or carnivals: no games, sideshows, or mitt camps. The show is everything and really, the only thing they sell. Okay, there is a ding at intermission, if you want to take a photo with a miniature horse.

What a wonderful show they put on. When I was a child, my parents took me to the circus. It was the Ringling show at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre. I don’t remember much; I was too young. The show was too big show; this is the first small show I’ve seen.

The show starts before you enter the tent. The performers come out with musical instruments in hand. They get the audience going with a traditional Italian sing-a-long and some dancing. Inside, it smells like circus, all sawdust and canvas.

The acts are classic circus: trapeze, trained dogs, juggling, slack rope, and acrobatics. However, NINO is the real star of the show. He plays off the ringmaster/clown/heavy/bad guy. The ringmaster constantly trying to ruin NINO’s fun and NINO getting the best of him in the end. All to the audiences delight and sometimes to my jaded eyes’ surprise. New wrinkles and clever twists had me smiling and laughing.

This satisfying show warmed my nostalgic heart. The Zoppé Circus is now headed to New York. Those of you that can, see them. Rather than thank me, thank the Zoppés for keeping these traditions alive.

(Doug Higley’s Pygmyland Herald is linked on the side bar. And you can visit The Zoppé Family Circus at

1 comment:

mai-ling said...

Dad always talked about the Zoppe's. I think I have a photo
of them with me when I was a baby.

I'll have to check.