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Zoppé written up in The New York Times!

The New York Times

Watch the Audio Slide Show with interview excerpts from Giovanni - click here.

The Family Business, 163 Years Under the Big Top

August 21, 2005
The New York Times

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. - Alberto Zoppé, 83, as worn, dusted and patched together as the canvas of the big top over his head, looked toward his feet and recalled the broken bones, working his way up.

"Oh, one foot, one ankle, one leg one time, one knee," he said in the accent of his native Italy. "The hip. They replace the hip and go back and do it again. I replace both hips."

Mr. Zoppé is the patriarch of the Zoppé Family Circus, a traveling band of men, women, children and animals that races between county fairs and suburbs like this one near Chicago, playing a few shows a day for a week or more throughout the summer before splitting up into their solo acts again.

The Zoppé circus evokes something from a picture book: the clown, the trapeze, the dancing dogs, the ring and the tent. The show is frozen in a time long before the high-concept, high-dollar Cirque du Soleil, which has opened its fourth resident show in Las Vegas.

"Nobody knows what real circus is," said the show's front man and lead clown, Mr. Zoppé's son, Giovanni Zoppé, 39. "I'm not going to say we're better than Soleil at all. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing. But it's not circus. When a kid imagines a circus, this is what they think of. It's exactly the way it's supposed to be. It's like the circus was 100 years ago."

Or, more precisely, as it was 163 years ago, in 1842, when a French clown named Napoline Zoppé met a ballerina, Ermenegilda, in Hungary, and they ran away to Venice. They were Alberto's great-grandparents.

"Cecil B. DeMille brought me here from Italy," Alberto Zoppé said before an evening performance in Schaumburg earlier this month. "He tried to get me for three years, but I can't come, because the show in Italy is going so well. I say, 'Well, what about if you send an elephant here to replace me?' He say, 'O.K., but I don't have an elephant.' He included in the contract to replace Alberto Zoppé with one elephant, immediately."

Mr. Zoppé appeared in "The Greatest Show on Earth," Mr. DeMille's Oscar-winning film, and rose in circus lore with his signature act: a backwards, flat somersault - his torso straight as a pole, not tucked into a ball - off the back of a running horse. Onto the back of a second running horse.

He met his wife, then Sandra Kayler, in the early 1960's on the road. "They asked for volunteers from the audience," Sandra recalled. "No one would volunteer for it, and I felt bad, so I volunteered. He was 43. I was 17." They married and had three children.

Fifteen summers ago, it almost fell apart. Giovanni was 30 feet from the ground, at least, spinning end-over-end while standing on a trapeze, a highlight of his clown act. It was not a terribly complicated act, and he had done it many times, but on that night he made a mistake.

"I reached out for the balloon," he said. "I went outside the circle of centrifugal force. I came down headfirst. I remember falling, but I don't remember much after that."

His mother said he landed in a fetal position in the sawdust of the ring and stopped moving. "I dream about it," she said, still clearly shaken by the memory.

He spent four days in a coma and awoke incoherent and listing to his right, to the extent that when he was able to walk, he dragged his shoulder along the right wall of the hallway.

But Giovanni recovered, emerging with damaged short-term memory and a body with a right side and a left side that still do not act entirely in harmony. He again put on the costume of Nino the Clown and returned to the ring on the one-year anniversary of his accident.

On the opening night of a five-day run this month in Schaumburg, about 100 children and their parents climbed up the bleachers. It was a hot night under the tent, and the dozen performers were already sweating as they joined in a circle outside and prayed for a good night.

Nino the Clown opened the show, with pratfalls and broom gags, calling children out of the crowd to help him find his lost hat. His younger sister, Tosca, performed equestrian tricks.

These days, the elder Mr. Zoppé watches from outside the ring. He suffered a stroke during an act in October and later broke his hip, and now walks very slowly with a cane. "To do a somersault from one horse to another," he said, "I don't know. I hope. I still hope."

They gathered after the show outside Giovanni's Fleetwood Avion trailer and rehashed their opening-night foul-ups - a human tower collapsed, with an acrobat accidentally stepping on another's throat. Ahead lay a two-day drive to Hamburg, N.Y., where the group is performing through Sunday.

"I'd love to play in just one city," Sandra said.

"Well," her son countered, "that's like a regular job."

Zoppé on NPR!

Listen to the audio - click here. Requires Real Player
Watch the Slide Show - click here.

Zoppé Family Circus Reviewed Sept. 2004

Following is an original review of the Zoppé Family Circus from their Canfield, Ohio date. The reviewer is Ed Limbach, Director of Public Relations and Media for the CFA


By Edward W. Limbach
Director Public Relations and Media
Circus Fans Association of America
Friday, September 10, 2004-Canfield, OH

On September 4, 2004 my wife, Lynn, and I decided to attend the Mahoning County Fair for the express purpose of seeing the Zoppé Family Circus. We arrived at the fair at about 11:30 am and immediately proceeded to the Zoppé Circus.

When we arrived at the big top we saw a sign the next show at 6pm. We thought that the sign must be in error so we saw a clown standing near the entrance and asked if the time was correct. He immediately introduced himself as Nino Zoppé. I told him that we were members of the Circus Fans Association of America and we proceeded to strike up a conversation. After about 15 minutes later, he said, " I want you to meet my father, Alberto Zoppé." We proceeded to the backyard and there sat Alberto with Mike and Silvius Piccolo exchanging jackpots. We were honored to meet Alberto.

Alberto Zoppe - from circusfan.orgThey immediately found chairs and wanted us to join in the jackpots. Alberto's wife, Sandy came to the door of the trailer and welcomed us. They made us feel right at home. Alberto told us a very interesting story about how he came to America in 1948. At the time he was running and performing in the Zoppé Circus in Italy. He said that one day he got a call from John Ringling North telling him that he wanted him to perform in the Greatest Show on Earth. Alberto said I told him I can't leave the circus. North said that he needed me and that Cecil B. DeMille wanted him in the movie, "The Greatest Show on Earth". Alberto explained that after the war there were no elephants in Italian Circuses as what had been available died during the war. So he said, I told John Ringling North that if you want me, I will come but you must send me an elephant to replace me on the Zoppé Circus. North said that he couldn't do that so Alberto told him that's ok forget about me coming to America. North replied ok you got your elephant. And so Alberto came to America to star in the Greatest Show on Earth. Now that is a great jackpot.

Zoppe tent - from circusfan.orgThe Zoppé Family Circus big top seats about 500 and we knew that there would be a crowd to get in to the 6pm show. We arrived at about 5 :15pm and a crowd was already assembling. We moved up to the rope line and stood there about 10 minutes when Nino Zoppé spotted us. He came right over and said, "You don't stand in line come with me and pick out the seats you want. There were about 50 chairs right on the ring curb. We were able to sit right in the center. While we were waiting for the show to start Alberto came into the big top and wanted to know if we didn't want a cup of coffee. We thanked him as we had just finished dinner. It was interesting to watch Alberto, 82, go around the big top checking things out. He even got a rake and smoothed out the sawdust where the horses would later go around the ring curb. Another thing that impressed me was Nino going around under the bleechers picking up paper or discarded soda cups.

The Zoppé Family Circus is created to be reminiscent of the one-ring European family circuses of the last century. The inside of the tent was very colorful with stingers of lights and the Zoppé Family crest over the performers entrance. The music was canned but very well done. The Italian atmosphere was created with the Italian music. As patrons began filling the big top it was interesting to note that family members were greeting them and helping them to their seats. The show start time was delayed almost fifteen minutes due to the large crowd and Zoppés effort to get everyone a seat.

Zoppe ring - from circusfan.orgFinally the show started with a dynamic grand entry. The crowd was taken back with the energy displayed in the opening. It is clear the show revolves around Nino and his outstanding clown performance. The audience loved him. The lady sitting next to me said that this is the greatest circus I have ever seen. Nino does a great job of getting the audience involved. After Nino, a great dog act was presented by Rudolpho Zoppé. It is fast moving and a real crowd pleaser. Nino then does a routine on the trapeze that had the audience gasping. Another clown performed with a violin which was received favorably by the audience. The finale was the presentation of two beautiful horses and equestrian ballerina, Tosca Zoppé who was sensational. Nino also performed in this act. Alberto guided the horses during the routine. The show ended with a skit by Nino and members of the cast.

For a midway show the running time was a little long but the audience didn't mind. In fact, the Zoppés got a standing ovation. That is very special for a fair crowd.

The other thing that struck me is the fact that the performers positioned themselves outside of the tent and thanked patrons for coming and shook hands with them. I overhead many positive compliments. The fact is this is a very unique circus. It is very patron friendly and it is high-energy show from start to finish.

A tip of the hat to the Zoppé Family for creating a great circus!

Chicago local CBS Evening News Report of the Zoppé Family Circus

Click here to watch. (5.45 MB file)

Zoppé Family Circus rolls into town

Family in Circus Business Since 1842

By Randy Conat
Swartz Creek
Image and article thanks to WJRT TV - ABC12 (05/30/03)

Zoppe ring - from WJRT TV
The circus has come to town. While it has cotton candy, clowns and animals, it's the man at the heart of the circus who's getting all the attention. ABC12's Randy Conat had more.

There's just one ring in the Zoppé Family Circus, but the performances you'll see are world class. There's a high wire act, dangerous animals practically jump into your lap and there are skillful equestrians.

The Zoppé family has been performing in circuses since 1842. "There's saying in the circus: 'Once the sawdust is in your blood, you can never get it out.'" said Tosca Zoppé.

The driving force behind the circus is 81-year-old ringmaster Alberto Zoppé. He likes to say he was a circus performer before he was born. His mother rode horses in a circus while pregnant with him. He loves his little circus.

"You've got the audience next to us," he said. "You can see if they enjoy the show or not."

Zoppé has appeared in five movies, including the classic "The Greatest Show on Earth." After World War II, his family circus in Italy needed an elephant. He agreed to perform in the Barnum & Bailey-Ringling Brothers Circus if they would send his family an elephant.

They did and he began performing here in 1948. That's why he says he was traded for an elephant. Fair warning: If you come to the Zoppé circus, be prepared to become a part of the act. The Zoppé Family Circus is performing throughout the weekend during Swartz Creek Hometown Days

Circus Flora opens in St Louis

The Circus is in Aerialist's Blood; So What if He Sheds a Little?

By Joseph M. Schuster
Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

So what if, more than a decade ago, Giovanni Zoppé fell in the middle of a comic aerialist act and ended up in a coma for four days.

So what if, on the day a reporter interviewed Zoppé, he fell again while rehearsing a comic rope-walking act for Circus Flora - fell, according to him "only" 12 feet, as if the height were nothing, no more than a slip off a curb - and suffered rope burns along one side of his body. So what if he once fell off a horse while leaping over flaming poles in front of more than 1,000 spectators, and so what if he could fall again at any time, breaking an arm, a leg or, worse, his neck: He wouldn't do anything else than what he's doing right now.

"I would never trade this life for anything in the world," he says. "I once tried building trusses for houses, but that lasted for about three weeks. Another time, I tried doing deliveries, but that lasted a week. It was too monotonous - getting up at the same time every day, going into work at the same time, stopping at the same coffee shop at the same time, coming home at the same time. When I got home after those jobs, I just felt dead; my brain was mush. All I could do was sit in front of my TV at night."

It's not that Zoppé, 38, who headlines the current Circus Flora show and who last month became the youngest performer ever inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame, doesn't work hard now. In fact, his days leading up to the circus' opening were long ones, starting before 6 a.m., when he began three hours rehearsing his act balancing on the rope, followed by several hours of rehearsal on horseback and a few hours more rehearsing with the entire Circus Flora company to perfect the show's story line, followed by a few hours working with the circus' jugglers, finally ending with a dinner break about 7 or 8 p.m. Zoppé is a sixth-generation performer. His great-great-great-grandparents founded a circus in Italy in 1842, and he estimates that 250 of his family members have worked in a circus. Most have made their mark as bareback riders - his father, Alberto, was featured in the Oscar-winning 1952 film "The Greatest Show on Earth" - but the family also has ties to the world-famous Flying Wallendas, who include Zoppé's half-brother Tino Wallenda.

Although Zoppé shares his family's background in equestrian performance -his bio notes that, when he was 9, he became the youngest performer ever to do a somersault on horseback - he prefers comedy. He became a professional clown when he was 10, but his first comic appearance came much earlier,when he was 2. "In the middle of one of my family's performances," he says, "I was in a trailer (near the circus tent) and I broke away from the baby-sitter and ran into the middle of the ring, where I took a bow in front of the audience - completely naked. The crowd roared." In many ways, Zoppé still retains a bit of the 2-year-old in his clown persona. "My character name, Nino, was actually my nickname when I was younger," he says. "In Italian families, when you are a boy, they attach '-ino' to your name, and so I was 'Giovannino - Nino.' I am really just a big kid, and 'Nino' is really just me, my child self, a human being with flaws - except larger, playing all of my faults larger. So when I stumble a lot (in the show), I am just exaggerating normal clumsiness, and when Nino gets angry, it's just my own temper, but bigger." It's that all-too-human quality that led Circus Flora artistic director David Balding to decide to make Nino the centerpiece of this year's show.

"He has great physical attributes," Balding says. "He can do so many things - he can ride horses, he is a great acrobat - but he also has a certain humility, a certain sweetness. There is just this sort of Everyman feeling he projects. He just really connects with the audience." It's the opportunity to make that connection that keeps Zoppé working at his craft - and even made him impatient after his near-fatal fall, during a performance in Ohio in 1990, when he fell headfirst doing a 180-degree turn on a high wire.

"After my coma, the doctor told me I couldn't perform for a year," he says. "And so, a year to the day later, I was back on the wire. It felt like I was home again. Not too many people can leave the circus once they've been part of it. When you get the sawdust in your blood, it's impossible to get it out."