PICTURED: Giovanni Zoppé, circus clown and director of the Zoppé Family Circus. The circus comes to the Ventura County Fairgrounds for a series of drive-in engagements July 31-Aug. 2.
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
The circus is coming to town! And even without the traditional big top, this group of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, equestrians and clowns will be pulling out all the stops to make sure audiences are entertained . . . even from their cars.
“This is an experiment for us,” says Giovanni Zoppé, director of Zoppé Family Circus, which has partnered with CBF Productions to stage five shows at the Ventura County Fairgrounds this weekend.
Producing a circus during a pandemic is no small feat, but compared to what this family-owned and -operated traveling show has seen in its 178-year history, COVID-19 is just one more obstacle to overcome. When circo is in your blood, the show always goes on.
Romance, tragedy and drama
The Zoppé origin story begins in 1842 and, like most circuses, it stars an international cast. French street clown Napoline travels to Budapest, where he falls in love with beautiful Hungarian equestrienne/ballerina Ermenegilda. Her father disapproves of the match, the lovers run away to Venice and from their union a circus dynasty is born.
According to Giovanni (sixth generation), the Zoppé name is famous and highly respected among circus folk, and synonymous with the European-style circus tradition.
“The Zoppé family . . . was considered the original circus,” he explains. “My family brought the circus out of the dark ages.”
Venice would remain the Circo Zoppé base for over a hundred years, although the traveling show could be seen all across Europe. It often played smaller towns and more modest venues that were bypassed by the larger Togni or Orfei circuses — a bit like Fellini’s La Strada come to life.
It also weathered numerous political upheavals, two world wars and the Spanish flu.
Circo Zoppé was almost lost altogether during World War II, when a bombing raid struck during a performance. According to Giovanni, repeating family lore, it was “Grab your children and run!” There was no time to gather belongings as everyone — performers and audience members alike — ran for shelter.
Returning later, it was discovered that “everything was up in smoke”: the tent, living quarters, equipment and, most tragically, the circus animals, trapped in their cages.
“My grandmother [Emma] was crying and on her knees, completely distraught,” Giovanni says, retelling the family story. “But my grandmother took her children — by herself — and rebuilt the show.”
In 2019, Zoppé Family Circus paid tribute to the beloved matriarch with a show titled “La Nonna.”
Coming to America
Emma Zoppé managed to bring the circus back from this tremendous loss, and restore its reputation throughout Europe.
But it gained an even wider audience in the 1940s, when Alberto Zoppé — great-grandson to Napoline and Ermenegilda, and father of the latest generation of Zoppé circus performers, including Giovanni — stepped into the ring in the 1940s. A tremendously talented equestrian, Alberto was known for his death-defying antics on horseback, including a layout somersault from one horse to another. He eventually became Circo Zoppé’s owner and featured act, performing across the continent. An acquaintance with a famous Hollywood director would eventually bring the Zoppés to the United States.
“Orson Welles became a good friend of my father in Rome,” explains Giovanni.
Through Welles, Alberto landed a small part in a film being shot in London, which brought him to the attention of John Ringling North, then-director of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. North wanted Alberto to join the Ringling Bros. empire in the U.S., but there was no reason for the successful circus owner and star performer to leave his Italian family circus.
At heart, however, Giovanni says that the Zoppés have always had wandering spirits. “Ever since that first street performer [Napoline], we’ve wanted to travel — go everywhere and see everything.” Eventually Alberto struck a deal with North: give Circo Zoppé an elephant (a rare commodity in Europe at the time — and a big draw for an Italian circus) and the famed equestrian would join Ringling Bros.
“The elephant went to Europe; my father came here,” Giovanni says.
Alberto spent the next few years starring in, and later directing, Ringling Bros. shows. During this time, he married Jenny Wallenda, a talented aerialist and daughter of Karl, of the Flying Wallendas fame. (Before divorcing in 1954, Alberto and Jenny had two children, Tino and Delilah; both made careers as circus performers.) He also made his Hollywood debut in The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1952 film by Cecil B. DeMille set in the circus and featuring dozens of actual circus performers. The film went on to win a slew of Oscars.
Alberto occasionally showed up in other Hollywood productions. But for him, the circus always came first. When his contract with Ringling Bros. ended, he stayed in the U.S. — first performing in various circuses around the country, later producing his own shows (Circo Italiano and Circus Europa were early versions) before establishing a family circus in the style he had grown up with in Italy.
Even after coming to America, the Zoppé Family Circus still managed to find itself in the middle of political drama.
A family anecdote (like all circus folk, the Zoppés are full of them) claims that Alberto was “directing a show in Cuba the day Castro took over.” The story goes that Alberto organized a plane to get the circus staff out of the country the following day. The plane was stopped on the runway, and military officers boarded.
“Cuban military — they all respected Italians, but not Americans,” Giovanni recounts. So Alberto instructed everyone, regardless of nationality, to answer “Si, si, Italianio” if questioned. After a few tense hours and the removal of one circus performer (who was eventually returned safely) the plane was allowed to leave, landing in Miami. “Everyone got off the plane and kissed the ground with relief,” Giovanni says.
Family legacy continues
For the next several decades, all the excitement of the Zoppé Family Circus took place, thankfully, in the ring. It eventually established a home base in Arkansas.
“It’s stunning — a gorgeous state,” Giovanni says of the decision to move there. “And it’s centrally located. Wherever we would go, we were halfway there.”
Giovanni is Alberto’s youngest child with his second wife, Sandra, who hailed from a vaudeville family. Giovanni and sisters Carla and Tosca grew up in and around the family circus. All three children did bareback riding, like their father, but Tosca is the one most devoted to the art. Carla and husband Rudy Heinan are known for their canine act, while Giovanni — who has entertained crowds as a rider, acrobat, aerialist and juggler — has embraced clowning as his art form.
“The clown has become my strong point,” he says, noting that as a clown he still gets to do a little bit of all the other acts, too.
The clown also plays an integral role at Zoppé Family Circus.
“The clown is in the European circus style,” Giovanni explains, noting its *commedia dell’arte* tradition. “He takes the audience on a journey.”
A Zoppé circus is usually backed by a narrative, with each act part of a larger story and the clown serving as something of a narrator or guide. Giovanni says that helps create an emotional connection between the audience and the performers.
“What we do best is reach people’s hearts,” Giovanni says of his family circus.
“Circus will always continue”
He has some concerns about eliciting a similar emotional reaction from the audience during a drive-in circus.
“Normally we meet everyone that comes inside of our tent,” says Giovanni. But when the audience sees the performers from their cars, he worries that, “People will have no idea who we are.”
To combat this, Zoppé has created a blend of live acts and film to bring the circus to life.
“This is going to be our premiere of our multimedia drive-in circus,” Giovannia explains.
The film will focus on the Zoppé family: its history, trials and tribulations, what it has become today. “We’ve gone through two world wars, the Great Depression, the other pandemic (the Spanish flu) . . . my family has incredible stories of the war.”
Carla, Tosca and Giovanni’s children, usually integral parts of the circus, will have to sit out the Ventura shows, and the international performers are unable to travel. Even so, Giovanni says a cast of 28 will be “converging from all over the country” to bring live excitement to the fairgrounds, including aerialists, acrobats, jugglers and clowns. There will be a perch pole balancing act. Equestrians from Las Vegas outfit Gladius will entertain in the drive lanes. And there will be a human cannonball appearing as well.
“The show here is not fragmented,” Giovanni insists. “It’s an art piece.”
Every show features a theme, and Giovanni explains that “this year was going to be about music. But then we lost my mother in March.”
Thus, the new theme is now “The Show Must Go On,” and calls back to a 2009 show, performed the year that Alberto died. It is a particularly apt motif for these times.
“When I think about my grandmother, getting through the raid . . . and rebuilding the show, this is nothing,” Giovanni says. “If she could do that . . . I can do this. No matter what, circus will always continue.”
The Zoppé Family Circus will perform at the Ventura County Fairgrounds July 31-Aug. 2. For tickets, showtimes and more information, visit www.concertsinyourcar.com.