One-Ring Wonder

Giovanni Zoppé’s Real-Life Family Circus

The Zoppé family’s circus is 170 years old and still winning fans for the traditions of circus art, writes Malcolm Jones.

Under a drizzling sky, a lone juggler dazzles a handful of people outside a stately white tent that rises miragelike on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Fair. A straight-faced clown in severe white makeup begins picking out a tune on an accordion as more people trickle in to watch. A couple of acrobats show off their flips and somersaults. The crowd swells, as the insistent tempo of the music lures in the curious. Then Giovanni Zoppé goes into his spiel.

“Welcome to our circus,” he says, his voice a little hoarse as he strains to be heard over the music and the murmur of the crowd. “Welcome to our family. Without family you don’t have circus, in our opinion. So on behalf of my family—my family is standing behind me, my family has been performing worldwide—we’d like to thank you for bringing your families here and helping us support this art form we call the family circus.”

He sounds ever so sincere when he beckons the now sizable crowd into the tent, saying, “Welcome to our home.” But you can’t help thinking that this is just his shtick—honeyed words to reel in the rubes.

The next hour will be spent eradicating that cynical suspicion.

First out is Giovanni’s mother, Sandra, an older woman all in black who again welcomes the audience surrounding the single sawdust ring. It is hard to make out exactly what she is saying, but her words act almost like an incantation. At the very least, she ignites your curiosity.

Then comes the spec, circus slang for the spectacle that opens the show. In the heyday of American circuses a century ago, the spec went on forever as the entire cast of aerialists, animal acts, and clowns paraded around under the big top. The Zoppé version is more modest, and much more mysterious.

A lone horse emerges and begins to canter around the ring. The horse is followed by Tosca Zoppé, his trainer, who guides him through his paces. It is a weirdly beautiful moment, simple but enchanting, like something out of a dream.

Suddenly they are joined by the acrobats and jugglers from the pre-show outside. Papino, the white clown, reappears, now without his accordion. He is followed by another clown lugging a huge trunk that he plops down in the center of the ring. It takes a second to recognize Giovanni, whose handsome visage has been submerged into the red-nosed persona of Nino, a hapless, subversive bumbler. Nino opens a trunk and begins extracting props—balloons, a cane, and a battered old trombone. Everyone else departs. Papino, the last to leave the ring, casts a doubtful look at Nino, clearly worried about what mischief may soon ensue.

Nino straightens up. He sees that he has the ring—and the crowd—to himself. He smiles.

Once more, Zoppé: An Italian Family Circus—170 years old and spry as ever—is off and running.

An hour and a half later, Giovanni welcomes a guest to his trailer, where he makes coffee, pours himself a glass of wine, and talks circus over a lunch of cold cuts, cheese, bread, and fruit. The only evidence of Nino the clown—the red rubber nose and its Little Tramp mustache—lies on a nearby table.

“We don’t do many fairs,” Giovanni says. “This is our first state fair, and they’ve been so kind, they’re such good people. The one reason I don’t do fairs is that you’re treated as a fair act: There’s your place, go do your act. Here they treat us like artists. And that’s who we are. We’re not scaramacai.” He sees the puzzlement on his guest’s face. “Scaramacai is an old gypsy circus word. It means doing something just to make money.”

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The Zoppé family has been in the circus business since 1842, when a French street clown and a Hungarian equestrienne ballerina ran off to Venice, where they married and started a dynasty now in its sixth generation. Like many circus people, Giovanni carries not only his family’s history around in his head but the history of circuses in general. Informed, opinionated, and articulate, he plainly loves talking about what he does.

“I don’t want to do modern circus,” he says. “I want to do what they did 100 years ago.” He has no use for the mind-numbing bloat of Ringling Brothers nor does he like the light-show and acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil. Instead he prefers the intimacy of a one-ring show under a tent with a couple of dozen performers. In its current incarnation, the Zoppé circus consists of 22 people, including his mother, his two sisters and their husbands and children, another family that includes the acrobats and jugglers, and assorted dogs and horses.

Giovanni’s father, Alberto, who died three years ago, was brought to the United States in 1948 by John Ringling North and soon made a cameo in Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth. “You can just barely see him in one shot,” Giovanni says. “He’s doing a somersault on the back of a horse. They shot that scene 54 times, because the actors in the foreground kept blowing their lines. So he had to do the somersault 54 times.”

The Zoppés remained in America, and Giovanni was born in Chicago in the parking lot of WGN where his mother went into labor while his father was still inside appearing on the Bozo the Clown show. After that, Giovanni grew up “everywhere, the world, wherever we were, that’s where I grew up.” As a result he’s “fairly fluent in English, Italian, some Russian, less in French. My father spoke seven languages. But he grew up in Europe—he had no choice.”

Giovanni trained to be a bareback rider. Along the way he also picked up the skills to be an acrobat, a juggler, a wire walker, a trapeze artist, and a clown. And, like a lot of performers who do death-defying things on a daily basis, he got hurt a lot. He injured his spleen when he fell off a trampoline when he was 10. “I died on the operating table and they brought me back. In 1990, I fell head first from a trapeze and was in a coma for four days. So, a bunch of times. I’ve had my nine lives. I’m 46 years old, so I watch out now. I used to be able to fall from 40 feet and get up and walk away. If I fell 40 feet now, I don’t know how good that would be.”

For most of four decades, the Zoppés put on circuses in tent shows, theaters, arenas, and performing arts centers across the country. “And then about 10 years ago I did what I was born for,” says Giovanni, “to build the circus on the origins of circus, what circus is meant to be, why we’re here.

“You can argue that, what is circus meant to be? I argue that with myself all the time. A circus is a clown on the street with a hat. That’s what circus is. It’s not about doing a triple somersault in the ring. It’s not about doing some amazing trick that I’ve never seen before. The closest I’ve come to defining circus over my whole life is, circus is family—on both sides, inside and out, the audience and the performers. Without family there is no circus. Families have to come, families have to perform. Without that it’s hard to have a circus.”

The truth is, it’s hard to have a circus under any circumstances. Giovanni sounds like a lot of small-business people when he grumbles about “the inspectors, the licenses, the animal bullshit—and it is bullshit,” although he admits that PETA is not much of a problem, “because we only have horses and dogs. They pretty much leave us alone.” That said, “What we have to go through to keep this art form alive is absurd.”

He frets about everything, and nothing escapes his scrutiny. “The tall boy that juggles, this is his first outing. He came in four days ago. Now, he had three drops in the last show. That’s too many for me. One. OK. Two, not good. Three, too many. People think you can’t juggle. Do that out front [in the preshow] that’s OK. Not in the ring.”

He worries the most, though, about the spirit of his circus. “The tent is new, two years old,” he says. “My father and I designed the tent, and I was so worried with the change of the tent. Would the heart leave with the old tent? Because I loved my old tent. It was small and torn up, but it was the magic of circus inside.”

Circus families are dynastic, and their roots often go back, as the Zoppé’s do, for two centuries or more. It’s a tightly knit culture where everyone not only knows everyone else but is quite possibly related (Alberto Zoppé’s first wife was a Wallenda). More impressively, everyone knows how to do everyone else’s job. Specialists are rare in circuses. Generalists are everywhere, and traditions are taught by example, not from books.

“My father taught me what circus is supposed to be. When I was about 8, I saw the Big Apple Circus, and I thought, this is it. Later in life, I learned that that wasn’t exactly it, but they had the emotion, the heart, and the reason. It wasn’t just act after act after act. Over the years,” he says and then shrugs. “There’s no heart any more. They’ve had good shows, but there’s no heart. That’s what I’m worried about with this show. I’ve been doing this 10 years, pushing it along, and we still have a reason for doing it. Everybody here has that. I’m so worried about losing that. When that happens, I’m just going to quit.”

So far the worrying seems to be paying off. Until this year, Giovanni says, “The most I’ve ever worked with this show in 10 years is 13 weeks. The first year we had four weeks. The second year we had a week. Some weeks I didn’t get paid. It was a struggle to get this off the ground. But this year we’re doing 22 weeks. It’s a huge difference. We opened in Chicago, went to the East Coast, and now we’re on our way to the West Coast. We’re touring half the year. A great year.”

Still, it’s an uphill slog. American audiences, trained for more than a century to think that the bigger the circus the better, are only just beginning to accept the intimate one-ring shows that have always been the norm in Europe. Giovanni knows that he has his work cut out for him.

“Hey, I’m playing a state fair in Oklahoma. I do what I have to do to keep the show on the road,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not complaining. I’m happy we’re here. But I can’t go and set up in a vacant lot and expect people to come with their tongues hanging out wanting to see the show. If you ask people what is circus, they say Ringling. They don’t know any different. I’m just trying to educate them.”

The Zoppé Circus is nothing if not an education in this ancient art form, although you’re so entertained and delighted that it might never cross your mind that you’re being instructed in skills honed over thousands of years.

But even the most unobservant spectator can’t help but realize that in Nino’s performance, you’re witnessing a master class in clowning.

Nino’s routines, such as kicking his hat out of reach every time he bends to pick it up or reaching for the hat on a cane that he manages to put just out of his own reach, are familiar. Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, both schooled in vaudeville, incorporated those jokes into their films, but the routines themselves are no one knows how many centuries old. “There’s nothing new about the show,” Giovanni says. “But why make it complicated? Here we try to keep it as simple as possible.” The trick, of course, is to make it new, and somehow that is what Nino does. A peerless performer, he is the epitome of the traditional Auguste clown—the circus term for the troublemaking buffoon with the big nose and a genius for getting into trouble—he is a peerless performer.

At least one aspect of the magic he weaves is explicable. Whether he is insinuating himself into a juggling routine or flubbing a trapeze act, he clearly has those skills in his toolkit. He’s not only a good juggler and wire walker but good enough to fool you into thinking he’s a klutz.

Giovanni waves off the compliment. “Every true circus person does clowning,” he says, noting that Alberto Zoppé was renowned as an acrobat and a bareback rider who invented a flat somersault—no curling up—from the back of one horse to another. “But my father was also a beautiful clown. That’s where my brother-in-law, the white clown, got everything he does, from watching my father. Until three years ago he was doing lights and sound. Now he does the white clown better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

With that, he calls time on the interview. He has to prepare for the second of the three shows daily the Zoppés are performing at the state fair. Ushering his guest out of the trailer, he takes one more question: is there any downside to this ideal of the family circus?

He allows himself a wry smile. “Well, my sister wants to take her grandkids to the fair, so we won’t have a dog act this afternoon.”