In 1948, Alberto Zoppè left his native Italy for America, bringing with him a family-circus tradition that dates to 1842. Today, his son, Giovanni, 39, is the driving force behind the Zoppè Family Circus, one of the last old-fashioned, family-run, one-ring circuses left touring the United States.
"Everything is spinning so fast today, we want the audience to forget about everything and just step back in time with us," says Giovanni, the circus' producer and head clown.
The Zoppè circus is unapologetically authentic, from its intimate 500-seat tent with wood-plank bleachers to a performance that includes small-animal acts, trapeze acrobatics and the kind of grand-gesture, silent comedy perfected by Charlie Chaplin.
A typical show feature 15 to 25 performers, all of them family and friends. In addition to Giovanni (who plays Nino the Clown), his mother, Sandra, and father, now 83 and recovering from a stroke, the regulars include sister Tosca, an equestrian; Tosca's husband, Jay Walther, the ringmaster, sister Carla, a dog trainer; and Carla's husband, Rudolf Heinen, a former lion tamer who now performs with canines. The traveling entertainers also include cousins who specialize in juggling fire and a group of college-age non-Zoppè circus performers that Giovanni lovingly dubbed "the Prego Troupe" because "they're fake Italian, just like the sauce."
Related by blood or not, they're all members of the Zoppè family, says Giovanni. "When circus performers believe in the true artistry of what we're trying to do, the ties are as thick as blood, if not thicker," he says.
"We're always together, always counting on one another," says Tosca who even found love on the road. She met her husband, Jay, who didn't hail from a circus background, during a performance in New Jersey. "I went on the road with them for what I thought would be just a year," Walther says. "Thirteen years later, it's still phenomenal."
Keeping a circus on the road is challenging, even for someone as youthfully exuberant as Giovanni. Unlike most big-budget circuses, the Zoppès act as their own crew, pounding in the stakes and raising the large tent themselves. "When you're performing in the ring and you know you physically set up the surroundings, it's a whole new level of satisfaction," Giovanni says.
The set-up is performed quickly, but with great care, and sometimes ends only a few moments before the Zoppès don costumes to greet audience members as they enter the tent.
As the show's booking agent, Giovanni also logs more than 6,000 cell-phone minutes each month to fill the troupe's May-through-September season. When he hits the road from the family's home base in Greenbrier, Ark. (pop.3,042), his caravan comprises seven classic-model trucks and trailers that last year racked up $22,000 in fuel bills in just three months.
Keeping an eye on the bottom line doesn't quite seem to fit a performer whose signature is balancing a broom atop a fake red nose. "Nino the Clown comes naturally to me," Giovanni says with a smile. "The businessman, Giovanni Zoppè, that's difficult to do."
During the early years of the circus, when he struggled to book more than a few weeks of work for the season, Giovanni turned down offers from managers and promoters whose bottom lines didn't connect with his old-fashioned, family-first approach.
"Today, it's about making more money," he says. "I don't think about that. I want to know how I'm going to make that kid in the front row smile. That's what keeps me going."
The Zoppès are on firmer footing these days, having booked more than 13 weeks on the road last sumer with an eye for 20 weeks this year. But more importantly, the show's themes of family, togetherness and history continue to resonate with parents and children alike.
"People don't see our show," Giovanni says. "They feel it."