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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Zoppe Family Circus revives the days of old in South Burlington


Giovanni Zoppe as Nino in the Zoppe Family Circus. The show comes to Technology Park in South Burlington this weekend for six shows starting tonight. / Courtesy photo

Written bySusan Green, Free Press Correspondent

Aug. 3, 2011

Think of it as “When Napoline Met Ermengilda.” As creation stories go, the origins of the Zoppe Family Circus — appearing this week in Vermont — seem quite romantic: A French street performer visiting Budapest in 1842 fell for a Hungarian ballerina.
“Her father was not in favor of a clown marrying his daughter,” explained Giovanni Zoppe, a great-great-grandson of Napoline and Ermengilda Zoppe. “So, they moved to Venice and began their own circus.”
Giovanni Zoppe, following in ancestrial footsteps and wearing a bulbous red nose, will transform himself into Nino the Clown Prince of Italy during six shows scheduled for today through Sunday in South Burlington. He is also the the circus director, and his wife, Amy, is an aerialist. They often bring out their 21-month-old son Julien to take a bow. Moreover, Giovanni works alongside his two sisters — Tosca, an equestrian, and Carla, who orchestrates the dancing dogs — and their spouses.
“I was trained as a bareback rider like my father but I also do trapeze and juggling,” Giovanni Zoppe, 45, said.
Giovanni Zoppe’s father, Alberto Zoppe, was lured to the United States by filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille, who cast him and his daredevil horse act in 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In order to participate in the movie, the Italian circus star collaborated with the legendary Ringling Brothers, which agreed to his unusual proviso.
“My father only signed the deal when they sent an elephant to our circus in Italy in exchange,” Giovanni Zoppe said. “There were no elephants in all of Europe after World War II.”
Alberto Zoppe remained in Hollywood for more than a decade, serving as an advisor on other motion pictures and making his television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in early 1964, just a few weeks before the Beatles. He was with the Ringling Brothers circus for six years and married a member of the famous Flying Wallendas, high-wire artists whose legacy goes back to 1780.
Leaving the film industry behind, Alberto then launched an American chapter of the Zoppe Family Circus, currently headquartered in Chicago. After two children and a divorce, he tied the knot again in the early 1960s with vaudeville singer Sandra Kaylar. He was 43; she was 17.
Giovanni Zoppe, one of their three offspring, was first seen under the big top a few days after his birth. His dad continued in the circus ring even after replacement of both hips. As an octogenarian, Alberto Zoppe, was finally sidelined following a series of mini-strokes; he died two years ago at age 88.
During the show’s run at Technology Park in South Burlington, the Zoppe Family Circus will strut its stuff in a 600-seat tent. “It was designed by my father and has a unique garlic-shaped fiberglass top with an exhaust fan that sucks out the hot air,” Giovanni Zoppe said.
The 28-person troupe, half of them relatives, spends about 30 weeks a year on the road delivering the thrills and chills of a traditional circus.
Burlington’s Flynn Center is presenting the Zoppe circus and artistic director Arnie Malina, agreed with Giovanni Zoppe on the kid-friendly nature of the show.
“This circus is a real throwback, with lots of audience participation,” he said. “They’re a breath of fresh air, delightfully charming and old-fashioned.”
Giovanni Zoppe references his clan’s history.
“We are what circuses were 100 years ago,” he said “Circus and family mean the same thing in my opinion.”

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