Vail Daily Review: Zoppe Family Circus was an example of the new ‘big top’ model in America |

Vail Daily Review: Zoppe Family Circus was an example of the new ‘big top’ model in America

The Zoppe Italian Family Circus opened Friday, Sept. 8, in Avon. The circus is family oriented with a 19th century European feel.
Chris Dillmann | |

Every discussion about the circus these days seems to go back to one theme — they don’t use elephants anymore.

Indeed, the big top currently set up in Nottingham Park has been quite the conversation piece. The Zoppe family circus is in town, bringing their 19th century-style show to Avon, where a confused Italian clown has been delighting audiences in multiple shows throughout the weekend.

The show is perfect for Eagle County families whose children have been brought up with a constant presence of friendly dogs. Instead of elephants, the Zoppe family uses canines who have an impressive array of tricks that would be a worthwhile standalone act in Avon. This weekend, it is just one part of a 90-minute show that local families are sure to enjoy. Tickets are $23; Avon Mayor Jennie Fancher and Mayor Pro Tem Sarah Smith Hymes were giving away $5 coupons and they may still have more, find their email addresses on the town’s website.


When the show that gave birth to everyone’s idea of a circus in America — the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — announced plans to shut down in 2017 after 146 years, a common reaction I heard was, “Also, they don’t use elephants anymore.”

A lesser-discussed take on the matter was the fact that the big circus simply wasn’t as feasible as it once was.

“Many smaller circuses are thriving because of their economy of scale, something Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey ultimately couldn’t compete with,” wrote Meg Jones with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has provided many with insight into the workings of the Ringling Brothers circus for years, but for me personally, the two are forever linked because my mother appeared on the front page of the paper at a circus-related event in the early ’90s. I grew up not far from the town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling brothers were born and raised and where the circus was headquartered. The big top is woven into the fabric of the community there, and the circus train’s annual trip from Baraboo to Milwaukee was something my brother and I looked forward to witnessing every year.

We followed the train along its journey and then watched the circus itself when it hit the city. It was an incredible show, but for us, the most incredible part was seeing the animals and the elaborately decorated train cars they were housed in.

Imagine you’re my father. Your wife and children are an hour and a half away in Baraboo, watching the circus train depart and making a weekend of it, camping overnight. You are hoping for few reminders that you were not able to join your family on this trip due to the hectic work schedule you endure in the summers. You awake, make coffee, pick up the paper, and there’s your wife on the front page, smiling and facing the camera, with the circus train behind her.

Needless to say, both the circus and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel left a big impression on me as a child.


In recent years, I’ve been keeping up with the Journal Sentinel’s circus coverage, and it’s been sad to read. First went the elephants, then the Ringling Brothers’ entire operation. The news broke in January.

The detail about keeping up with smaller circuses was something I barely took in on first read. However, in recent days, I started thinking about that detail quite a bit as a small circus set up a big top at Nottingham Park. If you walk through the park, then you can’t miss it.

I took both of my children, my wife, her two friends and their child to the Zoppe Italian Family Circus on Friday.

We emerged through the corridor under the big top and I was immediately taken back to the circus in Milwaukee. It was a miniaturized version of the same experience, with the smells of popcorn and horses triggering the proper amount of nostalgia.

The circus itself had many of the same elements, but it also had a European feel that my wife really appreciated, as she enjoyed a few dancing bear circus-type events of her own as a child growing up in Eastern Europe.

The Italian clowns were loved by the children, and provided a level of audience participation that was perfect for the intimate venue.

With dogs and horses replacing the elephants, or — as my wife pointed out — the Russian bears who could do a jig on command, children still seemed to find the same level of animal related amusement.

In my later years, I began to appreciate the acrobatics of the circus more than any of its other many components, and the Zoppe family did not disappoint. I think a lot of young freeskiers and snowboarders in our area would agree the acrobatics on display made the whole show worth attending. The performers are both young and old, and their skills are a reminder of the incredible feats human beings are capable of.

I felt really good leaving the big top in Nottingham Park, having experienced both the big circus that once dominated the traveling amusement scene in America, and the small circus that has become the new model in 2017.

Like the protagonist clown who kept the show going in Avon this weekend, I have felt both sadness and confusion from the circus this year, but ultimately it has put a smile on my face and left me with a feeling of elation.

It’s true there’s no elephants, but I would highly recommend the Zoppe Italian Family Circus nevertheless. Their last show in Avon is today at 1 p.m. Learn more at

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