Zoppe Italian Family Circus celebrating 175 years with performances in Avon this weekend | VailDaily.com

Zoppe Italian Family Circus celebrating 175 years with performances in Avon this weekend

The Zoppe's have quite the family history, and it starts with a love story 175 years ago and comes full circle today through Sunday in Nottingham Park.

For the Zoppe Italian Family Circus, it all started 175 years ago, in 1842, when a young French street performer named Napoline Zoppe, looking for work, met a graceful ballerina named Ermenegilda in Budapest, Hungary.

However, since Napoline was a clown, Ermenegila's father disapproved of the relationship, so the two ran off to Venice, Italy, and started the circus that still bears the same name today and will be in Avon for three performances.

Napoline Zoppe's great-grandson, Alberto Zoppe, inherited the circus almost 100 years later, and Alberto's son Giovanni, who has been in the show his whole life, now keeps the tradition alive.

"It's really what my family circus was 100 years ago," Giovanni Zoppe said. "The show today is the same as it was back then. It's real."

Having performed across the country and in Colorado before, the classic three-day circus brings the community together in Avon for the first time. The almost 90-foot tent that travels to 22 destinations in the U.S. with 34 members of the circus will take residence in Nottingham Park.

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"It's not really a camping tent," Giovanni Zoppe said.

TRADED FOR AN ELEPHANT

Back to the Zoppe family history.

Alberto Zoppe toured Europe with the circus since his youth, making many friendships along the way, including actor and director Orson Welles. At the time, there were no big-time circuses out there yet, Giovanni Zoppe said, and all of them were on the same level.

John Ringling North, of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, was in contractual agreements in 1952 to make a film about a circus in the U.S., "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Welles, having worked with Alberto Zoppe, knew the company creating the film, Giovanni Zoppe said, and told them they had to have Alberto Zoppe in the film. Without him, Ringling North would be denied the contract to the film that later won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

It took three trips to Italy from Ringling North to persuade Alberto Zoppe to come to the states for the film. The family circus had already survived wars and political upheaval in Italy and was doing quite well, making Alberto Zoppe reluctant to leave.

But once he found out that the Ringling Bros. had 54 elephants, he made a deal to move to America, Giovanni Zoppe said.

Alberto Zoppe only agreed to do the film if Ringling North would send an elephant to the Zoppe Family Circus in Italy.

"So, my father came to America, the elephant went to Italy and that was that," Giovanni Zoppe said.

'My Backyard Changes'

The Zoppe Italian Family Circus this year travels to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona and California. And despite a wide range of audiences, the circus entertains people of all walks of life.

"It's amazing and I wouldn't trade my life for anything in the world," said Giovanni, who lives in Chicago and goes to Europe a few times every year when he's not touring.

While the circus travels the country, Giovanni Zoppe said it doesn't feel like life on the road because of their home — the tent where the magic happens.

"We're all parked around the tent in a circle," Giovanni Zoppe said. "I like to say that I never move. We play 22 places a year and my house stays the same, but my backyard changes."

The grandstands are made of vintage wood, and the tent takes about three to four days to setup. However, with a quick turnaround from performing in Winter Park, the circus will go op in two and a half days to be ready for opening night today.

Joining the circus

The Zoppe Italian Family Circus focuses on community — what the circus was when it first began.

For generations, the circus hosts a pre-show before each performance, where members of the circus interact with members of the audience.

"So when they come inside our home — our tent — we're not just plastic characters on the stage," Giovanni Zoppe said. "We're human beings, and they're human beings, instead of someone 100 feet away that you can't see."

On opening night today the Family Circus invites the community to a potluck dinner at the tent an hour after the show. Feel free to bring a dish.

And to top it all off, the Zoppe Family Circus is inviting a local artist to step right up and live every kid's fantasy of joining the circus.

"Just for the weekend," said artist Miriam Ford, of Eagle-Vail. "I thought that would just be the coolest thing ever."

Ford's art has been on display at Loaded Joe's, in Avon, where she also works, during the month of August, and Giovanni was intrigued by it while in town for a site visit.

He's done it once before in Colorado — for the three straight nights of the circus in Avon, Ford will be on a trapeze creating her own works of art in front of the crowd.

With little to no trapeze experience, Ford is thrilled with the opportunity to join the circus — even if only for three days.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I have a couple of ideas. I want to do something different every night."

A trapeze can sound intimidating, but Giovanni Zoppe is not too concerned.

"It won't be a flying trapeze," he said, "so she can work and make her art because her art is different than our art, and it's equally great."

The Circus Life

Giovanni Zoppe is the seventh generation of Zoppes to continue the family business and has been in the show since he was "basically born," he said.

"Circus children become clowns. The boys are clowns and the girls are ballerinas," Giovanni Zoppe said. "When you come from the Italian family circus, that's just what happens."

His whole life, Giovanni Zoppe has worked with animals, and dogs and horses are still part of the show today. His father worked with all sorts of animals — monkeys, lions, bears, tigers, elephants. Giovanni Zoppe remembers growing up and how the dogs would get excited every time they heard the song for their bit come on.

"The relationship you gain from an animal when you work with them every day and become part of them, you can see the joy inside them," Giovanni Zoppe said.

Giovanni's nephew is Nik Wallenda, of the Flying Wallendas acrobat group, most known for performing highwire acts without a safety net.

At the Zoppe Family Circus, see the astounding, astonishing, dazzling and delightful entertainment live in Avon — as it was 100 years ago.

Vail Daily Entertainment & Outdoors and Weekly editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and rleonhart@vaildaily.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.

If you go …

What: Zoppe Italian Family Circus.

Where: Nottingham Park, Avon.

When: Friday, Sept. 8, to Sunday, Sept. 10.

Cost: General admission (bleacher seating) is $23; VIP (second row) is $43; VIP Premier (front row with reserved seating and more) is $63; children 2 and younger are admitted free.

More information: Visit http://www.ZoppeColorado.com for tickets.