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Altamont Fair Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009
Across continents and through decades, the Zoppé
By Jordan J. Michael
ALTAMONT The Zoppé Circus is more of a conversation than a show.
“Our circus has a whole intimate feeling and it always has,” said Sandra Zoppé after the first performance on Tuesday afternoon. “The audience leaves a part of them with us and we leave a part of us with the audience. It’s a love affair with the public.”
Sandra Zoppé is the mother of Tosca, Giovanni, and Carla, who are all part of the circus. The Zoppé Circus is now in its fifth consecutive year at the Altamont Fair and has a history that dates back to 1842.
That was when Napoline Zoppé ran away to Venice, Italy with his partner Ermenegilda. Napoline’s great-grandson, Alberto, inherited the circus in the 1930s and eventually came to America with an offer from John Ringling North of the Ringling Brothers.
Unfortunately, Alberto, Sandra’s husband, died on March 5 at the age of 87, leaving the circus in Giovanni Zoppé’s hands. “Our tour this year is about the celebration of my father’s life,” said Giovanni.
“He was with the circus all the way to the end and it was tough to see him go,” Sandra Zoppé said. “His spirit lives on and we know he’s here watching. We still feel him.”
Sandra Zoppé told The Enterprise that the crowd in Altamont grows bigger every year. “The stands were pretty full for the first show,” she said. “We can tell that more people are familiar with us now and that makes us extremely comfortable. We’re just part of this now.”
The Zoppé Circus stars Nino the clown, played by sixth-generation Zoppé, Giovanni. Nino is a silly clown dressed in a green skirt and a bright red hat. Throughout the show, Nino is picked on by boss Papino, played by Jay Walther.
“Nino is the red clown and Papino is the white clown; therefore, they don’t get along,” Giovanni Zoppé said. “It’s a classic Italian Renaissance story featuring acrobatics, showmanship, capers, and much participation by the audience.”
On with the show
The show got underway when some of the group greeted the crowd at the entrance and started joking around. A man was juggling and getting the people involved and eventually performers appeared to play accordion and an acoustic guitar.
“Any requests?” Giovanni Zoppé asked of the audience. The playing of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” soon followed and the crowd was told to take a seat inside the tent.
Inside, the whole group greeted the crowd, juggling, and performing various acts. As the rest walked off, Nino was left behind, looking confused.
Nino stomped around the ring for a moment and eventually picked out a little boy from the audience to play a game. Nino told The Enterprise that the routine was set up for the little boy to grab his red hat.
“We play to our audience, so our routines change frequently,” said Giovanni. “The boy didn’t want to grab the hat so I changed it up. I gave him the hat and he tried to throw it onto my head. He ended up getting it! It’s funny, for 25 years now I look and ask the people where the hat is. The adults always point along with the kids.”
“I believe that Giovanni is the best circus comedian out there,” Sandra Zoppé said of her son. “He actually does an air comedy act, too. It’s really great.”
Elena Brocade performed next on a rope suspended from the top of the colorful tent. Papino was swinging the bottom of the rope while Brocade was spinning 30 feet in the air. She twisted and turned her body and eventually was hanging by only her neck.
Brocade is brand new to the Zoppé Circus and is only onboard for the Altamont Fair shows. She learned her rope tricks in Chicago under two people and helped run an aerial school called The Loft.
“This routine really hurt my body in the beginning, but I eventually taught myself about health and physical therapy,” said Brocade after Tuesday’s show. “I’ve learned not to overdo it. I felt kind of stupid when I started out, but training made it easier.”
The Zoppé Circus is just another experience for Brocade. “I was really attracted to their interesting history and the premise of the show,” she said. “You get this spiritual feeling and its almost like a transformation is happening. The audience leaves with a gift. It’s a magical feeling and it almost makes me cry.”
Brocade’s aerial act was followed by Bruno and his performing canines. Bruno led his dogs through various tricks rolling a giant barrel, leaping over a flower-covered jump, and dancing like people.
After Bruno and his dogs paraded out of the ring, Nino was once again left alone. He picked up his saxophone and walked into the stands to play, but Papino would not let Nino play. Nino became sad and cried all over the audience in the front row.
“My character wouldn’t survive without the audience,” said Giovanni Zoppé. “You laugh with Nino and you feel bad for Nino when he’s sad. It’s a story.”
An even older tradition
The crowd was ultimately amazed by the foot juggling of Carlo Gentile and his wife. Both lay on their backs and spun huge Chinese vases with their feet. Eventually, Ms. Gentile was juggling a big red table.
Carlo told The Enterprise his wife and he picked up the skill during two trips to Wuqiao, China. This is the Gentiles’ second year with the Zoppé Circus.
“It is said that China is the birthplace of acrobatics, dating back 4,000 years,” Carlo said. “The Chinese taught us eight to nine hours a day for three months, then we trained for six more months.”
“We wanted to perform an act that wasn’t so common and we had friends that foot juggled,” continued Carlo. “It’s something we can pass on to our kids and something that isn’t too hard on the body. People are always struck by the table act because people have a daily relationship with tables. They’re not used to seeing a table used like that.”
Tosca Zoppé concluded the circus with a little help from a galloping horse. The horse ran around the ring while Tosca pulled various maneuvers. The Zoppé Circus was officially ended when Papino gave Nino a hug.
Carla Zoppé mentioned that the circus usually runs for two-and-a-half hours. “Our fair shows are only 45 minutes because we don’t want to tie up people for too long,” she said.
“We have a tradition where we take a handful of sawdust from the circus ring and put it into a jar,” said Sandra Zoppé. “We take that sawdust and move it with us to the next town.”
“This is one of the few truly intimate circus’s around,” Carlo Gentile said. “With other performances, like Ringling or Cirque du Soleil, the audience is just there to watch. In most cases, the performer can’t see the crowd. With Zoppé, you look out and see smiling faces. A circus like this also leaves room for more flexability.”
“The number-one goal of our show is to keep the crowd warm,” said Giovanni Zoppé. “It’s the equivalent of inviting a party into your living room. Our living room is the circus ring.”