Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Zoppe, Part II

Giovanni Zoppe isn’t some idle dreamer, though. He’s been a professional circus performer since he was a child, and a few years ago, he resurrected the Zoppe Family Circus in America, the same circus that his father, Alberto Zoppe, was the star of in Italy, before he came to the U.S. in 1949, lured to this country by Orson Welles, John Ringling North, and an elephant named Mary. The Zoppes may be artists and dreamers, but they are also business managers and problem solvers. To be part of a family circus, you also have to be part engineer, carpenter, truck driver, laborer and accountant.

It was Alberto who, in 1936, invented the four-pole cupola circus tent, which in addition to being more stable and secure than circus tents that had previously been in use, allowed circuses to fit nearly twice as many people in the tents as they had let in before, since the amount of square footage had been doubled by the way Alberto had devised the tents. It is Giovanni who not only takes center stage as Nino the Clown in the Zoppe Family Circus, but who coordinates scheduling with his sisters Tosca and Carla, brothers-in-law Rudy and Jay, half-brother Tino Wallenda Zoppe, and his mother and father, to insure that they, as well as all the hardware -- the tent, the concession stand, the bleachers, and the family’s horses and dogs, all of which is kept at his parents’ home in Arkansas, will be ready to hit the road when they’ve got a gig.

When he is not on the road with the Zoppe Family Circus, Giovanni Zoppe freelances with other circuses or various festivals as either Nino or whatever other character he may be suited for. This spring, for instance, he performed for two weeks in Hawaii, came home to Chicago for a day, and then hit the road for his next job, in Pennsylvania. In Chicago, he has performed at Navy Pier’s “Winter Wonderland,” where he produced a one-man show, “The Night Before Christmas,” in 2002. “It was a chair-stacking act (where his objective was to place an angel atop a Christmas tree) that we built a whole show around.”

He’s also played a scarecrow at the Halloween festival at Daley Plaza, in addition to performing at the Shriner’s Circus at Medinah Temple, before the building was transformed into a Bloomingdale’s furniture store. Elsewhere, he has performed a few times at Carnevale in Venice, as “a horny, drunk monk, an American tourist, the Greek god Mercury, … (and) a minotaur, a Comedia dell’ Arte character.”

While the origins of his family’s circus are in Venice, it is Chicago that has been his muse for the modern-day Zoppe Circus, as well as the winter circus he one day hopes to see in the city. While much of his living comes on the road, it is Chicago that Giovanni Zoppe has made his home; the place where he feels destiny has brought him.

It was while performing as Nino the Clown in 1998 as part of the Shriners Circus at Medinah Temple that Giovanni Zoppe first saw Block 37, and got his epiphany for a winter circus in Chicago. One day when he had some time to fill, Giovanni took a walk around downtown, “and I saw Block 37, and thought, ‘Oh my God!’ I stood there for like 10 minutes and thought, ‘What an amazing place to put my little circus, to put my family’s circus.’”

Even before he set eyes upon Block 37, Giovanni Zoppe says that, “I had already planned on opening my own circus. It may have been a little push from working at Medinah (where his father had performed some 50 years earlier)and the richness of it” that further fueled his dreams.

Besides mentally placing his circus on Block 37 and the German market that would compliment it, Zoppe further has envisioned the ComEd building that looks across Dearborn to Daley Plaza, as a training facility for Circus Arts one day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hard Drive Recovery

As I try to get every last bit of life out of my six-year-old imac (which I bought used two years ago), I've been trying to dump stuff from its hard drive onto an external drive and try other tricks to get it to work at an adequate level, until I break down this winter and buy a MacBook Pro. While doing so I re-discovered a story I spent just about an entire summer on in 2004, while I was largely unemployed. I did multiple versions of the story for a local weekly publication, which in the end did not buy it. By that time I was so frustrated I gave up trying to sell it.

It's a neat story, though, about this old-time circus and the dream the guy who runs it now has had to bring it back bigger and even better, by not only traveling all over the country with it but giving it a permanent home, at least in the winter. It's a pretty long story, so I'll have to divide it among a few separate posts (and maybe at some point I'll relate my week of working at the circus during this time).

** The Dreams of a Clown **

Giovanni Zoppe wants to bring “real circus” back to the U.S. and he wants to bring it to downtown Chicago.

by James Scalzitti

About 1998, while taking a walk in downtown Chicago, Giovanni Zoppe saw that vacant plot of land known as Block 37, and he had an epiphany.

He had not yet, as he would do a couple years later, put his family’s nearly 160-year-old circus back on the road, so the thought he had must have seemed even more impossible than it does now.

He saw, at Block 37, the perfect spot for his family’s Venetian-born circus, an accompanying center for the study and practice of the circus arts, and a complimentary European food and gift marketplace. Even wilder? He envisioned this all occurring in the dead of winter.

To the skeptics, he explains, “Every city in Europe has a winter circus.” Zoppe, the 43-year-old owner of the Zoppe Family Circus, a traveling European-style circus that dates back to 1842 in Venice, points out, furthermore, that the trend is catching on in North America, as well. Winter circuses have been successful in New York City, Montreal and Washington State, and if these spots can make a circus in winter work, then why not Chicago?

Besides the argument that circuses are just plain fun, Zoppe and advocates of the winter circus point out that these circuses take spaces that would otherwise lie dormant for a few months and bring families downtown. For those who envision only snow and bone-chilling cold when they think of winter in Chicago, Zoppe says that winter circuses aren’t totally exposed to the elements; they do take place inside tents, and the air is warmed with heaters. And Chicago is no colder than Montreal in winter. “I was in Montreal last Christmas,” Zoppe recalls. “They had a beautiful horse show in a circus tent. It was extremely frozen outside, but it was an amazing show.”

And even if artificial means were not employed in warming the air, people who wanted to see a circus would no doubt still stay in their seats for an hour-and-a-half or so while they were being entertained, since, Zoppe points out, when Block 37 was home to “Skate on State,” the outdoor ice rink drew plenty of people, and the only sort of artificial climate control employed were the coils used to keep the ice from melting when the temperatures got too warm.

“It’s a mentality, I know,” Zoppe says. “Will people go in a tent in winter?’ But it’s heated.” He adds, “Circus people have always figured out a way to make it work. In summer we use air conditioning and in winter we use heaters. When we don’t use them, we don’t need them.”

“In every city in Europe, there’s a winter circus,” he says. “In Europe, they expect a circus to come in wintertime. And he believes that Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is known for importing to Chicago things that he has seen in other cities in his travels abroad, would especially like the idea.

“I believe it’s what Mayor Daley wants in this town,” Zoppe remarked. “Something small, European, and family-friendly. There’s nothing better than a winter circus for the family. Cities like Chicago need something like a circus for children to go to at Christmastime; something besides Santa Claus.” Observing that the city’s downtown is already a destination point for families from throughout the Midwest around the holidays, he adds, “how much more spectacular would it be for Chicago to have a real, authentic European circus in wintertime?”

Aesthetics aside, what about logistics? Zoppe points out that in a space like Block 37, there’d be more than enough room for his circus, in case city planners felt compelled to include some features more likely to generate income, such as concessions. He adds that not only could it co-exist, but that it would be a perfect compliment to the city’s existing winter wonderland in and around Block 37, such as the annual Christkindlmarket a German-themed holiday marketplace. “I can totally see it,” he says, as if there’s a blueprint in his mind that he’s referring to as he speaks. “When I look at Block 37 I see so much potential. It wouldn’t even take up that much room. My circus would be about the same size as ‘Skate on State,’” and there would still be room for the annual Christmas market. If his winter circus were to join the holiday market and holiday decorations and music that floods State Street during the holiday season, it would be the one piece that “would tie everything together.”

Heartless and Cruel

It's one thing to oppose marriage equality and to pledge not to allow it in your state based on whatever twisted logic you have, but to veto a bill that would simply allow someone to bury their longtime partners, as the Gov. of Rhode Island has done, well that's just plain assholery.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What Would Jesus Contribute?

For anyone, any Catholic, specifically, who is not taking any action in their own diocese in the wake of the half-million dollar campaign by the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine to bring down marriage equality in that state, take a look at where the Maine Catholics' money came from.

Catholic churches from throughout the country, including New Orleans, Gary, Ind., Rockford and Joliet, Ill., Biloxi, Miss., etc., etc., all gave money to the campaign of hate orchestrated by the Maine Catholics (with a little help from their new Mormon friends). Most gave $1,000, some gave $500, Rockford gave $5,000 (!!!). Apparently these dioceses are swimming in cash since they can afford to send the contributions from their followers to Maine to fund a political operation (are you listening, IRS???) This is infuriating, saddening and despicable. More than a half-million dollars that could have fed the hungry, clothed those without a winter coat, sheltered the homeless, provided counseling to people with a variety of physical and psychological ills and worries was instead funneled into a campaign to repeal marriage equality which was successful but which ultimately will be overturned, either by the voters or the progress of society in general. A half-million dollars. Children in this country are going hungry, adults are out of work, people in hospitals and the elderly who are in nursing homes are alone, and likely these days, as much or probably more than ever in the history of this country, people are talking to God, wondering what will happen next, where they can turn, how they can possibly hope for something better, and what is the Church's answer? To pour $554,000 into a campaign to repeal marriage equality. How sad.

This is not my Church, anymore.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mod alla Italiana

The following was printed in the November 2009 issue of Fra Noi. I encourage all of you to pick up a copy of the monthly Italian American news-magazine at your local deli, specialty shop, newsstand.

by James Scalzitti

When you think of the “Swinging 60s,” the music that probably comes to mind has origins in England or Motown, and the women behind the songs are chanteuses such as Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Lulu, even Nancy Sinatra.

While it is Italy that gave us “La Dolce Vita,” setting the stage for the stylish swinging 60s less well-known are the many Italian songstresses who made some great pop music through a period that spanned the decade. Italy also provided a welcoming, fertile ground for some American, British and French women singers during this time.

These women may today not be household names in the U.S., but in their day they regularly topped the charts in Italy and through Europe. Their music may actually be familiar to people who may not know these women by name, because often they turned out Italian versions of American and British pop songs, or they recorded songs that did not do so well commercially, only to be covered later by an American or British singer, sometimes to greater success. Many of these women are still involved in the music and entertainment business, working as talent agents, producers and executives, while every so often one of them will record (or in a few cases re-record) new music.

Since some non-Italians found success singing English versions of Italian songs, then why shouldn’t Italians have recorded their own versions of hit American and British tunes? That’s how I first stumbled onto these women, by finding a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black,” done by one of the more renown of these Italian singers, Caterina Caselli. Her “Tutto Nero,” is, I’d argue, superior to the Stones’ version, because her voice is richer, reaches deeper than Mick Jagger’s, and consequently the song is darker than the more well-known version. Caselli didn’t contain her covers of Anglo tunes to the dark stuff, though. Her version of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” (“Sono Bugiarda”) has an upfront, swinging intensity that beats The Monkees’ version, I think. But then, I’m a mod, not a rocker.

Caselli, like many of these singers, found fame in the San Remo song contest. Her entry in the 1966 contest, “Nessuno mi può Giudicare” was a hit, outselling a version by Gene Pitney. The song established Caselli as a star and a rapid succession of hits followed.

In addition to her recording career, Caterina Caselli starred in several movie musicals. Her recording career carried on into the early 1970s, but by the 80s and 90s she only released a few singles and appeared in various song contests, devoting the bulk of her time behind the production controls and becoming a manager for other artists.

How’s this for irony? The first single released by another of these Italian songstresses, Patty Pravo, was a cover of Italian-American Sonny Bono’s “But You’re Mine.” Pravo’s song, “Ragazzo Triste,” made it to No. 13 on the Italian charts in early 1967, when Pravo was just 19 years old.

Pravo (real name Nicoletta Strambelli ) was a nightclub singer who after studying music, dance and orchestra conducting, left home in Venice for London, at age 15. She soon returned to Italy, settled in Rome, and in 1968 she recorded what remains one of the biggest-selling hits of all-time, “La Bambola.”

In 1969 she won Festivalbar song contest with “Il Paradiso,” which became a Top 10 hit that the British group Amen Corner covered in English (“If Paradise is Half as Nice”) which went to the top of the UK charts. She continued recording through the 1970s, left Italy’s music scene for the U.S. in the 1980s, but in 1995 she returned to Italy. Less than a year and a half later Patty Pravo made her return to San Remo, released a successful album and she continues recording and performing to this day.

As a teenager in the early 1960s, Rita Pavone worked in a clothes factory, ironing clothes, and supplemented her income by singing in local clubs around Turin. After winning the Festa degli Sonosciuti talent contest, her first single, “La Partita di Pallone” was released, topping the charts in February 1963 and ultimately selling a million copies globally.

Her subsequent hits included “Cuore,” which sold millions of copies throughout Europe. Rita was launched in the U.S. with an album modestly titled, “The International Teenage Sensation,” and appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig and Hullabaloo. Americans were charmed by the heavily-accented Pavone and a single from that album, “Remember Me,” reached No. 26 in the Billboard charts. She released two more albums in the U.S. by 1965.

Rita Pavone starred in a number of TV shows and movies, scored many more Top 10 hits through the 1960s and into the 70s (including “Stai Con Me,” a version of “Stand By Me” and “Gira Gira,” her version of The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”) Her singing career wound down by the 1980s and she has since turned to more acting roles.

While Mina (born Mina Mazzini in Busto Arsizio, in northern Italy) has had a career that spanned from the 1950s through today, her mid-1960s material, some say, is her best.

She first topped the charts in 1959, with “Tintarella di Luna,” followed that with a string of Top 10 hits, before hitting No. 1 again in October 1960 with “Il Cielo in Una Stanza,” the biggest seller of that year in Italy. Her career suffered in 1963 when her relationship with actor Carrado Pani who was married, though separated from his wife, became known. She was banend from RAI but nonetheless scored more chart-topping hits, including in early 1964 the heart-wrenching “Citta Vuota,” a cover of “It’s a Lonely Town.”

Eventually the RAI ban was lifted, she got her own TV show, but by 1970 she had gone three years without a hit song and she was no longer the presence as she once was. But she kept scoring occasional hits throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, before making a big chart comeback in 2002.

These artists are just the surface of the singers who really made the Italian music scene swing in the 1960s. For people who like the music of the more well-known Petula Clarks and Lulus and Dusty Springfields, mining the record shops and mp3 dealers could unearth some great music that’ll reinvigorate your love of the music of this period.