Friday, April 16, 2010

Alberto Zoppe, Part II

My favorite part of my interview with Alberto Zoppe -- done about six years ago by phone, with me in Chicago and he in Arkansas -- was when he recalled sleeping in his family's circus trailer, which was pulled by horses, on Italy's unpaved roads, at night when he was a child. “Sometimes it was raining,” he said, and the sound of the rain, along with the sound of the steel wheels on the unpaved country roads, “made such a nice sound, and I slept so well. That was so beautiful.”

Here's the rest of my chat with him, along with some recollections by his son and his wife.


By the mid-1940s, the Circo Fratelli Zoppe had reached a pretty serious level of renown throughout Europe. Orson Welles witnessed firsthand Alberto’s riding act, and afterward told Alberto about a circus movie the director Cecil B. DeMille was working on, called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He asked Alberto to come to the U.S. with his horse act, and become a part of this movie. Alberto, declined Welles’s offer, since, with family circuses in post-war Europe suffering from a lack of animals, his circus needed his act, as well as his guidance, to survive.

Welles was undeterred, and enlisted the help of John Ringling North, who, at the time, was owner of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, to convince Alberto to come to the U.S. Welles brought North to Italy to see Zoppe, and beginning in 1947, North regularly pitched the idea of leaving Italy for the U.S. to Alberto. Zoppe would be part of DeMille’s film, as well as a featured performer in the Ringling Brothers circus.

“For three years he tried to get me to come to America,” Alberto says by phone from his home in Arkansas. “I was 20, 21 years old, and I didn’t care to come to Ringling’s show.” But North and Welles implored him to reconsider, telling him, “You have to come to America; we need you.”

By 1949, Zoppe told both North and Welles that he’d take them up on the offer to come to the U.S., but that he wanted to wait a year, “because they need me another year in Italy.” He also had a stipulation for his leaving the Zoppe family’s circus to join North’s circus and appear in DeMille’s film. He says, “I find out, from talking to people, that (the Ringling Brothers circus) had 40 elephants, and in Italy we had no elephants. I said, ‘OK, if you want me to come to America, you can send an elephant to my show in Italy to replace me.’” Ringling’s responded by telling Alberto, “‘if I give an elephant to every performer, I wouldn’t have any more elephants!’”

Alberto Zoppe’s family circus got their elephant, in exchange for his services, but Alberto didn’t get the year he wanted in Italy before he moved to the U.S. He met with Welles and John Ringling North at the airport in Rome one morning after they had agreed upon his coming to the U.S. and the elephant exchange, but to Alberto’s surprise, he was told that he had to leave much sooner than he had expected to.

“We were at the airport, and John Ringling North said, ‘you can’t wait another year. I talked to Cecil B. DeMille and he wants you for the movie. You have to go now.’”

Soon afterward, Alberto left for the U.S., where he trained horses for, as well as appeared in, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He also then spent four years with the Ringling Brothers circus, specializing in horse riding and horse tricks. And the elephant that was given to Zoppe’s family circus in Italy in exchange for him? Her name was Mary, and became famous in her own right. One time, the Zoppes put on a circus parade through an Italian town they were performing in, and Mary got loose, ran through the town market, and didn’t stop running until she got to a church, which she went inside. One of Alberto’s brothers, aghast at the fact that their elephant had run away but realizing the promotional potential of the episode, “called everybody; the newspapers,” Alberto says, “and they took pictures of the elephant in the church. It was good for the show, good publicity.” The Italian newsmagazine Oggi soon featured Mary the elephant in the church on its cover. “She was a great elephant,” says Sandra Zoppe.

His work on “The Greatest Show on Earth” led to decades’ worth of film and television work for Alberto Zoppe. Other movies that he either appeared in, worked as a consultant on, or trained actors to ride horses in, include; “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (which Sandra and Alberto’s sister Ruggera were also in), “The Great Barnum,” “Trapeze,” and “Toby Tyler.”

Alberto also has the distinction of being the first person with an animal act to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. “It was a horse,” Alberto says, and its name was Pacha. Pacha would tap out answers to mathematical questions Alberto asked. Alberto also appeared on the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, Circus of the Stars (where he did all of the horse training, as well as lion and dog acts), and scores of other TV shows throughout the U.S. and Europe. In addition, he also kept doing regular circus work, either as an equestrian or with animals such as lions and bears.

Giovanni talked about some of his father’s work with wild animals. Most of the time the acts went off flawlessly, but there were a couple incidents where Alberto was injured. Giovanni doesn’t blame or say they had bad animals; the animals just may have misunderstood what was going on.

“My father had a bear one time that chased him all around the circus area,” he says. Giovanni explains that at one point of an act with a bear, Alberto would give the bear a baby’s bottle to drink from. Somehow, though, the bear evidently “thought my dad was taking the bottle away,” and because of that, the bear chased Alberto around the circus, but did not harm him. Alberto also performed with a lioness “when I was growing up,” Giovanni says. The lioness would stand up when she heard music, and she’d run up to a horse, jump onto the horse, and ride it, he said. One other thing she did was to “take meat out of my father’s mouth,” Giovanni said. One time, though, when the lioness was doing this with Alberto, “she got her tooth stuck in his lip and he jerked his head back,” tearing his lip apart, and requiring plastic surgery to his face, Giovanni says. The family has a realization that incidents such as that happen in the circus, and the animals aren’t punished or put down when such things happen. Giovanni mentioned that that lioness was part of their family for ten years, then given to a zoo.

Alberto Zoppe can’t talk about the past for prolonged periods of time these days. He remembers the conversations he had with Orson Welles and John Ringling North, the times his family’s circus performed for the Pope before he left for the U.S., he still remembers the mechanical details of the advantages of his four cupola tent over the tents that circuses previously used, he remembers how his circus family fled Cuba in the days immediately following Castro’s takeover, but he gets frustrated when he can’t remember dates and years. He’ll apologize for this, then will have to call on his wife to fill in the blanks. But when asked about his remembrances of the circus life from when he was a very young child, Alberto Zoppe’s memory is crystal-clear, and there’s one thing that he’s able to recall in the same wistful manner that ordinary working folk recall a great vacation they’ve taken. He remembers that his mother, the same women who rode horses in the ring, was in the driver’s seat of the circus’s horse-drawn trailers as they made their way from town to town in Italy. “That was about 70, 80 years ago,” Alberto Zoppe says, but he has no trouble remembering it today. “My mother was driving, and the streets were just gravel. The steel wheels made such a nice sound,” and Alberto would be lying in the trailer, sleeping, as his mother drove. “Sometimes it was raining,” he recalled, and the sound of the rain, along with the sound of the steel wheels on Italy’s unpaved country roads, “made such a nice sound, and I slept so well. That was so beautiful.”

Alberto Zoppe, Part I

This is out of order as far as the piece I wrote on the Zoppes, but I only today, while browsing obituaries, saw that Alberto Zoppe died last March. More people should know about him -- his was an incredible story. I regret I haven't been able to tell his story to a large audience, but maybe it'll get passed on now, via this blog and those who read it.


Alberto Zoppe didn’t want to come to the U.S.

In the late 1940s, partly out of his own talent as a performer and horse-rider (he was called “The Prince of the Riders”) and partly out of necessity (the animals that circuses had always made a staple of their repertoire were pretty scarce in post-war Europe), Zoppe was the star of his family’s circus, the “Circo Fratelli Zoppe.” Their circus traveled throughout Italy, setting up shop whenever townspeople would let them. Established in 1842, in Venice, the Zoppe Circus was formed when Ermenegilda Zoppe, a French clown, met a Hungarian ballerina, Napoline, while he was performing in Budapest. The two fell in love, married, and moved to Italy, where they established their circus.

Alberto Zoppe is the fourth generation of the Zoppe circus family. Alberto now lives in Arkansas, which serves as a sort of base for the current Zoppe Family Circus, their trucks and equipment and horses being kept there when the circus isn’t on the road. He was born in 1922 in the Veneto region of Italy, but he says that he was part of the circus before he was born.

Alberto Zoppe’s mother, Emma, in a tradition that continues down to Giovanni’s sister, Tosca, did a ballerina act on horses, riding a horse around the ring while also standing on the horse, jumping up then landing back on her feet on the horse, and other such feats. According to Alberto, his mother was riding horses in their circus up to her eighth month of pregnancy with him. “So I was working the horses before I was born,” he says in his Italian-accented voice.

“My father and my brother taught me how to ride the horses,” he adds. “We all became circus stars,” he says, referring to himself, his two brothers and two sisters. One feat that Alberto became famous for was a horse-to-horse somersault.

Besides becoming a circus star, Alberto Zoppe has made an even more lasting effect on circuses throughout the world. He invented the four-pole cupola tent.

For a circus, the tent is their stage, their calling card, their home turf even as they find themselves in a different town every few days. It can also determine their income, as the size of the tent determines how many paying customers can fit inside. The tent that the Zoppe Family Circus had been using had two pulleys at its top, with a 16-ft. crossbow to support the top of the tent. Alberto Zoppe said that one night in 1936 “I went to bed and thought about it and thought about it,” going over the tent style and how it could be made bigger. He determined that they could double the size of the center of the top of the tent, making it 16 feet by 16 feet, and secure it by a pole in each corner of the top crossbow. In addition to doubling the size and crowd capacity of the tent, the four poles also made it easier to set up and tear down. “Just pull them up and down,” Zoppe says.

Even with such logistical innovations, traveling through Europe with a family circus in the 1920s through the 1940s wasn’t an easy ride. The small towns wanted the entertainment and diversions of a circus, but these towns weren’t in the most accessible regions of Italy. Alberto Zoppe remembers small mountain towns in Italy asking his family to bring the circus to their towns, but there were no roads into the towns that their trucks could travel down, so the circus performers, along with volunteers from the town, had to strap chests of their props and costumes, as well as every piece of equipment and they would need to set up their circus, onto their backs and carry them up the mountains into these towns. “We had to carry everything up by hand,” Zoppe says, yet just as soon adds, “That was a very enjoyable time. That was fantastic.”