Friday, April 16, 2010

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.”

1 comment:

Amy said...

My Father was a great man, father, artist, and the list goes on.

He will never be forgotten.

Giovanni Zoppé