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Under the BigTop, the circus is all about family

Posted at 10:41 PM, Jan 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-15 01:02:08-05

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - The Zoppe family business goes back seven generations, more than 170 years, and across the Atlantic Ocean. Their business: Circus.

"It started with a French clown and a Hungarian ballerina in Budapest, Hungary," said Giovanni Zoppe, current patriarch of the family.

The Zoppe Circus, has been a family affair since 1842. When you watch their shows today, it looks much the same it did generations ago.

"We are what the circus was 100 years ago," said Giovanni. "It was simple, it is about human skill."

This circus is nothing like what you would see on the Las Vegas strip in a big venue, instead 550 people sit under the big top in an intimate setting.

"This is different because it's real," said Tosca Zoppe, Giovanni's sister. "It's not how perfect our technique is, not that it's not great, but it's about the connection we have to the public."

The Zoppe Circus came to America in the 1960s with Alberto Zoppe and his wife Sandra. Alberto was already world-famous for a move called the "full layout" where he jumps and flips from one horse to another without tucking his knees - all this while the horses are both running around a ring.

"No one has ever done that before him or since him," said Sandra.

He even made appearances on the silver screen.

"If anyone at there sees The Greatest Show on Earth, or rents it, they will see Alberto Zoppe throughout the movie," said Sandra.

Alberto died in 2009 - but his family still honor him as head of the family. His chair sits at every show.

"That's been there every single show since the day he passed," said Giovanni.

Alberto even designed the type of tent they perform under to this day.

"Him and his brothers designed the very first one in 1952, after that every circus that uses the one-ring format uses it," said Giovanni.

His family, take care of the rest of the circus these days, and are involved in all aspects. When they show up in town, the Zoppe family and their performers are the ones to set up the big top.

And during the show, it is as if you jumped in a time machine to 100 years go.

A trapeze artist is flying through the air. Nino the clown is entertaining the crowd. A Chinese vase balancer named Ming walks around with heavy porcelain vase on his head. All this, while others play the accordion in the background with a sort of gypsy-jazzy type sound.

Then there are the horses which been part of the Zoppe family for more than 170 years and have been used in performances for generations.

For example, Alberto was known for jumping on horses, stacking animals on top of horses, and more. His daughter Tosca Zoppe is the one on the horses now. She is an equestrian ballerina, doing tricks on top of the horses with her husband. She says the skills are handed down from generation to generation.

"I think that is what makes our show so beautiful and different. We know the hardship our ancestors went through to keep this alive," said Tosca.

In fact, most performers in this family circus were born into the business. Rudolf Heinen has worked with the circus for more than 70 years. In the past he has trained lions and tigers, now he trains dogs. He has no plans of quitting.

"I wouldn't know any different. My wife always says, 'Hey, you have to quit, you have to hang up your shoes!' But I say no. I was born into the circus, I am going to die in the circus," said Heinen in a German accent.

The next generation of circus performers is already practicing their skills. Outside the tent, two little twin girls are practicing their handstands to one day take after their older sister. Their sister is a performer who can shoot a bow-and-arrow with her feet while doing a handstand.

The future generations of the circus family are the ones that will keep the Zoppe Circus alive, after all, they are the ones that have kept it going for seven generations.