In 1948, Alberto Zoppé agreed to come to America and perform with the Ringling Bros.—under one condition. In his absence, his circus in Italy needed a headliner, so he asked Ringling to send an elephant to replace him. The Americans agreed, the elephant was sent, and Alberto came to the U.S. to perform as a bareback horse rider. He eventually appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s ode to the pageantry and drama of life under the big top, The Greatest Show on Earth. In the circus’ heyday, Alberto’s stunts and pranks, including his signature backflip from one horse to another, won over audiences lining up for three rings brimming with spectacle.
Alberto remains perhaps the most famous of the Zoppés. Today, Giovanni Zoppé, one of Alberto’s five children, is the seventh generation of Zoppé to run this show since it began in 1842. “The way you’re going to see the show tonight is the same way our ancestors did the show for your ancestors—inside our home,” Zoppé says to a crowd in Redwood City, California, before they enter the tent.
Dressed in baggy olive pants, a white shirt, a false nose and mustache, and an iconic red hat (thrown as a Frisbee, available for purchase at the small concession stand) Zoppé has thin, light brown hair that falls to his chin and narrow eyes. His hands are thick and calloused, and he has a tight, almost nasal voice that still projects loudly across the ring: perfect for a clown…
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