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Designing a drive-in circus is ambitious to say the least — from building a ramp for vehicles to gain a good view of the stage to making sure the audience is able to emotionally connect with the show from inside their cars and fitting in enough vehicles so that each show is profitable. 

This year marks the 178th year of the Zoppé Italian Family Circus. During this time, the show has endured wars, famine and two pandemics, but the circus has always gone on, proving its indestructible strength. 

“We always have an emotional connection with the audience, but from 70 to 90 feet away and from a windshield, it’s hard to have that connection, but I think we did it,” says Giovanni Zoppé, the show’s producer, a fifth-generation circus artist and also plays the character of “Nino the Clown.”

Nino the Clown (circus director Giovanni Zoppé) shares the history of his family’s circus at the Zoppé drive-in circus in Redwood City. (Photo by Hoda Emam)

Despite drawing on paper what he envisioned a drive-in circus to look like, Zoppé knew he would need to veer away from tradition to make his vision come to life. 

“Our style is not new, it’s not flashy,” he says. “We try to keep the basics of circus.”

Zoppé partnered with an award-winning filmmaker and used an LED wall to sprinkle in the history of the circus throughout the show. He tested out the concept in Ventura, Calif., in an area that hosts drive-in concert series and fits about 700 cars. The Zoppé shows are only meant to fit 70 cars per show. The first few performances tested the timing of each act and music combined with the size of the stage and, most importantly, the audience’s reaction. After a few tries, Zoppé said things started to fall in place.

“The third and final show, the horses came on the stage and I felt my father looking down, I started yelling out. ‘We did it! We did it!’”

A trick rider from the Gladius equestrian troupe performs on the back of her horse at the Zoppé drive-in circus in Redwood City. (Photo by Hoda Emam)

Next stop was Redwood City, this year marks the thirteenth consecutive year that the circus has been performing in the city. 

“There is no partner like Redwood City; they are really stupendous in the way the city moves so quickly to push through and make things happen,” he says. 

Zoppé worked with the parks and recreational services team to build a stage from scratch that would be rewarding for the audience. Lucas Wilder, assistant director for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services was determined to figure out a safe way to adapt the show in order for the annual event to go on as planned. In its second week of running in Redwood City, the show’s attendance has been growing.

“With the lack of family programming options, the circus is doing well,” Wilder says. “It’s hard to compare individual tickets to car groups, but comparing the percentage filled, we’re better than a majority of our previous runs already.”

Trick riders from the Gladius equestrian troupe navigated the cars at the Zoppé drive-in circus in Redwood City. (Photo by Hoda Emam)

Sara Kiani attended the circus for the first time with her husband and two children and says it was a fun show for the current situation. “We were in the car the entire time; my daughter could watch through the sunroof,” she says. “Everything was nice for the duration that it was, which was one hour.”

If there is one word that has redefined itself during the pandemic it’s “family” and embracing the sense of togetherness that we once took for granted. 

On a Thursday afternoon, as the marching band welcomed the vehicles into a parking lot- turned-circus arena, the trapeze artists were ushered in on horses weaving their way through the cars. A gust of bay breeze breathing new life into a century-old tradition as the crowd honked their car horns to cheer on the artists, it was one family speaking directly to other families.

“We know in the circus that family isn’t confined to blood family; family is all cultures, all races, all creatures,” Zoppé says. 

* Zoppé: An Italian Family Circus drive-in is currently set to run in Redwood City through Oct. 25, with the potential for the show to be extended through Halloween. Runs 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 459 Seaport Ct., Redwood City. Tickets are $94-$129 per car. Find tickets here.