By Colleen Sparks, GET OUT Staff

An unusual Old-World Italian circus known for generating laughs and creating fun family memories is returning to the Chandler Center for the Arts for its 10th season.

Zoppé, which is an Italian family circus, will deliver its dramatic and humorous displays of talent in a 500-seat tent Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 2-6 on the arts center site at 250 N. Arizona Ave.

Michelle Mac Lennan, executive director of the Chandler Center for the Arts, is thrilled this particular circus is returning after she came up with the idea of bringing the colorful performance group to the center for the first time in the 2009-10 season.

The center was undergoing renovations at that time and she thought it would be a great opportunity to showcase the circus in a tent.

Last year, at least 75 percent of the seats were sold at each show and some performances were sold out, Mac Lennan said.

“It’s a good trend,” she said. “It definitely is on an upward tick. I love the story because it’s not like the Ringling Brothers and some big circus. This is seventh-generation performers. It’s this intimate, one-ring European-style.

“The circus was the first presented art form in the United States. People are just kind of mesmerized with seeing these sometimes death-defying acts in front of your face. No one’s farther than 30 feet from the ring,” she added.

Mac Lennan said her youngest son, Marius, now 11, was only 3 when he first saw Zoppé An Italian Family Circus. Her oldest son Brandon, now 28, first enjoyed the circus at age 18 and likes to come back every year.

Mac Lennan said she loves joining the circus performers, volunteers and staff members for a Christmas Eve dinner at the performance site.

“They have a big Christmas Eve celebration and all of the families in the show make a special dish,” she said. “It really is our family tradition. We do have fun and our volunteers love it.”

The show itself involves performers’ own pets and is enjoyable for people of all ages, Mac Lennan said.

“It’s in their local community so that’s nice, but ultimately it’s good, clean fun for the whole family,” she said. “You can bring Grandma and she’s gonna laugh. You can have your baby on your lap for free. It’s not over anyone’s head. It’s really easy to understand. It is just good, old-fashioned laughter.”

Giovanni Zoppé, who orchestrates the circus and plays Nino the clown in the shows, is in the seventh generation of his family to perform in the Zoppé circus.

He said the family story goes back to 1842 after his great-great-great grandparents met. His great-great-great grandfather, a young French street clown named Napoline Zoppé, saw Hungarian equestrian ballerina, Ermenegilda, Giovanni’s great-great-great grandmother, in 1842 and the two fell in love.

The couple moved to Italy, settling in the Venice area, and performed on the street before forming their own circus.

“In 1842 the circus was much different,” Giovanni said. “It was more of community performance, because the towns of Europe and entertainment in general was much different.”

Today, Giovanni’s daughter, Chiara Zoppé, 16, of Illinois, performs as a circular trapeze artist, and his son Giovanni Julien, 9, also of Illinois, plays Giovanni’s “mini-me” clown, Giovanni said.

Giovanni’s sister, Tosca Zoppé -Walther, is an equestrian ballerina; and his sister Carla Heinen, along with Carla’s husband, Rudolph, work with the dogs in the circus.

“We go the true tradition of what the circus truly was 100 years ago,” Giovanni said. “We try to reach all of your emotions. We want you to be happy, to be sad, to cry. It’s more of a theatrical performance, more dramatic. It’s like a play.”

He said his character, Nino, is the “bumbling idiot” but he “always wins” and the audience roots for him, while the other clown character in the shows believes he’s the “boss” and “thinks he knows everything.”

“I’ve played many parts,” Giovanni said. “As a child you become the clown, like my son is now. Then you learn all the different skills.”

“I was a bareback rider for most of my life. I was the handsome guy on a horse with long hair. I loved it. We get standing ovations every show and people are screaming and laughing.”

He said the circus is not only a fun show for children and families but also “a great event to take a date to.”

Giovanni loves performing in Chandler, where he and his fellow cast members have made friends.

“We love performing there because our audience there is so welcoming,” he said. “We feel like we’re back home when we’re there. We have so many friends. A lot of local people come for our Christmas dinner. We have a really great following there.”

Residents have brought bread, cakes and other gifts to Giovanni and the other Zoppé members.

Giovanni said the Chandler Center for the Arts is “just an amazing arts center,” and he likes how it gives children in need tickets for the circus shows.

“It really opens the door to all audiences,” he said.

Besides the shows themselves, Zoppé offers Zoppé Circus Camp for youths.

Children ages 7 to 13 will learn juggling, low wire performance, balancing and clowning around at the camp from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Jan. 2 to 4 under the big circus tent on the west lawn at the arts center.

The professional Zoppé circus performers will teach youths, who will perform for their parents on Jan. 4.

“It teaches them math, it teaches them culture, it teaches them humanity, it teaches them respect,” Giovanni said. “Culturally, they’re in a camp for a week and they go through probably four or five languages.”

For tickets and information: chandlercenter.org.