Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoppé Family Circus the circus is losing the big top and inviting fans to pull into the parking lot for a drive-in circus.

For the past 10 years without fail, Giovanni Zoppé has brought his Zoppé Family Circus to Tucson for an extended January run.

For more than two weeks and several shows a day, the clowns and acrobats and animals entertain audiences of all ages under a big top. In the early days, they set up in Reid Park. In the last three or four years, they moved the show to the parking lot next to the Mercado San Agustin off West Congress Street.

This year, the circus is losing the big top and inviting fans to pull into the parking lot for what is being billed as the world’s first and only drive-in circus.

“It actually was an idea I had years ago, but I couldn’t make a drive-in feasible for the type of performance we do and all the artists we have on the stage,” said Giovanni Zoppé (aka Nino the Clown), who runs the American branch of his family’s legendary Italian circus. “But when COVID hit, I started thinking of it again.”

Trapeze artists hang above Giovanni Zoppé’s head at a drive-in rendition of the Zoppé Family Circus.

The drive-in circus begins its 16-day Tucson run on Friday, Jan. 15, and continues through Jan. 31 from the Mercado parking lot, 131 S. Linda Ave.

The circus first road tested its drive-in format last summer with three shows in Ventura, California.

“The first two were OK but they weren’t great,” Zoppé said. “Every show we changed a little bit and I learned so much the first two shows. By the third show, when the horses came around the stage, I felt the energy of the audience and the horns were blowing and I felt my father looking down on me. And I just relaxed.”

Since that maiden voyage, Zoppé has taken the circus on a weeklong run in October in Redwood City, California, where audiences were required to stay inside their vehicles in accordance with California’s strict COVID-19 protocols. Last week, they were wrapping up a 16-day run in Tempe.

In all, the Zoppé Family Circus will perform 31 Tucson shows including three a day on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays

“It actually was an idea I had years ago,” said Giovanni Zoppé, seen here directing traffic at a drive-in show in California.

Zoppé said the audience can see the show from any vantage point in the parking lot with giant LED screens projecting the action from a large stage. You can hear the show from your car radio, a setup that was created by Concerts in Your Car, a company that produces state-of-the-art live drive-in events mostly in California.

Even from the back row, “it’s not a great seat, but you can still experience the circus,” Zoppé noted.

The drive-in format allows Zoppé to bring in two acts that he was never able to pull off under the big tent: A human cannonball that shoots the performer 40 feet in the air and 100 feet over the stage; and the giant wheel of death — think giant-sized hamster wheel.

The circus also features a 12-minute film broken up into six parts that is played throughout the show to tell the story of how the circus always goes on even in a pandemic.

“Whatever it is, circus will always continue,” Zoppé said. “I think as humans we need joy in our life. We are the only circus in the world doing this. ... Everything is shut down. ... We couldn’t just sit and wait. I have to perform as an artist with six generations in my soul. I have to do this.”

If you go

What: Zoppé Family Drive-In Circus

When: Friday, Jan. 15 through Sunday, Jan. 31. Shows are Fridays at 4 and 7 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and Monday, Jan. 18  at 1, 4 and 7 p.m.; and Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. 

Where: Mercado San Agustin lot, 131 S. Linda Ave.

More info: Find more details and purchase tickets online here

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Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch