Family Circus

How several veteran performers ran away from the circus — and made Wilmington home sweet home

By Mark Holmberg

When it comes to towns where circus people come home to roost, the biggies are Florida’s Sarasota and Gibsonton, the latter famed for being home to Monkey Boy, Lobster Girl, living yard elephants and a lowered post office counter for dwarves with mail.

But for those globe-trotting performers who run away from the circus to join a community, Wilmington is something of a sideshow destination.

Dennis Zoppe was a bareback equestrian performer, somersaulting atop cantering draft horses in towns all across this great land, when he and his fellow acrobat wife quit the family circus and moved here almost 35 years ago.

“My father said, ‘I can’t believe you’re quitting after nine generations,’”  recalled Zoppe, whose family’s act traces back to Italy and will perform here during the Azalea Festival as “Cirque Ma’Ceo.”

Well-known Wilmington artist and former aerial ballerina Fritzi Huber also slipped away from her family circus life to put down roots here.

“It’s like California used to be,” she recalled her brother telling her after she gave her last single trapeze performance almost 30 years ago.

That brother, Bobby Huber, is the one in that circus community who first came here in 1983, luring other circus kids who had grown up together and wanted a new way of life.

“I told my wife,  ‘I’m done . . . I’m running away from the circus,’” Bobby Huber recalled.

Right before he quit, he was producing a 50-week-a-year circus that galloped 40,000 miles annually in four tractor-trailers and a 40-foot bus — a circus he rigged himself with his large, broad-knuckled hands that almost belong in a sideshow.

“I get these from my grandmother,” he replied when asked about those rope-hardened mitts that terrified childhood wrestling opponents. “She was a strong woman in the circus,” he explains. Babette Brumbach, known as Tyana, the World’s Strongest Woman, lifted a small elephant in her act.

OK, perhaps you’re reading this and are wondering, why did these circus kids land in Wilmington? It doesn’t take a fortune teller to recall the other circus here in Wilmington: the movie industry.

At the very time Huber and his wife were driving away from the circus for good in the custom motorhome he had built, an old surfing buddy called and said he needed help rigging sets and building lighting towers for the movie Firestarter, being filmed here by Dino De Laurentiis. And if anyone knew rigging, it was Bobby Huber. After starting his circus career as an “under-stander” — part of the base of a human pyramid — he and those hands became rigging magic.

“I learned so much,” he said. “I found I worked better under pressure.”

One failure in a big-tent rope could spell disaster. If a 300-foot-long high-wire walked by someone like him and Fritzi’s father (Fritz Huber, a Swiss-born tightrope artist who died of melanoma when Bobby was 11) or ridden by a stunt cyclist gave way, it could easily mean a very public death. Much was wof the rigging transitions were quickly done in the dark between acts. Animal cages and gates all had to be perfectly timed and certain to open or close.

“There was a lot of sphincter lock,” Huber, now 66, recalled. “All the performers trusted my rigging above and beyond.” He became known for his signature from above that all was secure — a lowered golden drop line.

So he was a great fit in the movie biz. Thus began the long career of one of the best key grips in the movie business, a job that has taken him around the world.

Consider the similarities between circuses and films: lighting, staging, props, animals, illusion, stunts, action and acting — all coming together to stir emotions like awe and fear among viewers. But even more importantly, the circus breeds a powerful “the show must go on” spirit that is crucial for movie and television work, said Scott Hillman, a former trapeze artist lured to the studios here by Huber in 1983. In the circus, “you can’t say, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t make it,’” Hillman said. “There are no excuses. You’ve got to come up with whatever it takes.”

And Wilmington needed those skills and that spirit back then. It was fast becoming “Hollywood East,” with vast sound stages and enormous special effects rigs and tanks that were encouraged by tax incentives, easy living, great scenery and plenty of elbow room. “When I got my third call” to rig a movie in Wilmington, Huber said, “I moved here.”

Huber and his wife (now his ex) bought a place in Castle Hayne not far from the studios. “I brought in all the circus guys for riggers,” Huber recalled.

And he brought his mom, Barbara “Betty” Schultz, who had ridden across the tightrope on her husband’s shoulders while he lived and had become a wardrobe mistress.

Dennis Zoppe got the call from Bobby to help rig 1985’s Year of the Dragon and instantly fell in love with Wilmington. (The sets of that movie cemented Wilmington’s reputation for amazing sound stages.) “It’s a great town to live in,” Zoppe said. “A great place to have kids. You don’t have to fight traffic like you do in L.A. or New York.”

Wilmington would provide something that none of the nine generations of Zoppe circus performers had previously achieved: a college education for him and his wife’s son, who is now a research scientist in Switzerland. And Wilmington would also bring peace of mind to his wife, Anita Amandis Zoppe. (They have since split.)

Anita is the daughter of one of the amazing Amandis brothers of Denmark, acrobats who performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, Captain Kangaroo and others. She was “top man” of a teeter-totter act — launched into the air from a see-saw and then somersaulting into a chair or onto another performer’s shoulders.

In 1988, she and Dennis Zoppe had stopped their motorhome at a rest area en route to a performance in Indianapolis when they saw in a newspaper that her cousin, the famed trapeze artist Belinda Amandis, had died in a fall. It was a national story, one that instantly changed her life.

Her husband had already worked for the studios here. She quit the circus and moved here with him (bringing her miniature horses), initially living at the KOA campground. That’s about the same time Fritzi Huber answered the call from her brother to move to Wilmington. She’s an adventurer and artist who had left the circus at age 22 because, she admitted, “I wasn’t serious enough about it.” Here’s a still-supple 67-year-old woman with a scar on her lip not from a circus fall, but from surfing and “finding out how big is too big.”

She had a business in crowded Southern California teaching people how to surf-launch Hobie catamarans when she got the call from brother Bobby about the wonders of Wilmington. She came here to do her art and hand-make paper and fell in love. For the first time in her life, she put down roots.

“We were people of the American landscape,” she said as she cut paper and mixed glue for her class at the DREAMS Center for Arts Education, an after-school nurturing arts program in the east end of the Brooklyn Arts District. She and Bobby had grown up traveling the land in their parents’ Travel Lite trailer. She remembers seeing the entire country quietly pass in front of their young eyes.

Among her early memories are looking out of a bunkside vent when she was supposed to be asleep, watching her father roll her mother across the high wire in a wheelbarrow as the crowds cheered. She and Bobby would listen to the circus music and “know how long they would be gone so we could do whatever we could get away with.”

Fritzi said she was 8 years old when she first visited another girl who wasn’t in the circus or home-schooled in a trailer. “She had a pink room and a pink dresser,” Huber recalled. “It was so strange. She had lived in the same room for eight years! For the first time, I realized I was different.”

Her brother Bobby also soaked up the roving life of the circus, but he was thrilled by the wild side of it. “To me, it was the spice of life,” he said.

And it was the heyday of the circus, well before animal rights groups succeeded in demonizing what was once a rather glamorous way of life. Shriner chapters all across the land would pay to host family circuses. Bobby Huber remembers driving down an endless gravel road to get to the town of Flin Flon in Manitoba, Canada. “There was absolutely nothing there. But somehow 1,000 people showed up.”

Back then, circus performers were like rock stars, said former trapeze artist Scott Hillman. “When you’re wearing tights and you’re flying high above, girls really want to say hello,” Hillman, now 63, recalled. “It was a very dynamic period. The world was a different place.”

Anita Zoppe agrees. “It was a wonderful life,” she said. “I’m glad I had it.”

Many of these former circus people will be among those watching the Cirque Ma’Ceo April 7–9 performances during the Azalea Festival weekend.Not only is it in their blood, for some, it is family.

“It’s like coming back to a home base,” said Cirque Ma’Ceo promoter Alexa Zoppe, who is Dennis Zoppe’s niece by marriage. They are trying to keep this generations-old tradition alive, she said. Except in name. “It’s hard to keep the name ‘circus’ alive,” she said.

Imagine! “A theatrical equestrian show illuminating a beautiful, seamless story with the contemporary blend of acrobatics, aerial, dance and equestrian arts woven together with a rich gypsy vibe,” is how the Cirque Ma’Ceo (translation: Gift of God Circus) is billed.

Is there a chance any of Wilmington’s former performers are going to join the act?

Dennis Zoppe, now 62, has doubts about cantering a horse, let alone somersaulting on top of one like he used to do with the greatest of ease. “Now I get dizzy turning over in bed,” he said with a chuckle.

Fritzi Huber, who still has her trapeze up in the attic, said three herniated discs in her back could literally make her old act death-defying. “We will watch with great delight,” she said,
“and pride.” 

Mark Holmberg splits his time between Richmond, Virginia and the Port City, writing and roaming, believing there’s room for good ol’ printed words about believers and strays and adventurers.

Cirque MaíCeo

Cirque Ma’Ceo will perform as a part of the Azalea Festival, April 7–9, at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Wilmington International Airport, 1740 Airport Blvd., Wilmington. Tickets: $18 children, $35–50 adult, $70 VIP Ringside packages.

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