April 2011

The Zerbini Family Circus

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Mark Staff

Close your eyes. Wait, you’re going to have to open them to read this, silly. Okay, pretend your eyes are closed… and you are a kid again. The sounds, smells, and sights of the circus are all around you: hot buttered popcorn; bright silk tents; peals of laughter; sweet, sticky, cotton candy; shrieks of surprise; exaggerated clown faces; and acrobats flying over head.

When the Zerbini Family Circus made a stop in Bluffton last October, what many of us saw as purely entertainment, was actually a family legacy. In fact, the Zerbini family has been flying through the air with the greatest of ease since 1817. Eight generations of circus folk have descended from this family tree, with strong roots in the circus life.

The family tradition started in Europe. Alain Zerbini, patriarch of the modern day Zerbini Family Circus was born in Marseilles, France. At age 14, he and his brother quit school to join the circus, as was family practice. In 1968, his father, Julian Zerbini, moved the family to the United States, where they all continued to perform in circuses around the country.

In 1991, as Alain Zerbini was recovering from a devastating high-wire fall, doctors told him he would never walk again. Determined to prove them wrong, Zerbini did indeed walk again, and for good measure decided to start his own circus, to boot.

The Zerbini Family Circus started in the United States in 1992. Then, the “the small big top” seated just 500. In 20 years, the show has tripled in size and the big top now seats 1,500. Zerbini is happy with the growth. Yet, he also values the fact that a crowd of 1,500 is still manageable. After all, one of his favorite parts of traveling the country is talking with the crowd before and after the show, and giving them a little “peek under the tent,” he says.

On the road April through late October, the show is constantly in motion. Sometimes staying in a town for a week; other days, they roll in, set up, perform, and shut down again that night. And then it’s on to the next location. Zerbini estimates they visit more than 100 towns each year. Often invited back year after year, Zerbini works with his team in the off months, to make sure that they keep their acts fresh and always bring something new to the crowds.

Zerbini’s extended circus-family is comprised of 22 performers from all around the world. Four from his own nuclear family—his wife and two of his seven children—are a part of the show. “We’re like one big family,” Zerbini says. After all, they travel together 200 days a year. If that doesn’t force the family dynamic, what does?

According to Zerbini, every member of the circus plays multiple roles, which forces them to act as a family. Everyone helps with the set-up and staging; they each perform, and when the show is on hiatus in the off-season, they are all still together working on improving the performance for the next extended road trip—all of this, under the leadership of Zerbini, who oversees and manages all parts of the circus from the time they roll into town until circus day is just a memory.

The Zerbini Family Circus will be back in Bluffton this fall for an encore performance. There is no doubt you will see it all: acrobats, high-wire acts, trampoline, trapeze, and some clowning around. And the animals they bring are beyond what you might expect: buffalo, ponies, camels, and even the Zerbini family’s dogs, rescued from local shelters, and now getting plenty of attention everywhere they go.

A family legacy. A spectacle under the tent. A one-ring circus that appears to runs circles around the rest.

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