10 Amazing Circus Families

Big Apple Circus clown Bello Nock dines with his wife Jenny and their two daughters in their trailer.
Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The names pass from generation to generation: Wallenda. Bertini. Cortes. Anastasini. They're some of the world's famous circus families, and have been for decades. Centuries even. You might think the somewhat vagabond lifestyle of a circus performer would lose its appeal in these modern times. But for many in these vaunted families, it absolutely does not.

"I was never interested in not performing," Alida Wallenda Cortes told PBS. A seventh-generation circus performer, her ancestors come from three prominent European circus families -- the Wallendas, the Zoppés and the Bertinis.


Why are there so many multigenerational circus performers? The circus becomes a way of life, and performers from circus dynasties often marry each other. Plus, the job is so time-consuming -- with copious amounts of practicing, performing and traveling -- that performing with your family members is sort of obligatory if you want to see them [source: PBS].

Circus life must also get in your blood. And stay there. Alberto Zoppé, who brought his family's famed Italian circus to America in the mid-twentieth century, died at 86. The bareback rider was performing up until he was 85. And Karl Wallenda, head of the Flying Wallendas, was still walking the high wire when he died at age 73 [sources: Ponsi, Wallenda].

Let's take a look at some of the more notable circus families out there today.

10: The Caveagnas

A member of the Clowning Caveagna Family plays the trumpet during a clowning bit on the opening night of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in West Palm Beach, Florida.
© Rachel Mummey/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The Caveagna family is on its way to multigenerational circus prominence. A comical-musical clowning group, the fun began in Italy with patriarch Elicio Caveagna. Elicio was both a talented musician and skilled clown, so he combined these two skills in an act he performed for Circo Nando Orfei, a famed Italian circus. Eventually Elicio trained his son, Artidoro, to follow in his clown-musician shoes, and Artidoro, in turn, passed on the skills to his sons Jones and Steve [source: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey].

Today the Clowning Caveagna Family -- Artidoro, Jones and Steve -- performs with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, interspersing trumpet and saxophone tunes with traditional silly clowning antics. The act also has performed throughout Europe, both in circus festivals and as part of other circuses, such as Switzerland's renowned Circus Nock [source: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey].


9: The Clarkes

Ernestine Clarke (not shown) was a bareback rider and trapeze artist in the 1940s; she was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1967.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Clarke circus dynasty stretches back to the very beginning of modern circus-hood. In the early 19th century, famed horseman John Clarke began to work for Englishman Phillip Astley, the gent credited with inventing the modern circus in the late 1700s. (A quick aside -- supposedly Clarke served as the model for Sleary, the circus owner in Charles Dickens' novel "Hard Times.") Clarke's family continued on in the circus business, with his grandsons creating a popular aerial act that was brought over the pond to America's Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1903. Two of the grandsons, Ernest and Charles Clarke, perfected the triple back-somersault in 1909 [sources: Jando, The Telegraph].

Although the family act broke up during World War II, when the men were called to serve their country, Ernest's daughter, Ernestine, soldiered on alone. Ernestine was a talented bareback rider and trapeze artist hired by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She was so talented, the company gave her a solo riding spot in its show, plus her own flying act. Ernestine left the circus in the 1950s to raise the two daughters she had with husband Parley Baer, a circus performer and actor. Both girls followed in their mother's footsteps, becoming trapeze artists. In 1962, the Clarke family was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame for their collective bareback skills, and in 1967 Ernestine was inducted on her own [sources: International Circus Hall of Fame, The Telegraph].


8: The Flying Nelsons

Loretta Young was only 14 when she played a circus performer in 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh.' Hilda Nelson was her double on the tightrope.
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Nelson is not this famous circus family's real surname. It's Hobson. But when actor Robert Hobson and his family left England for the United States in 1868 and formed a family acrobatic act, Hobson dubbed it Professor Nelson and Sons as an homage to his former stage partner. The troupe expanded over time, incorporating other performers in addition to family members. Soon they were called The Great Nelson Family, and then The Flying Nelsons, due to their incredible acrobatic skills [source: Mount Clemens Public Library].

Not surprisingly given their talents, the family starred in circuses around the globe and in every major American circus, including the Cole Brothers and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Hollywood soon came calling. In 1928, Hobson's granddaughter, Hilda, was tapped to teach actor Lon Chaney to walk the wire in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh"; in the same film, she was Loretta Young's double on the wire. The entire troupe also appeared in the 1928 comedy "Circus Rookies." The Nelson-Hobsons largely all retired by 1935, although some descendants continued to perform individually with various circuses for decades [sources: IMDB, Mount Clemens Public Library].


7: The Flying Wallendas

The Flying Wallendas perform a four-person pyramid in the 1940s.
© Corbis

Many people are familiar with the Flying Wallendas, not surprising, since family members regularly perform newsworthy acts. To wit, Nik Wallenda's 2014 partially blindfolded tightrope walk between two Chicago skyscrapers, 600 feet (182 meters) in the air [source: Grinberg].

The family got its start in the late 18th century, operating a mini-circus in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Family members performed as acrobats, clowns, aerialists, jugglers and animal trainers. Fast-forward to the 20th century: Descendant Karl Wallenda and his family, then known as the Great Wallendas, starred in America's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The family soon gained notoriety after creating a seven-person chair pyramid performed on the high wire without safety harnesses or a net [source: Wallenda].


The Wallendas performed their pyramid trick for more than a decade until 1962, when, tragically, the pyramid collapsed. Two people died and Karl's son, Mario, was paralyzed. After patriarch Karl died at age 73 from a fall off the wire, the family became as well known for its tragedies as its triumphs. But the Wallendas persevered. In 2001, they snagged a Guinness World Record by creating the world's first and only 10-person pyramid on the tightrope. The name "Flying Wallendas," incidentally, came from a newspaper headline in the mid-20th century that, ironically, described four family members' graceful fall from the wire; in that case they were unhurt [source: Wallenda].

6: The Hodginis

Tom and Betty Hodgini retired to Peru, Indiana and started a circus to train local children. It's become a big attraction in its own right (not shown).
Frank Herholdt/Getty Images

"The Great Hodges" doesn't really have a ring to it. Especially if you're a performer. Which is probably why a promoter changed this English surname to the more exotic "Hodgini" sometime in the late 19th century. The family genealogy isn't easy to trace, but this much we know: The Hodginis have been talented performers for 350 years, beginning in Europe and then coming to America. Albert Hodgini, for example, was a bareback rider and horse trainer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he also appeared in drag as a character named Miss Daisy. His kids Harriet and Albert were also great with horses; Harriet somersaulted and busted dance moves while on horseback. Other extended family members were aerialists and tightrope walkers. Everyone performed for all of the major circuses of the day [sources: Grossman, Heise].

And the show still goes on. Tom and Betty Hodgini of Peru, Indiana, retired from performing in 1956, after 27 years. Then local businessmen talked them into training some of the town kids to put on a mini circus show. That was the start of today's Peru Amateur Circus, where 200 kids annually put on 10 performances in Peru every July before tens of thousands of appreciative spectators. Many alums have gone on to professional circus careers [sources: Grossman, Peru Amateur Circus].


5: The Konyots

Tina Konyot, a member of the famous equestrian Konyot family, competes for the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Konyot family is famed for its equestrian skills, honed in Europe for more than a century. Their story begins in 1870, when teen Leopold Konyot of Hungary ran away from home and joined a circus. Over time he married a circus performer, started a family and created Circus Leopold. The Konyots quickly became known for their acrobatic and equestrian skills, especially bareback riding. Traveling all over Europe, the family caught the attention of John Ringling in 1907, who lured them to America [source: Cristiani].

The Konyots performed for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for a few years, then returned to Europe, where they created Konyot Bros. Great American Circus & Wild West Show, which became a huge hit. The family began to focus increasingly on the equestrian side of their show when they moved to Spain and Portugal in 1926. But in 1940, with World War II raging across Europe, the family again headed to America, this time for good. The Konyots and their growing number of descendants performed in various circuses across the country, both together and solo. Eventually, they dropped out of the circus business; many family members opened equestrian centers. In 1974, Arthur Konyot, one of Leopold's sons, was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame for his equestrian skills [sources: Cristiani, International Circus Hall of Fame].


4: The Stoinevs

Christian Atayde Stoinev performs his hand-balancing act with his dog Scooby at the age of 14 at the Big Apple Circus.
Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

One of the more prominent circus performers today is acrobat Christian Stoinev. Not surprisingly, there are deep circus roots on both sides of his family. Mother Maritza Atayde hails from Mexico's Atayde family, which owns Circo Atayde Hermanos, Mexico's oldest (and largest) circus. Dad Ivan Stoinev left Bulgaria with a teeterboard troupe at the tender age of 13 to perform with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in America. Stoinev himself first began performing at age 6, and spent much of his childhood under the big top at the Big Apple Circus, where Ivan served as performance director and Maritza worked in administration. In 2001, Stoinev became a Big Apple company member. Stoinev is mainly known for a hand-balancing act performed with his dog Scooby [sources: Christian Stoinev, Circopedia].

Although he's still young (born in 1991), Stoinev has already worked with Circo Atayde, won a bronze medal at Monte Carlo's Festival Première Rampe and the Bolshoi Circus' special award in the International Circus Festival-Città di Latina. This fifth-generation circus performer is the first college graduate in his family, holding a degree in broadcast journalism. He's also performed on many TV shows including "America's Got Talent" [sources: Christian Stoinev, Circopedia].


3: The Tognis

A fortune teller with Togni Circus in Italy peers into the throat of a crocodile to see into the future.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

One of Italy's largest circus dynasties, the Togni family has been in action since the 1870s, when founder Aristide Togni fled his studies at the university and headed for the big top. Once Togni had a little experience, he created his own operation, the Circo Togni, with his wife and, subsequently, their eight children. Their circus quickly grew and excelled in everything from equestrian acts and tumbling to acrobatics and animal training. In addition to their children, outside performers were incorporated into the company, including some from other prestigious Italian circus families such as the Milettis and Casartellis. In 1919, King Victor Emmanuel III bestowed upon Circo Togni the prestigious title Circo Nazionale, or National Circus [source: Di Ritis].

Eventually, three of Togni's sons decided to split the operation into three different circuses. While the circuses morphed over time and some family members got out of the business, many remained. Circo Lidia Togni, for example, is one of the largest circuses in Europe. The dynasty is also known for producing talented acrobats, animal trainers and circus managers. In addition, the family is heralded for its talent in circus engineering; the Tognis created the world's most popular big top systems: the round cupola, the Italian oblong cupola, the quarter pole-free and the round-cupola-quarter-pole-free [source: Di Ritis].


2: The Uriases

A man rides his motorcycle around a colleague standing inside a round steel cage at the Jan Baz circus in Pakistan. Many people have copied this act pioneered by the Uriases.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

In 1912, José Urias built what he dubbed the "Globe of Death." A 16-foot- (5-meter-) diameter metal mesh orb, Urias used it as the basis for his motorcycle stunt -- zooming around its interior at breakneck speed. Urias performed in his globe all across America and beyond. Soon his sons joined him, then his grandsons. Today, Urias' great-grandsons and their families are still performing in his original Globe of Death, riding customized 125 cc motorcycles inside it at speeds up to 60 mph (96 kph). The family has toured with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on and off since 1978, where their act is a fan favorite [sources: Ringling, Urias Globe of Death]. Along the way, the Uriases have piled up an impressive list of "firsts."

The family was the first to place a woman in the globe's center while motorcycles raced around; the first to feature a female motorcycle rider (in the early 1960s); the first and only to feature two female riders (the 1970s); and the first to stick three motorcycles and a woman in the globe. One trick features Jodie Urias performing a neck spin while hoisted by rope, as her family members careen on bikes inches away. Though other motorcycle acts have come along, it looks like the Urias family tradition will continue; one of José Urias' great-grandsons has two children, a girl and boy [sources: Ringling, Urias Globe of Death].


1: The Zoppés

Mafalda Zoppe (left) is shown with her sons Ermes, Gino, below, and Matt and Olissio atop their Black Percheron.
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Zoppé circus dynasty hails from Italy, although its founders, Napoline and Ermenegilda Zoppé, were actually French and Hungarian, respectively. The two met in Hungary in 1842. Napoline was a clown street performer and Ermenegilda an equestrian ballerina. Ermenegilda's dad disapproved of the match -- he deemed clowns beneath equestrian ballerinas -- so the pair fled to Italy and created their own circus. The couple and their troupe traveled across Europe via horse-drawn wagons, performing outside of churches [sources: Ponsi, Zoppe].

A century later, the circus still thriving, the Zoppés' great-grandson, Alberto, was offered a job by John Ringling North of the Ringling Bros. -- performing in Cecil B. DeMille's film, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Alberto said yes, provided North gave his family's circus an elephant to replace him. North agreed. Alberto ended up staying in America, where he produced circuses for Ringling and started his own family. Over the years, family members worked in various circuses until 2001, when Giovanni Zoppé, one of Alberto's sons, created a Zoppé Family Circus in the U.S. Like the original in Italy, it's an intimate one-ring circus where star Nino the clown tells the audience a story, which is punctuated by various acts and audience participation. No doubt Napoline and Ermenegilda would be proud [source: Zoppe].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Amazing Circus Families

Writing this article made me wonder -- what act would our family have if we were a multigenerational circus family? We're not particularly athletic, so all of the acrobatics are out. I don't think we'd be good with animals, either. That leaves the clowns, but my baby sister is terrified of clowns. Hmmm ...

Related Articles

  • Christian Stoinev. "Biography." (Feb. 20, 2015) http://www.christianstoinev.com/index.php/biography
  • Circopedia. "Christian Stoinev." (Feb. 20, 2015) http://www.circopedia.org/Christian_Stoinev
  • Cristiani, Tina. "Induction into the Circus Ring of Fame -- Konyot Family." Tina Konyot Dressage. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://tinakonyotdressage.com/HTML/Family.htm
  • De Ritis, Raffaele. "The Togni Family." Circopedia. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://www.circopedia.org/The_Togni_Family
  • Grinberg, Emanuella. "Nik Wallenda completes blindfolded tightrope walk in downtown Chicago." CNN. Nov. 3, 2014. (Feb. 18, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/02/travel/nik-wallenda-chicago/
  • Grossman, Ron. "Back In The Ring." Chicago Tribune. July 5, 1992. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-07-05/features/9203010112_1_gentlemen-and-children-circuses-big-top
  • Heise, Kenan. "Harrietmazel-szanto, 73, Hospital Executive." Chicago Tribune. May 25, 1989. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1989-05-25/news/8902040052_1_cook-county-hospital-hospital-executive-chief
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  • Jando, Dominique. "Short History of the Circus." Circopedia. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://www.circopedia.org/SHORT_HISTORY_OF_THE_CIRCUS
  • Mount Clemens Public Library. "The Flying Nelsons." 2008. (Feb. 17, 2015) http://www.mtclib.org/local%20history/flying%20nelsons.pdf
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