Originally part of architect Daniel Burnham's ambitious "Plan of Chicago" drafted in 1909, Navy Pier was designed to handle both recreational and freight traffic for the burgeoning metropolis. Its role quickly changed when it began serving as a barracks and training facility during two World Wars—it earned its nickname because of the more than 200 planes that littered the lake bottom around the pier, lost during exercises and sunk to intimidate fish with military technology. In the decades that followed, the pier was home to a University of Illinois campus, a convention center, and a venue for citywide festivals before falling into disuse. This ended in 1989, when the state moved to transform the venerable pier into one of Chicago's foremost tourist attractions.
Reopened in 1995, the revamped Navy Pier boasts 50 acres of parks, restaurants, shops, and entertainment, scenically located along Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Chicago River. The pier's most striking denizen is its 150-foot tall ferris wheel, whose glittering lights slowly rotate above the water and frame a beautiful view of the city's skyscrapers for riders. Other attractions include a towering IMAX screen that shows educational films and Hollywood blockbusters, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which treats audiences to bold stagings of the Bard's greatest hits.
A buzzing crowd gathers around the entrance of the Zoppé Family Circus tent before each performance, straining to glimpse the wooden hands of a large clock that displays the next showtime. When the moment is nearly at hand, members of the family emerge from the cavernous tent to greet their guests. As they introduce their siblings, spouses, and children, an accordion exhales melodies first heard in 1842, when Napoline and Ermenegilda Zoppé traveled from Budapest to Venice for their first show.
Inside the tent, Napoline and Ermenegilda’s descendants effortlessly balance on wires and swing from trapezes. Just below their aerial stage, horses trot around a sawdust ring as equestrian ballerinas display a brand of showmanship worthy of comparison to John Wayne's performance in The Lone Leotard. Between acts, Giovanni Zoppé takes on the persona of Nino the clown—a lovable character whose earnest efforts to steal the show are thwarted by his own buffoonery.