The Greatest Show on Earth
Meet The Chief Ambassador Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson
As the youngest and first African-American Ringmaster in the history of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, Johnathan Lee Iverson, now 39, insists he has the greatest job on earth. In his glittering red overcoat and black top hat, Iverson has enchanted audiences for 16 years as Ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“I love seeing what the circus does for people,” says Iverson, who was born and raised in New York City as part of a family who played musical instruments and sang. “It is refreshing to see such joy on the faces of the audience members and to be part of making it happen.”
Traveling to 48 cities to perform some 450 shows in the United States during 11 months of the year, this talented song-and-dance man never tires of making his audiences smile. He was no novice with audiences when he secured the Ringmaster job in 1998. At age 11, Iverson sang with the noted Boys Choir of Harlem where he was named lead tenor and traveled to exotic places like Singapore, China, Japan and France. But, as he immersed in the magic of the microphone, Iverson often felt overwhelmed by the grueling long hours of rehearsal. “There were times when I hated singing in the choir, but my mother made me stay,” he says. “I am so glad I listened to her because it prepared me for the career of a lifetime.”
The Grooming of a Performer
After the choir, Iverson attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art & Performing Arts in New York City. He went on to the University of Hartford in Connecticut, earning a degree in Music and Performance. While auditioning for dinner theater and opera singing jobs in hopes of landing a gig to take him back to Europe, Ringling representatives rang his bell. He was interviewed for Ringmaster, a position he had never thought of pursuing.
“I was clueless!” he quips, “but I agreed to a series of auditions, along with 30 other applicants. The offer came out of left field!”
Iverson was honored to accept the job of chief ambassador of the Greatest Show On Earth. And he has never looked back. Every day is an adventure for Iverson, who lives with his wife Priscilla, a former dancer and now production manager of the show, and their two children ages 10 and 6. The family has their own apartment on the largest privately owned train in the world, which allows them a fabulous traveling lifestyle, highly adventurous and intellectually stimulating. Each family member has a compartment as they ride from city to city.
Managing the Unexpected
“Being Ringmaster is never boring because the circus is a living, changing thing – although, truthfully, there are no real life-risking dangers for me,” he says of the circus where he shares the stage with trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, bike and motorcycle acts, and a variety of animals, horses, elephants, tigers and a male lion named Masai, who has his own trainer and trailer.
Iverson does have a script, but there is always a new dynamic, a novel challenge. When a technical glitch recently caused a power outage, Iverson led the audience in song. “They loved it!”
A few other times, sadly, when a member of the 100 person performing troupe died unexpectedly before a show, the Ringmaster stoically had to act like everything was okay despite the tragedy
of the situation.
With so many performers employed, there are occasional injuries. Sometimes the afflicted entertainers want to do the show with a sprained ankle, broken foot, or bad case of the flu. To protect the talent from themselves, “I just say no.”
The internal drama among performers can sometimes prove a challenging issue, for which Iverson says he has zero tolerance. “I don’t like people bringing personal baggage to the show,” he says. “It’s not fair to the audience who come to eat popcorn and cotton candy and have fun.”
Making Lifelong Memories
One of Iverson’s fondest memories is when he took the circus to Mexico about two years ago. He led the entire show in Spanish. He took pictures with audience members and indulged their tequila, now one of his favorite drinks. “I was genuinely touched by the whole experience. The people were so welcoming, and [he laughs] they were fascinated to see that I was black and not a basketball player. The experience was enriching for all of us.”
Iverson says the circus is the ultimate celebration of living things, an opportunity for dynamically diverse people of all ages and backgrounds to
witness the genius of human artistry and animals thriving in a world that they love.
“We transport the audience from this world into another,” says Iverson. “The circus is a perfect marriage of science and miracle. The guests cannot possibly enjoy what we do without contemplating something bigger.”
Tickets can be purchased at www.ringling.com for January 2016