Whether you’re a circus fan, a person with a deep-seated fear of clowns, or somewhere in between, there’s little doubt that you understand what a ringmaster is. Our July Man of the Moment, Johnathan Lee Iverson isn’t just any ringmaster, though, he’s the man at the center of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus Blue Tour, and he’s also the youngest person ever to have that title, as well as the first African-American to do so.
Mr. Iverson took time out from his current tour to answer our questions, which we think will be an interesting read for ladies, gentlemen, and children of all ages.
The circus fans among our readers know you as the Ringmaster of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but for those who are just being introduced to you, will you tell us a bit about who you are and where you’re from?
JLI: I am a proud New Yorker. Born and raised in Manhattan, bred in Harlem, New York. I’m a Choirboy in the literal sense. I am the son of a former postal-working mother and my late father was a fire fighter for the FDNY. I am every bit of an Aquarius, creative, unpredictable, big heart for justice and service. I have a beautiful wife and two fantastic children who share my life with The Greatest Show On Earth®. I have the greatest gig in all of show business.
I know from your bio that you were originally a singer, a member of the Boys Choir of Harlem. What drew you to that organization? What’s your involvement with them today?
JLI: I’m still a singer. In fact, my voice was the main reason Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® recruited me. I am among an elite group of singing Ringmasters. We may just be the hardest working vocalists on the planet.
Obviously most people don’t think music when they think The Greatest Show On Earth; however, we have a very long tradition of musical excellence. What do you think enhances your enjoyment of the greatest acts and artists on the planet? All of the music is live; my singing is live for over 450 shows a year.
It all started for me with the then, world renowned Boys Choir of Harlem. I was drawn to it for the sole purpose of traveling the world. I just wish someone would have told me it was actually going to be such hard work to earn that privilege. I spent eight wonderful years with them and still represent them in any way I can during my travels with The Greatest Show On Earth.
Many people dream of running away to the circus…did you have such dreams as a child? What inspired you find to your circus life and career?
JLI: I had dreams of traveling the world. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey never entered my mind as a career option. After all, those people fly, talk to animals, and defy death; what would I know about that? The opportunity presented itself while I was auditioning for the Fireside Dinner Theater in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. It was preparation meeting opportunity with some good timing and the allure of creating history at 22 years old, and I was sold.
Aside from your existing training as a performer, did you have to learn any new skills in order to succeed as a circus performer, or in order to understand all the different types of performers you work with?
JLI: The single greatest thing you need in the world of the circus is an open mind. Every performance is like an organism, meaning it’s a living thing. No two shows are ever alike. When you are performing with so many performers from all over the world who possess specialty crafts with particular needs, you must have a mind that is braced for the unexpected.
When you started with Ringling Bros., you were the youngest person to serve as ringmaster, and the first African-American to hold the position. Was the experience fairly positive from the beginning? How did you handle the times when it wasn’t?
JLI: It’s been a very, very positive experience. My mother taught me the meaning of Ambassadorship as a young child and this was further emphasized during my tenure with The Boys Choir of Harlem which prepared me for my future. It hasn’t always been the easiest because there have been people who have underestimated my abilities due to my age but all that did was add more fuel to the fire so that I could prove to those people that they were mistaken.
Last year on Twitter, you posted a series of tweets about how circus life differs from the rest of the world (quoted below) that really struck me, could you elaborate on that a bit? Share some of the best and worst aspects of life on the road (or the rails)?
(Tweets in question, from 5 August 2011)
-Don’t mean to brag, but, sometimes I feel like I live in an alternate universe…
-In your world women are still struggling to make head way in the work place, in mine they run the show from top to bottom….
-In your world diversity is still an issue, in mine every hue can be seen and over 10 different nations convene daily
-In your world parents are overworked and clueless about their kids, our’s are at arm’s length 24/7 even when they’re in school…
JLI: I see you’ve gone Big Brother on me. Seriously, I meant every word of it. Part of my mission is to educate the public, not merely about the wonders of The Greatest Show On Earth, but, how much more advanced we are in some respects than so called “normal” society.
The very things I see people still bemoaning: Equity for women in the work place, diversity in the work place, small class sizes, time with children and family – it’s all been achieved and continues to be achieved here at The Greatest Show On Earth.
Our producers, Director, Production Manager, Assistant Production Manager, Tour Business Manager, Paymaster, Purchasing Director and many of our top animal experts, including our Veterinary Technician are all women, of different ethnic backgrounds. The diversity of our cast and crew goes without saying.
Our children travel with us. We live with their teachers and nursery caretakers. Over 300 people know your child. In this, as far as parenting goes we are immensely blessed.
Your Twitter feed is an eclectic mix of inspirational phrases, observations, and fan interactions. Do you find that fans’ perceptions of you as a person, or you as a ringmaster are altered favorably by your accessibility? Do you enjoy the interactions that you have?
JLI: Honestly, I wish I had more followers. But, the ones I have are very genuine and so, yes, I find that social networking allows them a look into my life beyond the three rings.
In a circus, as in any live performance, things can go wrong, or unplanned events can occur. How much flexibility do you have during a show, to cover for such things? Are you glued to a script, or is there room for some improvisation?
JLI: That’s the fun part! The unpredictability of it all. As I said, you must expect the unexpected. That’s why we will always have clowns and a live band of exceptional musicians. We live for such things.
Question from a reader: What’s the best unexpected audience interaction you’ve experienced?
JLI: A very kind fan created a shirt that said “Johnathan Lee Iverson for President.” Then a few years later when my son was born created a little shirt for him that read, “Ringmaster in Training.” I loved it. We often get fans who create art in tribute to what we do. Most recently a little girl designed this beautiful card for me which read: “You are the greatest man on earth…” Things like that keep you humble.
For most people, their job is just one part of their life. What else are you passionate about, and how do you spend time when you’re not working?
JLI: You don’t play a Ringmaster, so this lifestyle is consuming. Thus, I am passionate about my “me” time, which involves lots of rest, reading, writing, and discourse on prize fighting. I also enjoy spending time with my family and of course exploring all the treasures that each city that we travel to has.
We all have people in our lives who act as teachers, role models, supporters, and confidantes. Who are some of yours, and what have you learned from them?
JLI: The greatest thing to ever happen to me was being born to Sylvia Iverson. She is my first role model, teacher, pastor, doctor, best friend, etc.
My wife is perhaps the most diligent individual I know. She keeps me honest and on the straight and narrow. Which is quite the feat for one married to an Aquarius. My brother, taught me how to think and inquire.
My children have been excellent teachers in that, they remind me of the innocence of being passionate about life and the power of naivety. I also admire their resilience.
The late great Dr. Walter J. Turnbull, founder of The Boys Choir of Harlem, my Jr. High School teacher, the late Michael Bennett, and my godfather were and are priceless mentors.
Barbara Pflughaupt, one of the greatest publicists in the known universe taught me the science of handling myself in the press and with the public. I would have been enveloped during the early days of my tenure with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had it not been for her. The first thing she said to me was, “I’m going to be your best friend.” She was right. The woman is pure gold.
As a parent, what are your hopes for your own children, and what do you hope they’ve learned from you?
JLI: I pray they know how insanely in love I am with them and that they have made me wealthy beyond measure. I hope they live with a healthy and honest love for God, themselves, and family. I pray that they know that all of their opportunities are there for them to advance not only themselves, but, others.
I want them to dream huge, wild dreams and then watch God outdo them, just as He’s done for me. To say I planned this stage of my life would be a lie. I am blessed and I know He ordered my steps.
Music is part of your working life, but what about when you’re not working? What would we find playing on your CD player or trickling out of your iPhone headphones?
JLI: Esperanza Spalding, Javier Colon, Marthia Sides, Doreen Taylor, and the old school classics.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do? Aside from guest appearances, do you think there’s any likelihood of women acting as ringmasters?
JLI: There are no short cuts. This gig is not for Reality Show contestants. I mean no offense, but, you don’t play circus. If you’re not prepared to sacrifice, find another profession.
We’ve had several female lead vocalists in the past; in fact, my understudy during my first tour as Ringmaster was the amazing Catherine Hanneford Carden. Anything is possible when you work for the circus!
Every year the producers thrive to create a new and unique production of The Greatest Show On Earth and although there have only been 36 Ringmasters in the 142 year tradition, we are constantly evolving and changing which means number 37 could easily be a female.
It’s no secret that some segments of society object to Ringling Bros. use of (and treatment of) wild animals (especially elephants) in their shows, and sometimes go so far as to demonstrate at circus venues. How do you handle it when people confront you about these things? Can you talk at all about the conservation efforts Ringling Bros. is involved in?
JLI: The Elephant Managers Association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Federal Courts of the United States seem to think otherwise. Haven’t you noticed that none of these charges come from the Animal Science community? I challenge your readers and our critics to read Dr. Ted Friend’s study on circus animals “Hold That Tiger…”
Our animals receive better healthcare rivals that of the President of the United States. Do you have a physician shadow you everywhere you go? The only mammals I know of who do are President Obama and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animals. In addition, they have a team of veterinarians and experts on call 24/7.
The dogs and cats you will see in performance are mostly from rescue shelters. We house the largest population of elephants outside of South East Asia. By simply purchasing a ticket to The Greatest Show On Earth you become an animal conservationist, because portions of each ticket sold goes to support the highly regarded Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation (elephantcenter.com).
To our fans and supporters, I ask that you please contact your local, state, and federal representatives and implore them to not only reject calls to ban the use of these gifted and beautiful creatures, which would inevitably end the traditional great American Circus, but, to challenge the tax exempt status of the groups responsible for such ludicrous and baseless claims.
Fans and supporters may also connect to www.circusfans.org to see what others are doing to perpetuate the circus arts in America and abroad.
You’re currently on tour with the DRAGONS show. Give us an idea of what to expect? Is there anything specific spectators should look out for?
JLI: Expect The Greatest Show On Earth. Get ready for history. Get ready for thrills beyond your wildest imagination. The American debut of Britain’s Alexander Lacey and his famous big cats, the Kung Fu mastery of the Shaolin, not one, but two high speed motorcycles on a high wire, the daring Torres family attempting a world record 8 motorcycles inside the fearsome Globe of Steel, the Flying Caceres celebrating 30 years of aerial brilliance.
We’ve got the world renowned Clown Alley, America’s Favorite Cowboy, Andre McClain hosting our All Access Pre Show (one hour before the show begins) , none other than Everyone’s Favorite Little Big Man, circus superstar, Paulo, and so much more. You might even see a real Dragon!
What’s your advice for having the best possible circus experience as an audience member?
JLI: Show up, grab some cotton candy, and we’ll do the rest.
How DO all those clowns fit in a little car? (Just kidding).
JLI: I’d love to tell you but the clowns have threatened me with a Pie Drive-by, so my lips are sealed.
More information about DRAGONS, or the other Ringling Bros. tours (and ticket information) can be found at the circus website: Ringling.com
Note: All photos supplied by, and copyright to, Feld Entertainment.