by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
He had no idea that he would, one day, become the ringmaster for “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but once he joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus family he could see he was working for a groundbreaking employer.
The circus made Johnathan Lee Iverson, 33, of New York City, the youngest ringmaster it ever employed when he joined in 1999 at the age of 22 and it also made him the first African-American ringmaster of a major U.S. circus.
“When you look at the history of our show, especially in the last 40-45 years, we’ve been the most progressive show in all of show business,” said Iverson, talking about his achievement of being the first African-American ringmaster. “We’ve always been breaking barriers, especially when the Feld family took over. We’ve gone from five brothers named Ringling to two sisters named Feld. So not only do we have women producing the show, we have a woman directing the show and the persons who are overseeing the over 180 member troupe of performers, crew members and staff members are women. We have broken glass ceilings and crossed racial barriers, so we’ve always been a progressive show.”
Iverson has been progressing through the world of show business since he was 11 years old and performing with the “Boys Choir of Harlem.” He has been trained in all forms of music including classical, jazz, hip-hop and gospel. His talents progressed so much he earned the position of lead tenor for the Choir. Shortly after graduating from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School in 1998 the opportunity to join “The Greatest Show on Earth” presented itself to Iverson.
“Nobody thinks of this stuff...(being a ringmaster with Ringling Brothers) wasn’t even in my atmosphere,” said Iverson. “This was an opportunity that presented itself and I would have been a fool not to take it. How many people can say, ‘Hey, I’m the ringmaster of The Greatest Show on Earth’?”
The decision to take advantage of the opportunity was easy, as Iverson realized the top company in the industry was interested in his talents.
“Being the ringmaster at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, you’ re not a ringmaster, you’re ‘the’ ringmaster,” said Iverson. “This is the creme de la creme, the Rolls Royce of all circuses. This is the tops when it comes to show business. This is the Super Bowl. Everything else pales by comparison.”
The decision to join the company may have been easy, but the schedule of shows is anything but.
“The schedule is rigorous, but it’s a labor of love. We are on the road 11 months out of the year and we’ll visit about 48 cities a year,” said Iverson. “It’s sort of like a presidential campaign. You are always out there. We are basically out there campaigning for Americana. This show is America’s living national treasure.”
The draw of the “living national treasure” is that it is not the same show twice and there is always something new to see.
“Every year we come up with something new to remind everyone how great this show is,” said Iverson. “Barnum’s ‘Funundrum’ differs in many ways because we are actually going back in time a little to great, old school circus while maintaining our newer recipes.”
Iverson is able to focus his energy and passion on his ringmaster duties while the show is touring because he doesn’t have to worry about being away from his family. His wife, Priscilla, and two children, 4-year-old Mathew Felipe and soon-to-be 1-year-old Lila Simone, are with him on the road. Priscilla is a dancer with the show and the children attend the nursery and school that travels with the Circus.
“Our children get to experience the show and meet all these different people and different cultures. They actually get to see these exotic animals up close and see how to really respect not only different people, but different types of animals and how they are handled,” said Iverson. “My son is bilingual, his mother is from Brazil. He’s actually trying to learn Russian now. It’s a marvelous thing for him. He’s getting a global education.”
The circus isn’t just educating the children of its employees, they are also trying to educate the public on their treatment of the animals that perform in the circus. Animal rights groups have launched campaigns to get people to stop going to the circus because of how animals are “forced” to perform. Iverson pointed out that accusations of unethical treatment are unfounded.
“Nearly 12 million fans can’t be wrong. They come to our animal open house, which happens 90 minutes before the show, and they’ll tell you what they think. They continue to come,” said Iverson. “A portion of every ticket from our shows go to the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation. We just won a landmark case in federal court that had been going on for about 10 years, but you won’t see that in the news. The evidence proves that these allegations are absurd and, more importantly, they are damaging to people who spend their lives building a relationship with these animals who would never do anything unethical.”