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Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson hits Dallas with Ringling Bros. Circus

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Story by Shawn Williams and photos by Marcos Quintana of Visual Q Photography

Boys and Girls Club member Orion turns the table by entertaining Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson

Johnathan Lee Iverson knows that he has one of the greatest jobs on Earth with The Greatest Show on Earth.  This week he’s in Dallas to lead one of America’s most celebrated shows at the American Airlines Center.

Trailblazer

Iverson became ringmaster of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1998.  On day one he became the first African-American ringmaster and the youngest ringmaster in the history of the circus.  He knew that he had to live up to the legacy of all the Black pioneers who had come before him.  “How do you honor those marvelous strangers,” he asks rhetorically.

But for the last 13 years he’s honored them by blazing his own trail.  The New York City native was trained for great things by growing up as a member of The Boys Choir of Harlem. The rigorous practice schedule (2-3 hours per day) and worldwide travel were great preparation for Iverson, who performs more that 500 shows per year.

He naturally figured he would excel in the field of music. “I was preparing for an opera career after being inspired by Placido Domingo at a young age,” Iverson said.  “I had my plan and of course God giggled,” he added.  Only a few months after graduating from the University of Hartford, Iverson was selected from a field of 28 candidates to be ringmaster at the age of twenty-two.

Beautiful Stuff

Iverson and Kelly the Clown present the Boys and Girls Clubs with 2,000 tickets to the circus

The first group in Dallas to see a Ringling Brothers performance were children assembled at the Oak Cliff Boys and Girls Club. Iverson spent time at the beginning of the performance encouraging kids to listen to the adults around them and appreciate the opportunities that lie before them.

The 6-foot-3 ringmaster towers over children and adults alike, but connects with individuals through is beaming smile and humble demeanor. At times it was hard to tell who was having more fun, the ringmaster or his audience.

Every few steps as Iverson moved through the club someone wanted to stop and take a picture with him.  Even as the circus trains continued to pulled into town, Iverson, circus cowboy Andre McClain and Ambassador of Laughter Kelly Ballagh had already brought smiles to hundreds of faces.  “This is the beautiful stuff  you never hear about on the news,” he said.

Enjoying the Show

Iverson says his job as ringmaster offers him the best seat in the house at one of the most progressive productions in show business. “Ringling Brothers is dynamically progressive, far more progressive than Hollywood,” said Iverson.  “The show is run by women of various backgrounds,” he said.  Sisters Nicole and Alana Feld are co-producers for the circus and Marsha Milgrom Dodge is the director

Another female in a leadership position is Iverson’s wife Priscilla, who is a line captain responsible for recruiting dancers.  She also dances in the show as well.  They along with their two children live as a family on the road, traveling from city to city.  “The greatest skill a circus artist has to have is flexibility,” he said.

I tried to get Iverson to reveal his favorite part of the show.  He was reluctant to single out one act, explaining “I have to live with these people.”  But he did budge a little.  “There are still acts that consistently thrill me,” he said, citing diminutive Virginia Tuelis who balances her husband on her head, and Carmen Torres who is one of 7 motorcyclists riding in the 16 foot Globe of Steel.

Iverson doesn’t plan on giving up his seat anytime soon.  I asked how long he figures to lead the show and he didn’t hesitate to answer.  “Until they pull this top hat from my cold dead hands.”

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus runs from Wednesday July 27 through Sunday August 7.

  • matt

    When you see their beautiful, endangered animals doing tricks, take a moment to think about just how the circus gets these animals to comply in such a fashion.

  • Anonymous

    Look at you, PETA propaganda-ist.

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