Johnathan Lee Iverson
EXCLUSIVE TO THE SENTINEL
African American circus ringmaster is having a great time making history.
By Janet Alston Jackson
Contributing Writer for the Sentinel
“Ladieeeeees and gentlemen, children of all ages …”
That booming voice exciting audiences around the nation, opens the greatest show on earth 48 weeks a year. All eyes are on the tall, handsome, caramel skin man dressed in top hat and tails with a commanding presence in the center ring.
The spotlight is on Johnathan Lee Iverson, the first African American and the youngest Ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey(r)..
The circus is coming to town with Iverson at the helm, and this year’s show celebrates the 200th anniversary of the legendary P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman of all time. Barnum’s FUNundrum comes to the Southland July 14-August 8th, performing at the Staples Center, July 14-18, Citizens Business Bank Arena, Ontario, July 21-25; and Honda Center, Anaheim July 28- August 8th.
Iverson, 34, had no idea he would be making history when he auditioned for dinner theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin five months after graduating college.
“The director of the dinner theatre was also the director of the greatest show on earth,” says the 6 feet, 3 inch performer. “He was looking for a ringmaster who could sing. Fortunately, I fit the bill.”
The tenor with a great range, was well prepared for his big break, armed with a degree from The Hartt School a comprehensive performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford. He also attended the Guardia High School for Performing Arts and sang with the renowned Harlem Boys Choir. Iverson was awarded the lead tenor, and as a member of the choir, he performed at the intermission for Luciano Pavarotti’s Concert in Central Park, a live show On Broadway, and won second place in the Lena Horne Vocal Jazz Scholarship.
When asked how people respond to him being the ringmaster for the circus for 12 years, the New Yorker says the first half of his tenure was filled with a lot of attention. Barbara Walters named him one of the ten most fascinating people in 1999.
“We have the most diverse audience in any genre of entertainment. No genre of entertainment has greater diversity of people that come to patronize its shows than Ringling Brothers,” says Iverson. “I have seen every type of person, and every type of person really appreciates my presence there. They all have a different take on it, but it’s never been a thing for them. The audiences are caught up in the magic and majesty of the greatest show on earth. It’s really interesting.”
Perhaps the most interesting to Iverson are how blacks receive him in the role.
“Some African Americans take great pride that there is a black man at the helm. They are very sincere and very touching,” says Iverson who says he will never forget a single mother approaching him after a Chicago performance. “She was crying and told me how much it meant to her, for her son to see me. That meant a lot to me.”
There are other African Americans who come up to Iverson after the show who are anxious to show him artifacts from the circus, or share information. Iverson whose enthusiasm for the Ringling Brothers is contagious, is even more passionate when he recalls meeting Robert Houston, an African American circus curator in Philadelphia, who invited the ringmaster to his home. “Some blacks I meet are circus aficionados like Robert who is a wonderful gentleman. He has a museum in his house with artifacts from African American circus performers. He taught me about such luminaries as Ephraim Williams, America’s First African-American circus owner who I consider, and many historians consider him to be the original African American ringmaster. Williams owned his own show because of discrimination. But, he had a wonderful business, and a wonderful time doing it.”
Iverson speaks with great pride pointing out the diversity in Ringling Brothers. “The thing people have to understand, is the circus is arguably the most progressive and diverse shows in entertainment,” says Iverson. “We have black folks at the head of different departments. The paymaster is a Black woman, the head of our food services is a black man in charge of feeding over 200 people three meals a day. If people they knew what we do here daily, they would be pleasantly surprised.”
Iverson’s close friend hosting the circus pre-show is Andre McClain who comes from a long line of Black cowboys. His father Lu Vason co-founded the first all-Black touring Bill Pickett Rodeo which is coming to the Southland July 17-18th.
The circus according to Iverson is more diverse than Hollywood.
“Hollywood is still mainly a white male dominated industry. The same thing with Broadway,” says the ringmaster. “I think Vegas is probably the closest to us, but even it’s a distant second. We’re probably the only production in show business where women produce this show, women direct it, and actually run this show. We have a great deal of diversity, not only in our performers, but through out our staff and crew. Diversity is all over the place. That’s the thing that I really admire about the circus. I enjoy the fact that my children are growing up in the midst of this because it looks like the world. They hear ten different languages daily. They see people who look like them everyday, and they see people who don’t look like them also, and they get along with them all. It’s just a dynamic place to be.”
Iverson is talking about his two young daughters, who travel with him and his wife, Priscilla, a dancer with the circus. Their dwelling on the circus train has been called a rolling four-star apartment. “The family show, really is a family show in every sense of the word,” says Iverson. “The circus is very accommodating. We have a nursery and a school. It’s a community without a zip code.”
It’s a close-knit community, which includes the animals. Iverson ‘s voice rises with frustration when talking about the circus being accused of abusing elephants. “People need to know that the animals in Ringling Brothers are better off than the average American child. In California, they spend like $8,000 a year on a student, which is below the national average. Ringling spends 8 times that much on each elephant. Our Ringling Brothers conservation for elephants is the most innovative structure in the western hemisphere. And a portion of each ticket sold to the circus goes to animal preservation. I would really like them to visit www.elephantcenter.com to see how the circus helps and protects elephants.”
According to Iverson, the show can’t go on until the animals are thoroughly inspected. “We are inspected on a weekly basis. The circus visits over 48 cities a year, so that makes us the
most inspected, accountable institution on the face of this planet. The evidence is there. It’s clear. And for any one who may have any doubts or suspicions, we welcome them to come see the show to see what 12 million fans see every year.”
Traveling 48 weeks out of the year with the circus, it’s clear, Iverson loves the circus, and wants patrons to love it too. “When you come you are going to experience the greatest show on earth, no matter what. The circus has been through the depression, it’s been through world wars, it’s been through 911. It has been through everything. But, our lights never dim, our curtains never close. We are going to be there for our audience, because we understand the importance, and the real magic of entertainment. The circus is there to lift the human spirit. It’s there to inspire. It’s there to get you to that place when you were five years old, when anything was possible. I’m enthusiastic every time God lets me rise to go to work. I can’t say I have had a bad day. I work for the greatest show on earth.”