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The Circus is Coming!


Interview with Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringmaster



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Indy's Child: How did you and your wife get involved with the circus?

Iverson: I got involved by accident. In 1998, I was auditioning for the Fireside Dinner show in Wisconsin. I was 22 at the time and it happened that the director of dinner theatre was also running Barnum and Bailey. He had someone call me the same day to audition for Barnum and Bailey and a call like that is like having the president ask you to be a United Nations Ambassador. During my negotiations, I suggested we need more women on the show because men outnumbered the women. A troop of Brazilian dancers, including my wife, were introduced in the later part of 2000. We were together for a long time before having children. Our children were born during my hiatus when I left the show in 2005.

Indy's Child: How has being a part of Barnum and Bailey changed you as a person?

Iverson: Everyone comes to this show with assumptions. Whatever lessons they've learned in life will apply to Barnum and Bailey. As a boy, I was able to travel the world while with the now defunct Harlem Boys Choir. Because my childhood was so unorthodox, I found it actually prepared me for The Greatest Show on Earth. Other performers come from Broadway, for example, and try Barnum and Bailey. They find out that our show is an organism, a living thing. It's like nothing else I've ever seen. Everyone is very respectful of it. What you're seeing at the circus is the miraculous art of people exceeding their humanity. They are reacting rather well to the inevitable. To see that "The show must go on," a quote originated with the Ringling Brothers, is a testament to us that the world isn't going to stop spinning because you're feeling poorly. The show is perpetually evolving.

There is a PBS special coming soon called "Big Apple Circus" that will remind people of the value of this institution. At Ringling Brothers, we are living what everyone claims they are about. You won't find the diversity or progress in entertainment anywhere else. You will see 10 different nations represented.

It doesn't have to be said, but it matters for people to see themselves, especially the best of themselves at our show. A girl visited behind the scenes and said over and over again, "He's brown like me!"

Indy's Child: How many performers and animals are involved in the show?

Iverson: Anywhere from 250 to 300 cast, crew and staff and we all travel on the world's largest privately-owned train. We have 11 elephants and 10 to 12 tigers and there are a lot of miniature horses, donkeys, ponies, and llamas. We have a hyper dog who loves to perform. Before our shows, guests are welcome to visit the animals and learn about the Barnum and Bailey preservation and conservation organizations. Parents can learn about this at www.elephantcenter.com.

Unfortunately, what everyone thinks they know is what they heard, not what they studied. Circus people are mysterious, but stretch yourself a little when it comes to the issues of animal rights and performers. Barnum and Bailey spend over $60,000 on each elephant a year. We have the largest population of endangered Asian elephants and have had 23 calf births in recent years. These animals have access to health care, daily food, ample attendants running to clean up.

Indy's Child: What do your children enjoy most about the circus?

Iverson: They get to see this country every day. I'm fascinated with the fact that they get to see the Grand Canyon and not just read about it. Another circus parent said our children may take for granted that they are learning and absorbing in a highly multicultural environment. How many children get to help clean the elephants like my son does?

Indy's Child: What do your two children think of your career choice?

Iverson: They treat me differently when I am in costume. I look like the richest man in the world and it's like a Superman/Clark Kent thing. I talk differently, too. My son's friend, his dad is a tiger trainer and his mother is a hair hanger. How do they have show and tell?

Indy's Child: How do you find balance as a family?

Iverson: We inundate them with new opportunities. My wife is very good at seeing there is always something to teach your child. One thing I've always wanted is to create an environment where kids can express themselves. My son will talk nonstop about his day, never apologizing for who he is. The world throws a lot at you and it's nice to have one place to go.

Many are blown away at the fact that 12 million people and counting patronize The Greatest Show on Earth annually. Indianapolis will play host to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus' Barnum's Fundrum on December 1 – 5 at Conseco Fieldhouse. For more information on the circus and to purchase tickets, visit www.ringling.com and enter your zip code in the "Buy Tickets" box in the upper, right-hand corner.

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Tags: In This Issue, Local, Party and Entertainment

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