From The Big Top Into The Big World: A Ringling Ringmaster's Final Bow

May 19, 2017
Originally published on May 19, 2017 4:36 pm

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been entertaining audiences for a long time. Its history goes back 146 years — to about the time when professional baseball emerged and before Coca-Cola was invented.

But this substantial chapter in American history comes to a close on Sunday. After years of declining ticket sales and seemingly endless conflicts with animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. will stage its final show in Uniondale, N.Y.

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson is one of hundreds of Ringling performers and crew members with extraordinary talents who will be out of a job come Monday. Recruited fresh out of college, where he'd been studying voice performance and training to be a professional opera singer, he became Ringling's first African-American ringmaster in 1998.

"Ironically enough, I will be the very last voice in the 146-year history of this show, so I will be the last person you hear to speak of 'The Greatest Show on Earth' — which is a wild little paradox, to be a first and a last at the same time. I don't know too many people who can say that, in any industry," he says.

In his nearly 20-year career with the circus, Iverson married a fellow performer — a Brazilian dancer turned production manager — and raised two children while traveling from city to city on the circus train. Now 8 and 12 years old, his children also perform with Ringling.

During the circus' recent slate of shows in Virginia, Iverson let NPR into his world. Between performances, he navigates what comes next.

On a trip to FedEx to ship out professional portfolios to prospective agents, he reflects on the absurdity of job-hunting for circus folks — recalling the time consultants came to help them with their resumes.

"How do you do that with circus people? How do you help them write that out? How do you write a resume for superman?" Iverson asks. "It's like, he flies, you know?"

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After 146 years, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey stages its final show on Sunday.


That means hundreds of circus performers and crew members with extraordinary talents will be out of work, including this guy.

JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON: I'm Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the greatest show on Earth.

CORNISH: Iverson was recruited by Ringling almost 20 years ago. He was fresh out of college, where he was studying voice performance and training to be an opera singer.

SHAPIRO: In 1998, he became Ringling's first African-American ringmaster.

IVERSON: Which is a wild little paradox, you know, to be a first and a last at the same time. I don't know too many people who can say that in any industry.

SHAPIRO: During his two decades with Ringling, Iverson married a fellow performer. They've raised two children while traveling from city to city on the circus train.

CORNISH: He's spent almost half his life in this unusual world. It's been his job, as he puts it, to present his colleagues as the glorious beings they are.

IVERSON: Because they are, they really are. You know, for those eight minutes or 12 minutes, they're doing their thing. The world needs to understand this is very unique, no one else does it. And the only person who can really render that kind of excitement and zeal is the ringmaster.


IVERSON: Oh, come in.

SHAPIRO: An hour before one of his final matinee performances, Iverson is in his dressing room, and he introduces his colleague, Ringling's head of wardrobe.

IVERSON: This is my darling, Luz Gutierrez (ph), calote (ph).

LUZ GUTIERREZ: He's already out of time.

IVERSON: She's the one who keeps me looking beautiful. She takes care of me for all these years. She, herself, is a trapeze artist. She's birthed trapeze artists. They come out flying (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Gutierrez helps Iverson into his ringmaster coat, tasseled and bedazzled in red, blue, black and gold and, of course, his top hat.

IVERSON: It's funny. This is the only, I think, outfit or piece of wardrobe where it's not complete without the hat, you know. In a lot of wonderful churches, the ladies, you know, they wear these fantastically ornamented hats, particularly in the black church, so-called black churches, really wonderful how, you know, I mean, it's - they're called crowns. And I sort of think of the ringmaster's hat as that, too. I never let anybody wear it because of how special it is, you know.

I feel like the history and the majesty of ringmasters before me are in it, too. You know, you can call it kind of strange. It may be a little cheesy and goofy, but, you know, I feel like their energy comes through my head. It's like all of this doesn't matter without that, as gorgeous as all this is - right? - but until you put the hat on, you're not the ringmaster yet. And this thing is on. See? Now I feel whole. Yeah, I feel whole. So here we go.

CORNISH: Top hat on, Iverson heads into the ring.

IVERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, the Feld family is proud to present Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Welcome to the greatest show on Earth.

CORNISH: As the acts begin, he introduces ice-skating acrobats from China, some of them on stilts...


CORNISH: ...Then daredevil motorcyclists from Paraguay.


SHAPIRO: A fourth-generation clown from Italy....


SHAPIRO: ...And a Brit who commands lions and tigers with a wave of his hand.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Kashmi (ph) and Max (ph), let's go. Kashmi, come here. Come on, Max. Grab (ph), Max. Good boy. Good boy. Grab. Kashmi, here.

CORNISH: In his sparkling coat and top hat, Iverson is the man in the middle of it all.


IVERSON: I just finished a show. It's about - oh, wow - 20 to 4. And I'm headed to FedEx to send some folders out to agents, potential agents, you know, with the whole professional portfolio letting them know I'm going to be free. And I'm looking for quality representation, and that I'm open to do a array of things - musical theater, voiceovers, television, radio hosting, film, whatever.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Please select what you would like to create.

IVERSON: So I'm here in the local FedEx, and this is part of the hustle. You know, this is a part of what you do when you have to create new options for yourself. OK. So right now, I'm at the photo booth, and I'm printing out a couple headshots. Let's do that one.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Please remove your memory card by following the screen.

IVERSON: OK. See how nice that is? I mean, you really have to package yourself. I've got a business card in there, cover letter, resume, two headshots. Who doesn't want to hire me? We actually had consultants with our resumes and stuff. And I was just wondering, how do you do that with circus people?

I mean, like, what do you - how do you help them write that out? You know, it's just like, wow, how do you - I mean, it's like, how do you write a resume for Superman? (Laughter) You know, it's like he flies, you know.


IVERSON: Maybe the first trauma for me leaving Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will be entering into what I believe is the authentic freak show of the world we have now. I mean, I'm not really looking forward to that. You know, I've spent my time - 18 years here - and not to say it's been perfect and, you know, everybody's just in a paradise, an oasis, but you recognize here the possibilities of really the best of humanity.

It's a template. It's a model for society of what active serious diversity looks like and should look like, having a place where people are given that chance to reach their heights, you know, to be their utmost. What can be better than that?


SHAPIRO: Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson will step into the ring for the final time this Sunday in Uniondale, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.