By Wendell P. Simpson
ABOVE PHOTO: Ringling Bros. ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson (r) and host Andre McClain (l) were at Cozen Police Athletic League Center last week to do an book reading to the elementary aged children.
(Photo by Webster Riddick)
“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages—welcome to the greatest show on earth!”
For over 140 years, this hallowed cry from the ringmaster has announced the raising of the big top and the opening of the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Today, at the dawning edge of the 21st century, the Ringling Brothers Circus cements its tradition of diversity and universal inclusion as the booming voice behind its ageless clarion call is none other then Jonathan Lee Iverson, the first African American master of ceremonies in Ringling Brothers history.
And, in another historic first, the pre-show opening host is Andre McClain, a real, new millennium African American cowboy.
The Ringling Brothers founded their legendary circus in 1884, and set itself apart from the rest with two innovative practices: first, it committed to dealing fairly and equitably with its customers and performers, never setting ticket prices at exorbitant prices, thus discouraging scalping, and ensuring that their shows were clean and free of vice, such as gambling and other games of chance.
Then the Ringling Brothers acquired the help of a Philadelphia businessman named Adam Forepaugh who furnished them with railroad cars and parade regalia. This innovation enabled the circus to travel great distances to reach larger audiences in bigger cities, thus increasing its audience and its revenues beyond anything previously seen in the history of traveling shows.
Iverson got his first taste of show business as a youngster while singing with the world renowned Boys Choir of Harlem. In 1998, Iverson, then training to be an operatic singer at the University of Hartford, had a chance meeting with the director of Ringling Brothers during a dinner theater audition. The circus was looking for a singing ringmaster and the struggling student fit the bill.
Soon thereafter, Iverson became a member of the ‘red’ unit, the portion of the circus which travels throughout the United States. “My was a situation where good luck met preparation and opportunity,” the soft spoken Iverson said of his initiation into the Ringling Brothers gig.
Between 1998 and 2004, Iverson honed his ringmaster skills doing hundreds of road shows. However, after five years of the constant grind of the road, Iverson left to pursue other options.
“During that period, I was doing the starving artist thing,” Iverson said with a hint of laughter in his narrative. “It gave me perspective.”
Soon after, the hungry aesthetic was invited to re-join the circus, and Iverson immediately accepted. The rest is circus history.
Iverson is grateful for his place in the fabric of American history—and he enjoys the fact that his family is a part of his endeavor: his children get to travel with the show, and his Brazilian born wife is a dancer in the show.
“I enjoy being a part of the greatest show on earth,” said Iverson. “This is a family affair, not just in terms of my own individual family group, but in terms of the human family. We are a diverse group comprised of people of ten different nationalities.
“The arena floor is another world. It is human artistry at its zenith.”
“The ringmaster is a big mouth who gets to tout the performance of glorious people.” he laughs. “It is a role that suits me perfectly–and I say with no false modesty that this is the best show we’ve had in years.”
Andre McClain is a real American cowboy. The African American rodeo star and trainer took a completely different route to his historic position. Horses and bulls have been life: his father is the founder of the Bill Pickett Rodeo, a show dedicated to keeping alive the memory of a pivotal figure in the history of the settling of the American West.
“I’ve been riding bulls for ten years, and bucking broncos for eight,” said the thirty two year old Kansas native. I love it.
McClain performs a mixed animal act as part of the pre-show activities. He also has the honor of introducing the other performers to the audience, a responsibility he says provides the kind of interface that makes the otherwise surreal endeavor accessible.
“The pre-show gives the artists a chance to mix with the audience,” said McClain. “Some kids are still scared
McClain also says of his role in the show, “People don’t know how Black cowboys impacted the settling of the West. I travel the entire country, but my real contribution is to give kids a chance to know they can be anything.”
Iverson also said he is grateful for the chance to be part of an historic endeavor that provides so much entertainment to so many people around the world. And he appreciates the chance he has to make an impression on African American children for whom the possibilities sometimes seem so limited.
“The thing about being a ‘first’ is that it demonstrates there are opportunities,” said Iverson. “You can’t squeeze the hope out of a community and expect anything but hopelessness. I had access as a child, I saw Black people in diverse occupations, and my hope is that my situation will be the same kind of inspiration to others.”