Wednesday, April 22, 2015
by Billy Wolfe, Life Editor
Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, is the first African-American to head a major circus. He doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer, though, instead giving credit to performers of color who came before him. “They rolled out a red carpet for me,” he said.
Iverson met his wife, Priscilla, through the circus. She is now the production manager for the show. They have two children, Matthew Felipe, 10, and Lila Simone, 6.

An institution can’t survive for 145 years without embracing change.

That’s become a kind of mantra for Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which announced last year it would retire its elephants by 2018. The circus has faced criticism for years from animal rights groups for using elephants in its shows.

“They are part of Americana. They are an icon,” Iverson said of the animals. “I don’t think anything can replace them. It will be a hard change, but it’s for the best, and the show will go on.”

The circus comes to town today and will have performances at the Charleston Civic Center through Sunday.

In a wide-ranging interview, Iverson went after what he considers deceptive practices of some animal rights organizations, talked about raising a young family on the rails and paid tribute to fellow African-Americans who paved the way for him in the industry.

He said the change of course regarding elephants was just another example of the company’s ability to evolve with the times.

“Every change we’ve made was a dramatic change,” he said. “We moved from the big top tent to the arenas and everybody almost lost their mind. They bucked the color line and introduced African-Americans. They introduced female clowns. We went from having one show to two units and people thought that was crazy. We went from three rings to basically just one ring and people lost their minds.

“The fact is, change is necessary and change is part of sustaining yourself.”

But he doesn’t have many warm feelings for the groups that pushed for the recent changes.

Iverson said the groups profit by selling “the fantasy or the illusion of something tawdry or something unsavory” to their donors. Circus elephants receive the “utmost care,” he said, but healthy elephants don’t attract donors for animal rights groups.

“Meanwhile, they raise money — tax free by the way — from the public and they can’t tell you where it goes. I can tell you where it goes. Twenty-five million dollars came to Ringling Brothers in the form of a settlement,” he said. “The ASPCA and Humane Society collectively paid $25 million because of the myths and the legends that they concoct.”

Last May, the Humane Society and co-defendants, including Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA, the Wildlife Advocacy Project and others, paid Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, $15.75 million to settle cases previously brought against the circus.

The year before, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals paid a$9.3 million settlement to the circus.

Nicole Paquette, spokeswoman for the Humane Society, pointed out the court case was not decided on merit.

“The judge decided that the plaintiff, being a former circus employee, simply didn’t have the right to bring the lawsuit and they were not an injured party,” Paquette said. “The judge never ruled on the massive amount of evidence that we brought on the mistreatment and abuse that goes on under the big top.”

In an emailed statement, ASPCA spokeswoman Rebecca Goldrick said, “Regarding the claims that we hide financial information from donors — These claims are completely false. The ASPCA provides our latest financial statements for our donors and the general public in an effort to operate with the utmost transparency and accountability. In 2012, the ASPCA reached a settlement with Feld Entertainment Inc. ending 12 years of litigation. This litigation was no longer about the elephants after the Court decided the underlying Endangered Species Act case filed by the ASPCA on the issue of standing, and never ruled on the merits of the elephant abuse allegations.”

Both the ASPCA and Humane Society continue to oppose the use of exotic animals in circuses and said they were pleased with the decision to retire the elephants by 2018.

Iverson said the circus, through its Florida-based Center for Elephant Conservation, is working to preserve the species.

According to its website, the center “hosts researchers, academicians and conservationists to create new dialogue focused around animal care, conservation and health, and the exchange of knowledge about the Asian elephant — both in the Western Hemisphere and in their range countries.”

“It’s a serious institution,” Iverson said. “It’s extraordinary.”

Racial barriers

Iverson, who grew up in New York City and began performing at the age of 11 with the world-famous Boys Choir of Harlem, is the first African-American ringmaster of a major U.S. circus.

He’s been on Broadway, sang an intermission for Luciano Pavarotti in Central Park, acted in nationally aired television commercials, performed voiceovers for cartoons and was even named by Barbara Walters as one of the most fascinating people in 1999.

He doesn’t consider himself a trailblazer, though.

“I didn’t break anything,” he said. “The path was paved smooth for me, thanks to folks like Reggie Montgomery, thanks to people who really endured stuff.”

Montgomery, who died in 2002, became Barnum & Bailey’s first black clown in 1969. Among the things he was known for was his refusal to do “white face.”

“My own paint job’s good enough,’’ he told Ebony magazine the year he joined the circus.

Iverson said Montgomery and his contemporaries faced much more prejudice than he has, but were able to sway audiences with their charisma and artistry.

“He said, ‘I’ll beat them down with my talent.’ And goodness knows he did,” Iverson said.

Iverson also penned an in-depth history of the King Charles Troupe, the South Bronx-based group of black men who continue to wow audiences by performing dazzling feats while riding unicycles. The original group was among the first African-Americans to perform in a circus.

“They were the only act of their kind,” he said.

Though he remains humble about his place in history, he also knows his presence and position matter. He knows he’s a role model and he finds joy in shattering people’s expectations.

“We are performing alongside people from all over the world, and I’ve heard all sorts of interesting things about black people,” he said. “I love to see those things shattered.

“My presence matters. It does something, when you see someone in a very prominent position that you’re not used to seeing like me, it does something to the psyche. I love the idea of basically smashing the myths and legends that build up in people’s consciousness about people like me.”

Family life

Iverson met his wife, Priscilla, through his work. She was a performer at the time, and is now the production manager. She oversees all 110 performers, in addition to the support staff.

“She oversees the entire operation,” he said. “She actually gets paid to be my boss.”

Raising a family in a stationary home can be a big enough challenge, so one might think doing so on a train that constantly moves from city to city would be even more daunting.

Not so, Iverson said.

“There really isn’t much of a challenge there,” he said. “We are indoors more than I would like to be, but that’s really it.”

Their children, Matthew and Lila, have lots of friends, attend an on-board school and get to experience the magic of the circus up close and personal every day.

“Their life is like a C.S. Lewis novel,” he said with a laugh.

Reach Life editor Billy Wolfe at or 304-348-4830.