‘Greatest Show on Earth’ opens Thursday for four-day stint at Albany’s TU Center

Johnathan Lee Iverson says the role of ringmaster for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is “a rigorous life.” He takes part in roughly 450 performances in 45 cities during 11 months of the year and travels on the circus with his wife and two children. The circus opens tonight, Thursday at the Times Union Center in Albany. Photo provided
Johnathan Lee Iverson is the ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opens Thursday for a four-day stay at the Times Union Center in Albany. Iverson, who donned the hat 17 years ago, is the first African-American ringmaster in the history of America’s most famous circus company. Photo provided

ALBANY >> Johnathan Lee Iverson’s path to the circus was an unusual one, even for an unusual profession.

The public may imagine the ringmaster of a major circus company as a veteran of the troupe’s rank and file – and time was, the ringmaster was often a skilled animal trainer, generally of an equestrian act: “That’s why our traditional costume is top hat and tails, and riding boots,” says Iverson.

But that traditional path to become the master of ceremonies of the Greatest Show On Earth is not his. “I started out as ringmaster right from day one,” he says of joining Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s touring company back in 1998. “I started out on top, and I’ve stayed on top.”

No exotic pedigree, but a New York City native; not an acrobat, magician or animal trainer, but a singer in his youth, with years of training under the aegis of the famed Boys Choir of Harlem and a voice degree from the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford.

Iverson helms the circus company’s 144th season in what is called the Blue Company of a production entitled “Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Present LEGENDS,” which arrives tonight at Albany’s Times Union Center for seven performances over four days.

The show incorporates many familiar elements – the clowns, animal acts, high trapeze performers. But, this tour is the last on which trained elephants will be part of the production. Iverson mourns that passing of a long tradition: “how many people would not know about the dwindling population of these beautiful elephants without the circus bringing them to them?”

He realizes change is an inevitable part of circus life. “Ringling Brothers has been around for almost 145 years, longer than Coca Cola, or major league baseball,” he says. “You can’t stay around that long without taking evolutionary steps.”

He knows whereof he speaks – for his path to the center ring is not the only tradition that Iverson shattered when he donned the top hat seventeen years ago. He was the very first African-American ringmaster in the history of America’s most famous circus company – a mantle that Iverson was not entirely comfortable bearing at first.

“It’s something that, in many ways, the whole idea has grown on me,” he says. “It took me awhile to embrace the whole idea, being the first African-American ringmaster. In a way, it’s a backhand to our society. We wouldn’t need to acknowledge it if the reality wasn’t there. We continue to see race as an issue, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. We’re still caught up in our original sin.”

But he became more comfortable as standard-bearer when he witnessed the impact of his appearance in the center ring on his own family. “I remember my grandfather coming to see the show, and him tearing up when he saw me. When he was a child, he couldn’t even sit where he wanted to ringside. Now, to see his grandson in the ring…” and he trails off, letting the thought speak for itself.

Iverson performed three straight touring seasons with the circus – and then moved on to other performing work in off-Broadway musicals and operas, among other opportunities. He was coaxed back to the circus four years ago. He travels with the circus train along with his wife and two children.

“It’s a rigorous life,” he says. “Eleven months out of the year, roughly 450 performances, 45 cities. And every performance brings its own unique element of surprise. It’s a living, breathing show, an organism, and you have to respect its life.” And how long does he see himself in that life? “I’d like to think I’ll be here forever,” he says. “But as we see with the elephants, nothing lasts forever.”

© Saratogian 2015