By MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer Michael Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
It was probably the worst show on Earth.
Johnathan Lee Iverson was about 8 years old when he attended his first circus. He was excited. His eyes were wide with wonder.
It didn’t last.
“I just remember my disappointment, like going to see the ‘living unicorn,’ and what I saw was really a goat, and it had probably been disfigured in some way,” he recalled. “It was terrible.”
It was an unpromising beginning to Iverson’s connection to circus life, which has become his home and his career.
The man with the big personality and even bigger voice is entering his 15th year as ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He arrives for four shows at the BOK Center this weekend, with all of the clowns, elephants and amazing performers that make it “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Iverson has been donning the colorful outfits and bejeweled top hats and welcoming guests around the world to more than 350 shows each year, with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.
It’s been quite a run for a man who trained to be an opera singer after his Boys Choir of Harlem appeared at a show along with famed tenor Placido Domingo (“I didn’t know Placido from a ham sandwich, but when I heard him sing, I knew what I wanted to do,” Iverson said).
Many years later, Iverson attended an audition for a dinner theater, the director of which was helping the circus look for a ringmaster — a singing ringmaster, to be precise.
“There are three types of circus people,” Iverson explains, telling his many stories with a heady mix of humor and sarcasm. “There are ‘circus babies,’ and it’s their destiny to do this. Their family was in the circus, and they’re going to be in the circus. There are the ‘circus runaways,’ and these are often clowns — or as they tell me, funny people trying to be normal. Maybe they went to college, but then they come to Ringling’s clown college. It’s their calling.”
So what does that make Iverson?
“The third is the ‘circus opportunist.’ It’s a job, and you know if it’s for you after just a few weeks, and if the sawdust gets in your veins, you are ‘circus.’ Some are allergic to it and leave this fascinating community of very different people who become your family.”
The ringmaster travels year-round with his wife, Priscilla (“As the show’s production manager, she gets to run both my life and my job”) and his two children (the circus has its own very colorful school).
But his extended family is huge. It is the circus family, including all those clowns and the trapeze artists.
It includes the women of “the human chandelier” act, eight of whom were seriously injured May 4 in Rhode Island when their “hair-hanging” apparatus fell during a performance, dropping the women 30 feet when a cable broke.
The act, which had been part of this year’s new “Legends” show, will not be part of the performances at the BOK Center.
“Safety is our main priority, and it’s never lost on anyone that at some point, this wonderful, ‘living dream,’ as Ernest Hemingway called the circus, can be violently interrupted,” Iverson said. “It’s never lost on us, and it’s why we train as hard as we do. The craft is like a religious undertaking.”
It’s probably important to note that the accident was so shocking because it so rarely happens with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“Part of the lure of circus is that danger is looming, but when people come to ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ they don’t come to see an accident. They come for the dream,” Iverson said.
“They come to see humanity and animals at their liveliest and at their best, and how far we can take it all, and that’s exciting and thrilling. We push the boundaries.”
He said the women are “recovering incredibly well, because when it happened, I just assumed that I was going to be burying one of my friends.
“They’re so tough and so stubborn and so supportive of each other. When it happened, all of them were wondering the same thing — How are my friends? Are they being taken care of?
“These women are all on the mend, and we’re all really happy. They’re our family.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents two free events:
Reading and clowning fun on Thursday at 10 a.m. at Hardesty Regional Library, 8316 E. 93rd St.: The circus’ clowns present a special comedic demonstration while encouraging kids to read, performing at the library’s Connor’s Cove Children’s Theater.
Popsicle party with elephants on Friday at 4 p.m. at the BOK Center, on the grassy area beside the main ticket-office area: Watch Asian elephants tackle watermelons and frozen treats, while visitors receive their own complimentary treats in ice pops provided by Blue Bell Creameries.