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Ringling Brothers ringmaster talks end of an era


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, wasn’t surprised when he was told the circus was coming to an end.

Iverson, who leads the circus for one final set of shows in Charleston this week, said, “I could see there was going to be a drastic change, but thought it might come a little later.”

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, left, said the loss of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a tragedy. The circus performs this week in Charleston, the last stop before the show’s finale in Uniondale, New York.
(Submitted photo)

Now that everything is final, Iverson, like others, wonders what’s coming next — not for him, really, or for the performers who worked with him these past few years, but for the people out in the cheap seats with their popcorn.

“People don’t realize how much they’re losing,” the 41-year-old said. “We’ve become so jaded, so self-centered and distracted, as a country and a culture.”

“We’re imploding,” he said.

The loss of Ringling Bros., a pop culture institution, is a sign of things to come, a preview of where the country is headed, Iverson said.

“What’s happened is a tragedy,” he said.

Iverson has spent much of his adult life with the circus, all of it in the center ring.

He joined in 1999 at the age of 22, just barely out of the Hartt School, a comprehensive performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

A former member of the Boys Choir of Harlem, Iverson wasn’t just the youngest ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. He was also the first African-American.

He met his wife, Priscilla, through the circus. She was a dancer, and after a brief departure from the Greatest Show on Earth, the two of them returned to touring and circus life. They brought their two children on the train with them and traveled America.

The loss of the circus has upended his life, but Iverson didn’t blame the audience.

“I’d never do that,” he said.

He also didn’t blame the decline of the circus on animal rights groups which targeted Ringling Bros. year after year.

Still, Iverson allowed, “To say they haven’t had influence would be intellectually dishonest, but we’ve always had that in our history.”

He said that P.T. Barnum, the legendary showman who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus, clashed with what became the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Barnum had survived them, but Iverson said animal welfare organizations have become very good at spreading propaganda. The media also failed to show much interest in whether it was all true.

He complained about how little press coverage there had been about the ASPCA and other animal groups agreeing to pay Ringling Bros. millions to settle a lawsuit about false allegations of animal cruelty.

“None of that seemed to make the front page,” he said.

Still, Iverson agreed, the campaigns against the circus over animal treatment contributed.

What he thought did more harm was the inability of the circus to keep up with the changing culture. The show was always fantastic, he said, but their ability to promote and publicize hadn’t kept pace with the changing times.

“I think we forgot how to sell our product,” he said.

This was just his opinion, his observations, Iverson stressed. He hadn’t sat in with the marketers and publicity people for Ringling Bros. He didn’t know what had been done, what had been discussed and what hadn’t.

“What I do know is if you go to a local business in a town where you’ve been a week and they don’t [know] you’re there, that’s on you,” he said.

Ringling Bros. probably could have benefited from competition, Iverson added. Another big circus would have given the company something to strive against, but Ringling Bros. was the largest of its kind in the country, and an icon.

Being the biggest, the best and most well-known had maybe became a burden and, eventually, a weakness.

While some remember negative things about the circus, Iverson said they forget the miracles, of which there were many.

“Nobody does what we do,” he said. “We are the theater of the impossible. We sell wonder. We sell daring. We sell bodies flying through the air.”

The miracles went beyond what people saw.

“It was a miracle to put together so many different kinds of people from so many cultures and so many parts of the world, and then they don’t kill each other,” he said.

Ringling performers came from everywhere and brought their religions, politics and predispositions with them.

“But I assure you, if you’re 40 feet in the air, in the middle of a triple somersault, the last thing on your mind is if the catcher is a Muslim,” Iverson said, adding, “You could care less.”

It’s probably inevitable to think that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ closing is just temporary, that it’s another stunt. Barnum was, after all, famous for his hoaxes and gimmicks.

Iverson doesn’t think so.

“This is a very real thing,” he said.

This is the end.



Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

WHEN: 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. May 4 and 5; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. May 6; 1 and 5 p.m. May 7

WHERE: Charleston Civic Center

TICKETS: $15 to $65

INFO: 800-745-3000 or


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