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'Greatest show on Earth' coming to Music City
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There aren’t many jobs where you get to work with unicorns, dragons, and a herd of elephants.
Johnathan Lee Iverson has one of those jobs as ringmaster of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Iverson and Ringling Bros. will be in Nashville this weekend for seven shows at Bridgestone Arena this Friday thru Sunday. In preparation for “The Greatest Show On Earth,” Iverson talked with the Standard about his 16 years with Ringling Bros. and the magic the circus brings.
“It’s an enormous spectacle,” said Iverson, who will be making several appearances in Nashville this week leading up to the circus shows. “We did a show a couple years ago called Dragons where the star was a gigantic prop. Afterwards, people would come up and ask, ‘Was that a real dragon?’ and I think that’s the power of the circus. It shows we’re doing our job if people ask if it’s a real unicorn or a real dragon. People want to believe in the impossible or the improbable, in mythical magic, and that is the Ringling Bros. legend.”
The circus has transformed over the past two decades into a song, dance and choreographed show. There are still death-defying stunts and high-wire feats, but much of the circus has burst into song.
That’s how Iverson got his start. The native New Yorker got his start singing with the Boys Choir of Harlem. After graduating from the University of Hartford, Iverson was like many other 22-year-olds looking for work.
“I was auditioning for various gigs and one of them was at a 5-star dinner theater in Wisconsin,” said Iverson. “The director of the dinner theater was also a promoter for Ringling Bros., and he was looking for a singing ringmaster. I happened to fit the bill. It was 1998 and I was unemployed straight out of college so I jumped at the opportunity and it’s radically changed my life.”
His first year with the circus, Iverson was named one of Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 1999. Since joining the circus, Iverson has gotten married to a member of the crew and they have two children together.
“My wife is the production manager so she gets to tell me what to do,” said Iverson. “I guess that’s like any marriage except I get paid for it.”
Iverson says one constant concern he receives from members of the public are questions about the care of the animals. The Ringling Bros. menagerie includes elephants, big cats, horses, llamas, goats and dogs.
Iverson estimates Ringling Bros. has over 50 elephants that are either on the road with the circus or which stay in the circus conservation center. He said when elephants retire from performing, they live out their years at the conservation center, which has a first-rate breeding program.
“Studies have been done on this and they show that performing in a circus is extremely stimulating for the animals and it prolongs their lives,” said Iverson. “They are living things and they like to stay busy and they want to work. It’s an illusion that animals should be frolicking out in the world on their own. The wild is a brutal place, but people imagine it as a great place where they can nap by streams.”
Iverson said the circus is a cultural melting pot as Ringling Bros. features performers from around the world. He said most circus performers speak at least two languages. He said this is a great way to learn tolerance and gain acceptance of people who may be different.
“If you’re on a flying trapeze, you don’t care what color the other guy is, or where he goes to church,” said Iverson. “You just want them to catch you.”
Circus times this weekend at Bridgestone Arena are Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m.
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