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Black ringmaster leads the ‘greatest show on earth’


The greatest show on earth is being led by a Black man. Jonathan Lee Iverson is ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus as it makes appearances across Southern California. The circus has performed shows in downtown Los Angeles and Ontario and will be in Anaheim through Aug. 7.

The show is titled, “Out of this World,” and has a space theme. The show also includes acrobats, motorcycle riders, lions and tigers, clowns and ice skaters.

Iverson is one of the few Black ringmasters in the country. He said he ended up in the circus by a “happy accident.” Iverson is a classically-trained singer and the circus was looking for a ringmaster who could sing, so he fit the bill. Iverson was recruited by Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey in 1989.

“They wanted a singing ringmaster,” said Iverson, who has also performed with the Boys Choir of Harlem and on Broadway. “I’m the voice of the show.”

He was so successful that he was named one of Barbara Walters 10 Most Fascinating People in 1999.

According to Iverson, circus ringmasters have been singing for a long time. He says the role of ringmaster has changed over the years. The role was originally called the equestrian director, requiring someone who could handle horses. The uniform still reflects that. Gradually the role incorporated singing and presenting the show.

As the role of ringmaster has changed so have the circus acts. Some circuses have cut back on the number of performing animals because of demands from animal rights activists. However, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey still has performing animals.

Iverson insists they are an integral part of the show.

“A circus without animals is not a circus,” he said.

He insists that Ringling Bros. animals are treated well. The circus also has a preservation for elephants in Florida.

Iverson says he has come to love circus life and the constant travel. He said Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey travels on a train, which he describes as a “city without a zip code.”

“We have a school and a nursery,” Iverson said.

It’s also a family affair for him. His wife is a production manager and their children are also in the show.

Iverson is originally from New York and he said he always enjoys performing in front of crowds at Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

He added that even in today’s age of thousands of channels of digital entertainment people are still enamored with live circus shows.

“People still have a curiosity about the wonderful and spectacular,” he said.

Iverson said he loves the unique circus life and couldn’t see himself ever getting a regular nine-to-five job.

“Once the sawdust gets in your blood you’re never the same,” he said.

Iverson added one of the greatest things about being in the circus is watching people from diverse backgrounds working together. He said when you depend on someone to catch you in the show, it requires trust.

“It forms a bond between people,” he said.

For tickets to the show, visit