Johnathan Lee Iverson has ushered one of the oldest entertainment institutions through one of the most eventful periods of change in recent history. As the ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, he has been a big part of that change. Joining the circus at 22, Iverson was not only the youngest ringmaster in the history of The Greatest Show on Earth, he was also the first African-American in the role.
“The Greatest Show on Earth is an American treasure, and an American institution, so it has all the American qualities,” he says. “We had all the first African-American dancers and the first African-American clowns and the first African-American aerial acts, so I think they can authentically call themselves The Greatest Show on Earth because they have people of every background represented, and I think that’s a fascinating allure of the show.”
Iverson also says with the rapid growth of technology, the show is an entirely different production than when he first joined more than a decade ago.
“My first show was the 129th edition — ‘Living Carousel’ — and that show was beautiful and spectacular, but it would not work in this age,” he says. “I say it with movies, too: ‘The Godfather’ is my favorite movie, but it would bomb today. You have to have a sex scene here, [audiences] need to have things happening, they can’t sit through a story.”
Not that there is a sex scene in this circus, but Iverson says when it comes to switching things up and adapting to new technology — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have re-imagined the “three-ring” approach and employed video screens — the most scrutinizing audience is a circus crowd.
“When you have a show like ours, this audience is generational,” he says. “You really have to tread carefully as you evolve. It’s so traditional to some families. We have people who have not missed the show in 50 years; they know the show, they’ve seen it grow and it’s really a fascinating thing.”