Performing in the circus is often a family tradition carried through many generations. In Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s final tour, “Out of This World!,” parents perform beside their children, couples share the spotlight and entire extended families — cousins, siblings, childhood friends — live, travel and perform as a troupe.
Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson
When Ringling tapped Johnathan Lee Iverson to become its new ringmaster in 1998, he never imagined the short-term job would turn into a long-term career.
“I didn’t intend to do more than a year,” Iverson, 41, says today. “I thought, ‘ringmaster’ sounds like a nice pickup line. And then I’d leave.”
Eighteen years after becoming Ringling’s first African-American ringmaster, Iverson now has the poignant honor of hosting the circus’ last-ever show. For Iverson, Ringling has become his family in a very literal sense: His wife, Priscilla, is the show’s production manager, and they live on the Ringling train with their children, Matthew, 12, and Lila, who are also in the show. Matthew performs as a miniature version of his father; Lila is his understudy.
“Living with your family, working with your family, traveling with your family — it’s part of your career, your life,” Iverson says. “Everybody gets a check.”
A Manhattan native raised by a single mother, Iverson sang in the prestigious Harlem Boys Choir, attended Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and then studied at the The Hartt School, a performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. It was while acting in a summer dinner theater show in far-flung Wisconsin that Iverson heard from his director that Ringling needed a new ringmaster. Iverson auditioned and got the gig, partly because of his impressive tenor voice.
“I understood what it meant when I got here,” says Iverson, who remembers seeing his first Ringling show at the age of 8 at Madison Square Garden. “I really embraced what it means to children of all ages, and different stripes.”
Iverson says he’ll miss the camaraderie of a circus that functions almost as a social utopia, where a performer’s capability and artistry far outweigh any notions of ethnicity or sexuality. “All this stuff about race, and who’s American,” Iverson says dismissively. “People have been coming here for 146 years, and they’ve seen — and been wowed by — Muslims on high wires and gay men on the trapeze. And a black guy in the middle of it all.”
He adds, “And nobody’s ever thought about it. They’re just caught up in the wonder of it all.”
Unicyclist Aaniya Raphiel
It won’t be difficult to spot Aaniya Raphiel at the final circus. Just look for the only woman who’s playing basketball. While riding a unicycle.
“It’s awesome,” says Raphiel, 22, who is surely one of the few in her peer group to choose such a rarefied career. “A lot of people went to college, and when I tell them I joined the circus, they’re like, ‘Why?’ I’m like, ‘Why not? Everybody wants to join the circus!’ ”
Raphiel is part of the King Charles Troupe, an all-black team of one-wheeled hoop shooters founded in the late 1960s by Jerry King. The official story goes that a very young King became captivated by the unicyclists he saw at a Barnum & Bailey Circus in Tampa, Florida, in 1918. Years later, as a father, he taught the skill to his 6-year-old son, Charles. That helped inspire King to start a unicycle youth group in the South Bronx, where he was living in the late 1950s. Finally, in 1968, he took his colorfully named King Charles Troupe for an audition at Ringling Bros., which put them in the show the following year.
Like so many circus performers, Raphiel comes by her talent honestly: Her grandfather Floyd “Sweets” Harrison was a founding member of the Troupe. She also joins two family members in the company: a cousin, Harvey Harrison, and a stepcousin, Amir Ismail. “My grandpa would always tell me these stories” about being in the Troupe, says Raphiel, who grew up in Las Vegas. “And now I think, ‘Wow, this is what it felt like.’ ”
The young unicyclist’s first year with Ringling, it turns out, will be her last. “A lot of people are looking to join other circuses,” says Raphiel. “The majority of us are hoping to go overseas, like Spain or China.” There’s a chance, however, that Raphiel will wind up taking her unusual resume right back to her hometown. “A lot of people are going to Las Vegas,” she says. “That’s where the majority of the shows are.”
Clown Davis Vassallo
When Davis Vassallo says he’s been a clown all his life, he isn’t kidding.
“My father was a clown, my grandfather was a clown,” says Vassallo, who grew up performing in Italy beginning at the age of 7, when his father made him his first costume. “I am four generations of clown.”
Vassallo is now the star clown of the current edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show titled “Out of This World!” He plays the bumbling henchman of a wicked queen, which means his attempts at evildoing usually end in harmless pratfalls — or potentially dangerous acrobatics. In this show, Vassallo sways atop a dizzyingly high pole, performs a triple-somersault on a rubbery high wire and engages in an activity entirely for him: ice skating.
“I was born in the circus,” he says, “so for me it’s normal.”
Although the circus’ roots in Italy go back long before such showmen as P.T. Barnum turned it into an American pastime, Vassallo readily admits he had set his sights on the Greatest Show on Earth even as a child. “When I was little, one of my dreams was to come to America and see one of the Ringling shows,” he says. Tickets for a Ringling show were ordinarily out of his family’s reach, Vassallo says, and the one year his father found the money, their local train suffered a mechanical problem. Their tickets went to waste.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ” Vassallo recalls. “ ‘Someday I’m going to work for them.’ ” Vassallo still savors the moment he called his father, four years ago, to say that his childhood boast had finally come true.
Today, Vassallo shows no bitterness about Ringling’s closure. The day after the performers heard the announcement, “we woke up and said: You know what, we’re just going to give everything, and put all our energy into the show. Because this going to be memorable,” says Vassallo. “For me to be one of the last clowns in the Greatest Show on Earth — I just want to give everything to show them what it is.”