Iverson, Jonathan Lee 1976–
Jonathan Lee Iverson 1976–
Johnathan Lee Iverson is the first African American ringmaster in the history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is also the youngest person to be chosen as ringmaster. Iverson is responsible for controlling the pacing of the show, performing musical numbers and introducing circus acts as they enter the ring. Indeed, the role of ringmaster is an extremely difficult job. As Iverson told USA Today, “It takes a lot of sleep and a lot of energy. I’m the image of the circus. It’s up to me to initiate the energy of the show and keep you awake.” Iverson became ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus through talent and hard work. He also exhibits a quiet self-confidence that does not admit the possibility of failure. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, Iverson described the secret of his success, “You have to keep believing in the dream, you have to live it into existence.”
Iverson was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1976, the son of a firefighter and a secretary for the postal service. His parents were not married when Iverson was born and his father spent very little time with him. Despite the fact that he rarely saw his father, Iverson harbored no bitterness.“I never had any animosity against him,” he told People magazine, “When I was born, he wasn’t ready to be a man yet.”
Iverson developed an early interest in show business and, as a child, always wanted to perform. At the age of 11, he auditioned for the Harlem Boys Choir. To his delight, he was accepted into the choir. As a member of the Harlem Boys Choir, Iverson received intensive training in classical, hip hop, jazz, and gospel music. He also had the opportunity to travel throughout the United States, as well as Singapore, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. During a visit to Japan, the Harlem Boys Choir appeared in concert with opera star Placido Domingo.“I saw other people getting his autograph,” Iverson recalled to CBB, “I didn’t know who he was. But when he opened his mouth to sing, I was amazed at what the human voice could do.” Watching Domingo perform inspired Iverson to work hard to develop his own singing voice.
After six years with the Harlem Boys Choir, Iverson left to attend Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan. He thrived at LaGuardia and was chosen to appear for a two-week engagement on Broadway. He also won second place in
Born Jonathan Lee lverson on January 30, 1976. Education: Graduated from the Hartt School of Music, 1998.
Career: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, ringmaster, 1998–
Awards: Lena Horne Vocal Jazz Scholarship.
Addresses: 8607 Westwood Center, Vienna, VA 22182.
the Lena Home Vocal Jazz Scholarship competition. lverson’s second place finish earned him a scholarship to the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. As one of America’s finest music conservatories, Hartt was known for training opera and classical singers. Although many Hartt graduates have become famous opera stars, Iverson had no interest in becoming an opera singer. He told CBB, “I was bent on a career as a singer, and I had noted that a classical training seemed to lead to longevity as an artist. That is why I pursued a classical training.”
Following his graduation from Hartt in 1998, Iverson had planned to continue his musical studies. However, he could not afford to pay the tuition fees. He traveled to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, to audition for a part in a new show at the town’s Fireside Dinner Theater. Iverson landed the part and his excellent performances soon attracted the attention of the show’s director, Phil McKinley. McKinley was also the director-choreographer for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and he felt that Iverson’s commanding stage presence and beautiful singing voice made him an excellent candidate for ringmaster of the circus. Iverson agreed to attend the ringmaster auditions and, from a field of 28 candidates, was selected as the new ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Iverson quickly discovered that being a ringmaster is an extremely demanding job. It requires a great deal of energy and physical stamina to perform at least one show a day and, on weekends, two or three shows.“The children demand a lot of you,” Iverson told People magazine, “They draw the energy out of you, so by the end of the day, you’re dead.” Also, the ringmaster is given a tremendous amount of responsibility. In his book Ringmaster! My Year on the Road with the Greatest Show on Earth, former ringmaster Kristopher Antekeier noted that“the responsibility of the job was enormous. It was possible that an announcement uttered at the wrong time could hurl the entire show into disarray. Someone could even be injured. An instant of confusion might cause a performer to miss a hold and fall to his death.” Iverson is keenly aware of his responsibilities and is confident that he and his fellow cast members can handle any last-minute change or unexpected glitch. As he remarked to CBB, “I work with very smart people and very seasoned people. Together, we give our public an all-star event.”
When Iverson first began rehearsing with the circus in late 1998, he quickly earned the admiration and respect of the other cast members.“The first time Johnathan sang in rehearsal, everybody stopped,” circus owner Kenneth Feld toldthe St. Petersburg Times.“They listened, and then they broke into applause.” In the same article, horse and elephant trainer Catherine Hanneford remarked, “We didn’tsee anybody who looked like a ringmaster. You only could see this tall kid in jeans standing there. But then the music starts, and you hear the ringmaster, and the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard in your life. And you look out again and see this big kid turn into just an amazing ringmaster.”
Iverson has been unfazed by the tremendous attention he has received as both the youngest and first African American ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is a man who relies heavily on his faith to see him through. As Iverson told the St. Petersburg Times, “I come from a very God-oriented family, and I want to live my life by that hymn I used to hear when I was younger: Oh, What Needless Sorrows We Bear. It’s true. It’s not my place to worry about it. I know the tension it would bring. I can only do the best job I can do.”
Antekeier, Kristopher, and Greg Aunapu, Ringmaster!My Year on the Road with the Greatest Show on Earth. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1989.
Buffalo News, February 24, 1999, p. 4A.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 28, 1997, p. 5.
New York Times, December 18, 1998, p. B1.
People, April 19, 1999, p. 167.
St. Petersburg Times, December 29, 1998, p. ID.
USA Today, March 26, 1999, p. 3E.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Johnathan Lee Iverson on May 17, 1999.
—Gillian Wolf and David G. Oblender