As the 34th Ringmaster of the famed Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, Tyron "Ty" McFarlan Jr. faces more physical demands during a show even than the acrobats and clowns with whom he performs. "I hope I make it fun; it really is a very taxing job," he explained to Allison Perkins of the Stars and Stripes. "Most performers are on for ten minutes and done for much of the rest of the show. I'm the only performer on the floor for the entire show." McFarlan came to the organization without any previous experience in circus performing. "I had no preconceived notions of what to expect," he told Marty Clear of the St. Petersburg Times. "But I tell you, it's been a wonderful trip."
A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Tyron Stucks McFarlan Jr. was born around 1971. His father was a United States Army warrant officer who became a South Carolina state trooper, and his mother a third-grade teacher. An atmosphere of military discipline served McFarlan well in his future career, as he became master of ceremonies to a large and diverse group of performers and animals. At a young age he showed an interest in following his father into the military; he enlisted in the Army National Guard at 16 and enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) during his college years at the University of South Carolina. He graduated from that institution in 1996 with a degree in criminal justice and considered applying to law school.
McFarlan rose to the rank of captain in the Army National Guard, but all through his military development and his studies at the University of South Carolina he felt the importance of creative impulses growing in his life. At Columbia's Keenan High School he played the trumpet in honors bands and also took to the stage as a vocalist. He formed an R&B group that gained some regional fame and seemed within reach of a recording contract at one point. "Whatever is truly inside you is going to come out—sooner or later," McFarlan observed, as quoted on the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Web site. After finishing school, McFarlan landed roles in musicals such as Ragtime and Jesus Christ Superstar at Columbia's Workshop Theater.
Landing some modeling and advertising jobs, McFarlan was featured as one of the "Tough Guys" in commercials for Ford's F-150 pickup truck. Still, he was slow to begin thinking of performing as a career. He made a living as a state driver's license examiner in South Carolina, with his 13-year National Guard career providing an important income supplement. McFarlan married, settled in Columbia, and had a daughter, Nymah. His drive toward self-expression went unfulfilled, and he began to seek out any chance he could to sing, whether at military-base worship services or even improvising slight variations on drill cadence calls.
Finally, in 2004, McFarlan gave in to his creative impulses. He applied for and received a leave of absence from his state job, auditioned for a role in a production of the musical Show Boat at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, Illinois, and was accepted. During the show's run, the theater company's manager mentioned an advertisement he had seen in Backstage magazine, seeking a new Ringmaster for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, and said he thought McFarlan had the right set of talents for the job. The Illinois show's run was ending, and McFarlan was preparing to return home to Columbia. He knew little of what the job might entail as he had attended a circus only once, as an adult. Moreover, auditions for the position were held in Florida and were set to close the following day. And McFarlan's Department of Motor Vehicles supervisor refused to extend his leave.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, McFarlan jumped into his car and drove to Florida, practicing songs for his audition at the wheel. Auditions had actually closed by the time he arrived, but a phone call from the dinner-theater manager in Illinois got him in the door. He sang a Stevie Wonder song to lukewarm response from his interviewers, but they perked up at his rendition of David Lee Roth's "Just a Gigolo." Soon after McFarlan finished his audition, the job was his; he was chosen over 34 other aspirants. On January 6, 2005, he became Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey's 34th Ringmaster, or master of ceremonies. He became part of a long tradition with little turnover, noting that there had been fewer Ringmasters than presidents of the United States. McFarlan was the second African American to hold the position; the first was Johnathon Lee Iverson, in 1999. Part of his motivation for joining the circus may have been disenchantment with U.S. military policy; he was quoted in Time as saying that "I could either run away and join the circus or be stuck in the middle of a war not wanting to be there."
McFarlan's new life was a hectic one. "The circus is a year-round job, and we do as many as three shows in one day," he told the University of South Carolina's Carolinian magazine. "We recently played Madison Square Garden and did 13 shows in four days. It can be exhausting. But you can be so excited about something that you forget you're tired." Sometimes McFarlan flew his wife and young daughter to cities where he was performing so that he could see them. Allergic to pet dander, he had to adjust his vocal technique as he learned to perform in a tent full of animals.
Despite these challenges, McFarlan found the his new position brought together the performing-arts and military sides of his background. "First of all, I love to perform, whether it's singing or acting," he told Clear. "I just love that reaction from the audience. But what I'm finding also is that a lot of the disciplines I learned in the military I can use as a ringmaster." During rehearsals, for example, he made a point of addressing other performers by name, after the fashion of military commands. McFarlan also enjoyed becoming a role model and cultural ambassador. "I'm learning different languages," he enthused to the Washington Informer. "It's also great seeing so many African Americans who are happy to see an African American ringmaster. While the circus is for people of all ages and nationalities, demographically, I am seeing more African Americans and Hispanics come to the shows. I think the word has gotten out."
A two-year tour living in a studio apartment on the circus's mile-long train—one of the longest trains in the world—McFarlan noted—did not dim McFarlan's enthusiasm. "What I love most is the jaw-dropping faces I see," he told Perkins. "I look at the audience and see people grabbing their faces. It's fantastic to look at the audience and see their reaction." In 2007 he entered his third year as Ringmaster of the extravaganza known as the Greatest Show on Earth.
At a Glance …
Born 1971(?) in Columbia, SC; married; children: one daughter. Education: University of South Carolina, BS, criminal justice, 1996. Military Service: U.S. Army National Guard.
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, driver's license examiner, 1990s and early 2000s; R&B band, Columbia, SC, member; Workshop Theater, Columbia, singer and actor, early 1990s; Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, IL, performer; Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, 34th Ringmaster, 2005-.
South Carolina State Senate resolution, 2006.
Office—c/o Feld Entertainment, Inc., 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna, VA 22182.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 2, 2007.
Free Times (Columbia, SC), August 10, 2006.
Jet, January 31, 2005, p. 32.
New York Beacon, February 24-March 2 2005, p. 27.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 9, 2005, p. A2.
St. Petersburg Times (FL), January 6, 2005, p. W32.
Stars and Stripes, March 19, 2006.
Time, January 31, 2005.
Washington Informer, March 30, 2006.
"Our 34th Ringmaster: Tyron McFarlan!," Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey,www.ringling.com/explore/135/stars/tmcfarlan.aspx (March 4, 2007).
"Tyron McFarlan: Rousing Ringmaster," Carolinian,www.sc.edu/carolinian/kudos/kudos+05nov_01.html (March 4, 2007).
—James M. Manheim