For 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus spread joy and produced smiles across America. Dating back to a time when Disney World was just a piece of land, the show’s cast included international entertainers who raised their families while touring the country.
Johnathan Lee Iverson, a native New Yorker, is the patriarch of one such family. Iverson historically joined the company in 1998, becoming the first African-American ringleader. He set box office records and performed an estimated 450 shows a year. However, the latest ringleader of the circus is also the show’s last, as its final curtain call came last May.
“It was quite the adventure,” Iverson says.
The voice of the popular enterprise married his wife Priscilla, a production manager for the show, in 2001 and they have two children. Matthew, 12, and Lila, 10, both grew up in the circus. They eventually became performers themselves and worked alongside their parents. They also participated in extracurricular activities that involved training with acrobats from Russia and Mongolia.
“Our home was on the road, basically, and only our backyard changed every week,” Iverson says about the mile-long Ringling circus train he lived aboard with his family. “It’s basically a city with no zip code but very community based.”
The family celebrated birthdays like only circus performers know how: by dodging pie-throwing clowns.
“You can’t get pied in costume, so we would try to stay in dress all day,” Iverson says. “But your family usually sets you up. It’s all in good fun.”
Since retiring, the entertainer and his family have relocated to Orlando, where they are transitioning to life after the circus. His children are flourishing in school. Lila was accepted into the gifted program and Matthew became a leader in his Boy Scouts troupe. Iverson believes they have an advantage because of their life experiences.
“It was a great way to not only see the country but broaden the lives of our children as far as interactions with different kinds of people,” he says.
Iverson believes the Orlando area has terrific talent and room to grow into a capitol for the arts, just like New York’s Broadway. He is continuing to land gigs in the entertainment industry as a host and actor, but he also sees this time as an opportunity to work on his personal brand.
“My real passion at this moment is writing my stories and recreating myself,” Iverson says.
His next appearance is set for March 16-31 at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden as he takes the stage as Reverend Moore in “A Tennessee Walk.” This drama ironically revolves around the circus and takes place in a 1916 Tennessee town with dark secrets.