Big man under the Big Top

UP FRONT

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus returns to the Arena, and this year the Greatest Show on Earth has an imposing new ringmaster.

March 02, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

I always wanted to be big," he says. "I always just had some vision in my head that I would be huge."

The voice is huge: "Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages ... Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's the Greatest Show on Eeeeeaaaaarth!"

It rolls from his gut, thundering up through his throat and bursting forth into whatever venue the circus is performing in. A melodic hypnotist, his job is to touch the soul of everyone in the audience, to hook them in as the circus begins and keep them spellbound during every act change or distracted during the rare mishap. He is the man in the center of it all.

Johnathan Lee Iverson is big. At 6 foot 5, 215 pounds, he's a big presence. But he's more than that: He's the Big Top. "I'm the face," Iverson says by phone between shows in North Carolina. "I'm the ambassador, the prime minister. I'm the guy who has to keep the fantasy alive."

The 23-year-old from New York City made history in 1998 when he was selected as the show's 31st ringmaster. As the first African-American and the youngest person ever to hold the position, he made a mark that got the attention of even Barbara Walters, who named him one of the "10 Most Fascinating People of 1999," on her TV special last year.

And now he's coming to the Baltimore Arena.

Just hours before the 129th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opens here next Wednesday night, 500 tons of equipment will be hauled into place, eight miles of rope and wire strung, costumes laid out, muscles stretched and animals fed. More than 250 people and 215 animals will have traveled here from the circus' last show, in Cincinnati. Most will ride in on the circus' own train, a mile-long, 50-car traveling town, to give us what they advertise: the Greatest Show on Earth.

In this world, men and women defy death and gravity. They breathe fire, twist through air, ride animals and balance atop gyrating steel, and that's why people come to the circus, because "they want to see something incredible," Iverson says. "They want to see something that goes far beyond human limitations and frailties."

As a boy, Iverson had no dreams of this life. He just knew he wanted to be big. He grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City in a single-parent home headed by his mother, Sylvia Iverson -- a "very wise and very tender spirit," her son says.

Iverson's success story isn't one of luck or even simple talent. He's the product of a formula that builds strong destinies. Desire, skill, a nurturing home and opportunity made the right combination to propel him ahead.

"I knew he was a singer when I met him," Sylvia Iverson says in a telephone call from her secretarial job at the U.S. Postal Service in New York, a position she's held for 28 years. "I looked at him when he was a baby and said, 'You're my singer.' " And he grew to fulfill that prophecy more and more every year.

He sang around the house, he sang in his church choir, he even wore out albums by playing them again and again so he could sing along. "I had to buy three of them," Sylvia Iverson says of the recording of the Broadway musical "The Wiz."

So, she took her young son seriously when he dressed up as a performer and announced he would travel the world. "His constant thing to me," she says, "was if he would watch TV, he'd say, 'Mommy, I can do that. You need to call those people and get me on the show.' "

Where she got him was into the Boys Choir of Harlem when he was 11. "I immediately said yes," Iverson says, remembering the night his mother brought up the idea. "... I wanted to travel. I thought the minute I got in, I was on the road. But that wasn't the case. I had to work for my position."

Each year, about 1,500 children audition for the Boys Choir, but only 100 are admitted, and out of the entire group of about 550, just 35 get to tour. Iverson was tapped to tour and went on to become, at 13, the youngest lead tenor in the group's history. Through the Boys Choir, he did get to see the world, as well as perform for three presidents. He sang in Tokyo, Seville, Amsterdam and Paris, among other foreign cities. But more than just seeing the sights, Iverson developed high standards, a base in discipline and a strong work ethic.

He stayed with the choir until he was no longer a boy, through the end of his years at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, the school of the movie and television series "Fame." "It was one of the only places I've ever been -- and the circus is that way, too -- where your talent is how you get respect," Iverson says of the school.

At 18, he entered the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music, where he majored in voice and briefly considered opera as a career at the urging of his teachers. But he decided an opera career wouldn't afford him enough breadth for creativity.

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