Joyous in Tent

The 131st edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus

The trouble with the circus is that everyone thinks he or she knows all about it. Everyone except little kids, that is.

Fancy bigtops like Cirque du Soleil came along and tried to make the circus appeal to sophisticates, but basically it’s no different from the one you saw when you were five years old. Just better lighting. From a five-year-old’s perspective — and to many world-weary adults as well — nothing in the world is as exciting as the sudden appearance of an elephant. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has those in profusion.

Do kids still want to run away with the circus? Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, now in his fourth season with the Greatest Show on Earth, admits he doesn’t know. “They’ve got all these video games and computers now. I know I wanted to do it — not that I had a bad home life or anything, but I wanted to get away. That’s why I joined the Boys’ Choir of Harlem.” Says the imposing singer-emcee, “If someone had told me I was going to get into the longest-running show in show business, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here I am.”

There he is, at the center of a whirlwind of acrobats, clowns, contortionists, Mark Oliver Gebel and his big cats, comic Bello Nock and his four-and-a-half-ton pachyderm pal Bo, and the Max-Air Blizzard Battalion, which blends ramp skiing and trampoline jumping in a sort of indoor version of the X Games. Iverson has this advice for young would-be circus performers: “Enjoy the thrills, but it’s hard work. You have to sincerely concentrate on your skills.” And keep your eye on the big guys. “For the kids, the biggest thrill is the elephants. It’s always the elephants.”

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