The 133rd edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey Circus opens Wednesday in the Delta Center arena. It's billed as "all new," but there are still the traditional circus elements — clowns, elephants, aerialists and lots of razzle-dazzle costumes.
What is new, according to animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel and singing ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, are changes that take some of the tried-and-true acts to new levels.
Instead of just three motorcyclists spinning wildly around the "Globe of Death," this year there are five high-speed cycles roaring inside the 16-foot sphere-shaped cage.
For this edition of "the greatest show on earth," Gebel will be showcased in a segment with an all-new generation of young, playful Bengal tigers.
Back again this year is Bello Nock, the comedian/aerialist labeled by Time magazine as "America's best clown." For this edition, he's integrated everything from elephants to a high-wire act into his routines.
Probably the busiest guy in the show is Iverson, who introduces all of the acts and keeps the momentum going. A former member of the Boys Choir of Harlem, he's now in his fifth season with the circus. Two years ago he married the show's dance captain/choreographer. "She's the 'mother hen' for all of the dancers; I'm the 'glitter' man, the icing on the cake," he said during a telephone interview from Bakersfield, Calif.
While Iverson appears to be directing all of the traffic on the arena floor, he said the real credit goes to the crews who put the show together. The roustabouts even got reviewed in one newspaper. "The critic said the (crew) had the coordination of a ballet troupe. A lot of the guys in our floor crew are former circus performers or come from other circus backgrounds."
Iverson also has a new CD, "Magic: A Celebration of Children's Music," available at circus concession stands. "It has a lot of great favorites from my own childhood, but they've been jazzed up and updated," he said.
MARK OLIVER GEBEL, unlike Iverson (who joined the circus after graduating from college), was born and raised around the circus. His father, the late Gunther Gebel-Williams, rose to become the most acclaimed animal trainer of his time.
Mark Oliver has spent his entire 33 years growing up around the tigers, horses and elephants. He's right at home in the center ring. "I have three new tigers in the show this year, who work as a team. They have to work together to operate a Ferris wheel, and they also jump over hurdles."
The new cats in his act are about 3 years old. They were born in captivity and he's been training them since they were about 1. (Gebel noted that when older animals in the show retire, they're sent to various places throughout the country, mainly in the Tampa, Fla., area.)
The big "special effect" for the 133rd edition is a gimmick being touted as Bailey's Comet. Promotional material claims it "defies description." From photographs, it appears to be an enhanced version of the old human-cannonball show-stopper. But the human projectile is trailed by "a historic, meteoric, cosmic conflagration of flight and flame." A special insert in the press packet notes that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey International Institute for the Presentation and Appreciation of Awe-Inspiring and Astounding Phenomena" is declaring 2003 "the year of Bailey's Comet."
If you go
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Where: Delta Center
When: various times, Wednesday through Sept. 28
How much: $9.75-$19.75
Phone: 325-7328 or 325-2548 (groups)
Also: Animal Open House and Three-Ring
Adventure, 90 minutes before show time.
Elephant walk around the Delta Center arena, 11:30 a.m Wednesday