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Ringling Bros.' circus ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson is raising children under the big top

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — For ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, parenthood really did change everything.

"When you last heard from me, I was still a bachelor," said Iverson, who leads Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's traveling circus. "It was really all about me. How can I advance myself? How can I promote myself?

"What can I do for me? Me, me, me, me, me, me, me."

That narcissistic parade soon came to a halt.

Not long after March 2001 he met the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his children.

Nine years and two kids later, Iverson said he feels like a different person.

"A funny thing happens when you endeavor into husband-hood and fatherhood," he said. "There are more things that matter. Those things that matter, obviously, make you want to do for others. That's spilled over into my performing life, my professional life."

Last week, Iverson worked his three-ring magic at Hampton Coliseum. While he remains a flamboyant and bombastic showman, the purpose behind his high-volume flights of linguistic fancy is different.

In addition to feathering his own nest, he's out to serve his audience, his fellow performers, and his family.

Family life

Iverson's wife, Priscilla, is a dancer in the show. His two children, 5-year-old Matthew and 1-year-old Lila, travel with the circus, attending schools and day care provided by the show's parent company, Feld Entertainment. His two kids are among 18 school-age children currently traveling with the circus. Parents work in roles including wardrobe, concessions and management as well as performing.

"I have to take my hat off to Ringling Bros.," Iverson said. "In a lot of ways — even under the radar — it's the most progressive show on Earth. To have my children immersed in that is a big deal."

Iverson wasn't afraid to take his family on the road. He began performing at age 11 as part of the Boys Choir of Harlem. He says his childhood, spent traveling and singing across the nation, was priceless.

He's glad his own children are growing up the same way.

"The greatest thing they're getting is what all children should be afforded — access," Iverson said. "When you get to travel this often, when you get to be around this many people, when you get to witness excellence all the time, when you live among people who fly, who do daring feats ... I think it does something to your capacity for tolerance and understanding the world in a much broader sense.

"I think that's what I want for my children more than anything. I don't want them to have limits."

Does his son Matthew realize how lucky he is to have a circus ringmaster for a dad?

Maybe not, but he's living that dream nonetheless.

"He's really the only person I would love to exchange lives with," Iverson said. "It's funny to watch how this little person is immersed in a global culture, really. He's surrounded by people from 10 different countries every day. He's seeing faces of every hue. He's hearing people speak many tongues.… He's traveling this great country of ours by rail car. He gets to see America go by.

"It's beautifully overwhelming for a 5-year-old," Iverson said. "He doesn't even walk anymore, he bounces."

Between school and child care, the youngsters are watched constantly while mom and dad rehearse or perform. Family time gets wedged in between. Iverson said he takes a long walk with his kids at each venue the circus visits.

"Matthew's treat is being able to get on my float," Iverson said. "I don't let him play around with the costumes too much, but I do let him put on the top hat. And he knows the show now, so it's like having a mini-critic around me at all times."

Iverson said the circus teaches his son valuable lessons — including one about gender. His son doubted that a woman could hang with the Torres Family, a crew from Paraguay that rides motorcycles inside a 16-foot diameter steel globe at speeds up to 65 miles per hour.

"He tells me, 'Girls can't do that.' I said, 'Are you sure?'

"When that act was over and Carmen Torres pulled that helmet off, his mouth dropped," Iverson said. "It was great. The experience showed that we have this wonderful generation of children who are growing up in a fascinating new America, one that we've been boasting about for centuries, for decades and never getting close to it, really. They are growing up in that.

"For Matthew, it's a wonderful experience and I think it's going to pay off well when he becomes a man.… For me, personally, that's the biggest thrill of being here again."

Coming back to the circus family

Iverson returned to the circus last year after spending nearly five years looking for work as an actor and singer.

It was rough going, the 34-year-old performer said.

"At first I was extraordinarily naive. I thought, 'I'll just end up on Broadway. I'll get gigs on a soap opera. I can do that.'

"I found out a lot of show business is about type, not talent. I've had producers say to me, 'Your voice sounds great, you sounds more like this character, but you look more like this character.' Or, 'You sound wonderful, but you're just too tall. Or, 'You're just not good enough for this particular show.'

"It was a wonderful experience. It was humbling. It made me appreciate working, having a gig."

Based on his ability to sing, enthusiastically announce and look dashing in a top hat, Iverson's future with the circus looks secure. It's less clear whether the old-school circus format can weather the storm of technological change.

Iverson thinks that video games and 3-D movies don't pose a serious threat.

"People are the same, I don't care what the age," he said. "They are the same at any time period in history. There is nothing new under the sun. The world is round, it just keeps spinning. It just has a new cast.

"Circus is the prize fighting of entertaining. You don't play circus, like you don't play boxing. There are no time outs. It's something that you live. And people love to see their humanity exceeded … Everybody loves miracles."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.