Johnathan Lee Iverson thinks the circus gets a bad rap.
Yes, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is eagerly anticipated by children of all ages when it comes to town, and it will be at Rupp Arena this weekend. But the show's ringmaster says circus terminology is not necessarily complimentary when used outside the three rings.
"We have such a negative connotation of circus in the mainstream intelligentsia," Iverson says. "The word circus is always related to chaos and disorder. It's always related to something shifty and shaky and not very classy.
"When you hear clown, it's always related to something degenerate, which is really unfair, because when you experience what I have with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, it's quite contrary."
Iverson isn't just the ringmaster. He might very well be the circus' biggest fan.
It's nothing Iverson aspired to do.
The New York City native joined the famous Boys Choir of Harlem when he was 11 and eventually became the choir's lead tenor. In his teens, he sang at the intermission of Luciano Pavarotti's concert in Central Park and had a two-week, one-man stand on Broadway. Then he graduated from the prestigious Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., with a degree in vocal performance.
Iverson's career seemed much more geared to Wagner's Ring Cycle than to three rings.
"That was the plan," Iverson, 35, says. He thought he was heading for a career in opera or musical theater. "But you know how it goes. You make plans, God laughs at you and something comes completely out of left field.
"This was completely out of left field. It wasn't something I planned. It wasn't something on my radar. I knew Ringling Bros. — everyone knows Ringling Bros. It's one of the greatest brands in American culture. But I didn't see it as a career path."
At least not until he went to an audition for a dinner theater, where he hoped to perform and make enough money to go to Europe and further his opera studies. But the director also was the director of Ringling Bros., and he wanted a ringmaster who could sing.
In landing the job, Iverson became the first African-American ringmaster for the legendary circus.
Iverson sees the circus as a great example for his children of a diverse community, and how little gender and race can matter, to the point that they see nothing remarkable about their dad having female bosses, the nation having a black president or themselves hanging out with friends and families from around the world.
"You'd be hard pressed to see the kind of diversity we have at Ringling Bros. in Hollywood or Broadway," Iverson says. "They don't have it. They can't do what we do. They give lip service to it, but we've been living it for quite some time."
He refers to the various nationalities his children, Matthew Felipe and Lila Simone, interact with regularly while with the circus. He says that in addition to regular school classes, Matthew is taking judo from a Mongolian instructor and Russian with a native speaker. On the road, they get to experience every corner of the country.
"One day, their back yard is Sea World. The next, it's Hershey Park," Iverson says. "Every good parent wants their child to have better than them, and I had an awesome childhood. I was in the Boys Choir of Harlem. I traveled the world. And you want your kids to experience different cultures, to experience a world outside of their own."
Iverson met his wife, Brazilian dancer and choreographer Priscilla Iverson, during his first stint with the circus, which started in 1999. They were married in 2001, and they continued with the circus for the 130th and 131st editions. Then they left, and Iverson pursued some of the stage work that he seemed to be geared to. But he found that he missed the circus, so the couple rejoined for this, the 140th edition.
And though you might call people whose incompetence makes your life difficult clowns and complain that a crazy situation is a circus, Iverson says there's a lot to be proud of in his show and its traditions.
"You don't become the longest-running hit show in the world rooted in chaos, disorder and nonsense," Iverson says. "We've been around longer than Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball. We have added to the American vernacular: words like jumbo, terms like 'hold your horses,' 'throw your hat into the ring,' 'the show must go on.'
"We were the ones that taught the U.S. military how to load their trains. The very image of Uncle Sam was based on one of the greatest clowns of all time, Dan Rice."
And Iverson will undoubtedly remind us numerous times this weekend that Ringling Bros. is "the greatest show on Earth."