For Johnathan Lee Iverson, the important advice came straight from the top.
He had just joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, he said, when its CEO told him something essential. “He said, ‘There’s the truth and then there’s circus truth.’”
Then again, Iverson already knew that … ever since 1985, when Ringling claimed it had a unicorn. “I was about 9 and I’m ready to see a unicorn …. And this little goat comes out.”
Later, reporters pieced together the story: A man had found a way to alter young goats, so a single horn grew; he took them to Renaissance fairs; then the Ringling people bought them and bought his silence.
Iverson recalled that, while telling the Television Critics Association about PBS’ new “Circus” documentary. For four hours, viewers will hear about dazzle, sparkle, skill … and, alas, lies.
“The tendency toward exaggeration is absolutely a part of what (P.T. Barnum took) to another level,” said Janet Davis, a University of Texas historian and author.
For Barnum, that started in 1835, when he bought an exhibit supposedly involving George Washington’s former nursemaid, now 161 years old. (She died the next year, at about 79.) But alongside the lies, she said, there were people with true talent. The circus has had the “funny juxtaposition of extraordinary exaggeration with … viscerally real entertainment.”
The first American circus, in the pre-hype days, was in 1793 Philadelphia. An Englishman, Davis said, was “riding a horse and doing incredible acrobatics …. A lot of death-defying skill goes into that.”
Washington went there on his birthday. In the centuries that followed, other Americans were dazzled.
“I tasted life,” Emily Dickinson wrote of the circus. “It was a vast morsel.”
“It enables us to lose ourselves, to dissolve in wonder and bliss,” Henry Miller wrote.
Others agreed, said Sharon Grimberg, director of the PBS film. They include writers (Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.B. White, Walt Whitman) and a dour president. “Calvin Coolidge loved the circus.”
Circuses reflect American virtues – imagination, innovation – and flaws. There was the exploitation of animals (especially by the people who sold them to the circuses) and of outsiders. And there were biases, Grimberg said.“Very rarely did African-Americans get to perform in the Big Top in the 1950s.”
Much of that had changed by 1999, when Iverson, an aspiring opera singer, got a surprise phone call, asking him to audition for the Ringling show. “I was 22 at the time. I just kept hearing ‘ringmaster,’ and (thinking), ‘Man, that’s a great pickup line.’”
He promptly became the first black ringmaster of a major circus and kept the job until the Ringling show closed last year – ending its 146-year tradition. “The minute we made that announcement, suddenly, it was ‘Oh my gosh, Santa Claus is going away.’ …. Everything was sold out, all of a sudden.”
It was the end of the mega-circus … but not of the concept. “A lot of small circuses (are) popping up, regional circus,” said circus historian Dominique Jando said. “So it’s a revival of a different sort.”
• “The Circus,” 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, PBS; season-opener for “American Experience”
• Michigan performers? Ephraim Thompson, of Ypsilanti, has been called the first great American elephant trainer. At a time when there were no black circus stars, the Adam Forepaugh Show kept him in the background; later, he starred in European circuses, before his death, at 49, in 1909.
• Michigan audiences were key. Barnum’s first big tour, in 1872, wrapped up in Detroit, after five other cities in the state. In 1881, the Barnum & Bailey show listed its daily receipts, from $5,881 in Battle Creek to $10,006 in Grand Rapids.
• And yes, the Midwest does have a chunk of circus history. In Baraboo, Wis. (home town of the five Ringling Brothers), there’s the Circus World Museum. This year, its exhibits – including spectacular wagons – are open through Oct. 31 (except for Oct. 13-14). They’ll re-open March 19; from May 17 to Sept. 1, there will be daily circus performances. See www.circusworldbaraboo.org