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It's a family affair aboard the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the rehearsal show at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. For a slideshow of circus photos, go to entertainment.tampabay.com.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the rehearsal show at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. For a slideshow of circus photos, go to entertainment.tampabay.com.

While the 140th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is all about P.T. Barnum and how the train is an integral part of the circus, it's the performers and those supporting them behind the scenes who will bring the tale to life. Hanging out with the ringmaster and his wife, a clown, the train master and the food manager for everyone in the show gives you a sense that even though it's the "Greatest Show on Earth," they're all just family. — Sherry Robinson, Times staff writer

Love under the Big Top

Back in 2000, Johnathan Lee Iverson was in his third year as ringmaster for the circus when a pretty Brazilian circus dancer caught his eye. One night, they went out and he said he wanted to discuss some "serious" matters. The next fall, Iverson made the dancer his bride. Now, two kids later and five years removed from the day-to-day circus travel, Iverson and his wife, Priscilla, are back in the show. In fact, the Iverson kids — 4-year-old Matthew and Lila, 10 months — are traveling with Mom and Dad on the train this year. "Can you believe she just had a baby 10 months ago?" asks Johnathan Iverson, who has resumed his role as ringmaster, referring to his wife. "She looks fantastic. But I do love her body when she's pregnant." Awww, true love.

Clowning around

Benjamin Bolin admits it — he was the class clown. "I was a very good kid," he says about his school years in Oregon. But Bolin adds that he liked to entertain the class. "You just have fun (because) you want to entertain," he said. "Now, I get to do it in a real-life setting." Bolin has been with the circus for three years and is one of 12 clowns on the tour. Just 12? "I know it seems like more," he said, "because we are everywhere."

Bedroom on wheels

The train is sort of a hotel on wheels, with rooms equipped with beds, an AC/heating system, microwave and a sink. The larger rooms have their own bathrooms, while folks in smaller rooms must share those facilities.

That's a lot of pie

Michael Vaughn, food and facility services manager for the Blue Unit, has a big job to feed the performers and their families as they ramble about the country on the train. He is able to do so in his brand-new Pie Car, a sleek diner on wheels that is the first new car built for the train in 25 to 30 years, he said. The Pie Car is equipped to feed up to 350 people at least three meals a day.

The world is their school

Many of the performers bring their kids along, so there is a teacher who travels with the Greatest Show on Earth. Last year, there were more than 20 students in the school, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. And they have some awesome field trips. For instance, students might go see a Broadway play in New York, visit the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, or go to the Capitol in Washington.

By the numbers

The circus train is more than a mile long, at 5,490 feet. Despite a common myth, it's actually the largest traveling city without a ZIP code. Wherever the circus tours, the postal service finds it to deliver mail. More numbers:

61: the number of train cars (32 coaches for performers, 19 flatbed cars, four animal stock cars, two generator cars, two concession storage cars, one shop car and one pie car)

90 feet: the length of each car

14: crew members, including mechanics, electricians and porters

16,000: the average number of miles the Blue Unit travels in one year

3: miles the train master walks each day on the train.

And in the center ring . . .

Circusgoers will see nearly 50 animals performing: 12 tigers, 11 Asian elephants, five each of miniature horses, ponies and snakes, four llamas, two each of miniature donkeys and goats, one horse and one dog.

Circus train — By the numbers

The circus train is long, coming in at 5,490 feet, which is a couple of hundred feet longer than a mile. But a common myth is that it has its own ZIP code. Not so, Hartline says. It's actually the largest traveling city without a ZIP code, she said. Wherever the circus tours, the postal service finds it to deliver mail and packages.

More numbers about the train:

• 61: The number of train cars (32 coaches for performers, 19 flatbed cars, four animal stock cars, two generator cars, two concession storage cars, one shop car and one pie car.)

• 90 feet: The length of each car

• 4,490 tons: Weight of the entire train

• 60 mph: Maximum train speed

• 14: Crew members, including mechanics, electricians and porters

• 16,000: The average number of miles the Blue Unit travels in one year

• 3: Miles the train master walks each day on the train.

And in the center ring ...

Generally, those who have animal acts stay with their charges. In fact, the animals are usually the first off the train and taken to the venue, said train master Keith Anderson. And while there are only 12 clowns running about throughout the show, circusgoers will see nearly 50 animals performing. Here's a breakdown:

12 tigers

11 Asian elephants

5 each of miniature horses, ponies and snakes (but not together, we hope)

4 llamas

2 each of miniature donkeys, goats

1 horse

1 dog

Can't get enough of the circus? In March, the Circus Museum at John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art will present The World Ransacked for All Its Wonders: P.T. Barnum and American Popular Culture, an exhibit of memorabilia celebrating the 200th anniversary of Barnum's birth. The show will run from March 9-Aug. 6 at the museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Call (941) 359-5700.

if you go

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Barnum's FUNundrum plays through Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Shows: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tonight's show benefits the Tampa General Hospital Foundation. $21-$97.80. (813) 301-2500. www.ringling.com.

It's a family affair aboard the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train 01/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 10:24am]

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