Being ringmaster has feel of destiny

As a grade-schooler, he rode bucking ponies on a rodeo tour.

In high school, he learned rope tricks with his mother's clothesline while teaching himself to sing country music.

A few years later, his concert-promoting father allowed him to take the reins for a show. He brought R&B legends Gladys Knight, Ashford & Simpson and Freddie Jackson to the stage.

And he auditioned with an invisible horse to earn his way into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey family.

Clearly, Andre McClain grew up with showmanship in his veins. But his debut tonight as ringmaster for the 143rd edition of the circus has as much to do with his affable personality and genuine enthusiasm for performance as it does with his background.

"The show is built to amaze," McClain said, referring to the theme for this year's circus. "And it's like I was literally built for this."

As he sat in the lobby of the Marriott Waterside on Sunday, his easy manner and casual dress belied the role that awaits him at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. After 10 years as an animal trainer and preshow host for Ringling Bros., McClain will step into the circus' pre-eminent job wrapped in a dazzling outfit and tons of emotion.

But on this day, he sports a casual striped shirt and white pants. Only custom-made boots indicate the man is about to become the man.

"It's going to be overwhelming," said McClain, who will be only the second African-American ringmaster in the circus' history. "It's still a shocker for me because it's a position I never thought I would be in."

Raised on a ranch in Kansas City, Mo., McClain began riding bucking ponies and steers at the age of 5. A rodeo competitor himself, McClain's father, Lu Vason, founded the Bill Pickett Rodeo in 1984. It was America's first all-black touring rodeo, and McClain made his competitive debut at the age of 7.

Vason, however, also made a name for himself as a music promoter and is credited with launching the career of the Pointer Sisters.

Snapshots from McClain's childhood include meeting the Whispers (Rock Steady), traveling with Rose Royce (Car Wash, Wishing on a Star) and calling O'Jays (Love Train) lead singer Eddie Levert a friend.

But his music passions also included country. McClain brought karaoke tapes to help develop his country music chops and eventually landed a singing and performing role with the American Royal Rodeo in Kansas City.

Time and again, McClain took that approach, adding Wild West tricks and horse training to his repertoire through self-determination.

"Once I put my mind to doing something, I always do it," McClain said.

In 2002, he set his mind to learning how to walk on stilts and visited with Ringling performers. In a twist of fate, management learned he had an animal training background and invited him to work with the show's exotic animal staff.

That stint led to an audition. He set out for Austin, Texas, from Kansas City with his horses.

But the horse trailer broke down in Oklahoma. He boarded the horses there, rented a car and continued on to Austin.

"I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I am Andre McClain and this is my invisible horse Jonah,' " McClain recalled. "They started laughing and once I saw them smile I said, 'I've got this.' "

McClain spent the next 10 years hosting the circus' preshow, another important step leading to his appointment as ringmaster. Not only did he showcase his equestrian skills, but he showed off an announcing voice that could welcome presidents.

"He's so excited by the circus, it oozes from him in a way that you can't fake," said Alana Feld, executive vice president and producer for Feld Entertainment, which stages the circus. "His tagline is, 'Every day is a holiday,' and he genuinely believes that."

Feld said McClain received the promotion last year and much of the new show was built around him, the first equestrian ringmaster in decades, and his horse Comanche. But performing will be just one part of the job. He also will have a 45-page script committed to memory and be charged with setting the tone for the performers and the audience.

"It's going to be scary at the beginning before I cross that curtain, but once I cross that curtain, I'll be fine," McClain said. "That's when it will actually hit me that I'm the ringmaster."

It will be his first time in the three-ring spotlight, but McClain has been a master showman long before this week.

That's all I'm saying.

Being ringmaster has feel of destiny 01/01/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 7:36am]

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