Johnathan Lee Iverson says three kinds of people join the circus.
There are the circus babies, the ones born into it who carry on the traditions of the generations before them.
There are the runaways, the clowns, the people who see the circus as children and come back when they've grown up.
"I've met some trapeze artists who had corporate jobs or were in the military," said Iverson, the ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus, which opens here Wednesday. "They had that bug. They wanted to run. Not just run away, but fly away."
Iverson was the third kind of person, the kind that heard about an audition, saw an opportunity and went for it.
"I was on my way to a career in opera," he said. "I wanted to raise money to study in Europe."
Iverson auditioned and got the ringmaster gig in 1998. He became the first black ringmaster in Ringling's nearly 140-year history. At 22, he was also the youngest.
The directors were looking for a ringmaster who could sing. Iverson had plenty of experience. As a kid he traveled all over the world with the Boys Choir of Harlem. He went to a performing arts high school, then the University of Hartford. He thought he would have this new job for a year, tops. He didn't really know what a ringmaster did, but it sounded like a good pickup line.
Fifteen years later, Iverson, 37, still has his job with the circus, and a life too. He met his wife Priscilla Iverson, a dancer from Rio de Janeiro who is now associate production manager. They have been married for about 12 years and have two children who travel with them, Matthew Felipe, 8, and Lila Simone, 4.
The family has been together in Tampa Bay for the past few months while the 300-member cast and crew prepare for the new show "Legends" at the Tampa Bay Times Forum from Wednesday though Sunday.
The circus has a school and a nursery for cast and crew members' children. Matthew is taking piano lessons, Priscilla Iverson said. They're exposed to different languages and cultures.
"Every week we're in a different city. We can explore the best of each city," she said. "We're together all the time."
Johnathan Iverson grew up in the Central Park West neighborhood of New York City. He attended LaGuardia High School, the school that served as the inspiration for the 1980 musical film Fame. With the Boys Choir of Harlem, he sang for four presidents and with Tony Bennett, though he said as a kid he didn't realize that Tony Bennett was a big deal.
But he knew it was a big deal when they sang for Nelson Mandela at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1990 after Mandela's release from prison earlier that year.
"His presence was really moving," Iverson said. "Even my youthful arrogance couldn't cause me to see that moment as anything less than remarkable."
He knew about Mandela's struggles. Iverson's grandparents and mother were activists. He had an appreciation for the history he was witnessing. His own history as Ringling's first black ringmaster was a little harder to grasp.
"At the time it was really a catch-22," he said. "I knew what it meant intellectually."
But he was also disappointed. How far have we really come if the first black ringmaster is such a milestone, he thought.
He went back and forth about it. Then his grandparents came to a show. His grandfather reminded him there was a time when he couldn't sit where he wanted. Now they were there, watching their grandson lead the show.
"There is progress. There is something more," Iverson said. "In my little way, I've done that."
Prepping for the new show, the days are long and the rehearsals are hard. Priscilla assists the production manager to make sure every detail — costumes, lights, music, props, entrances and exits — is perfect. As ringmaster, Iverson acts as narrator and storyteller, so he and the band are the only performers in the entire show.
Becoming a ringmaster was like entering a club, he said. Other ringmasters gave him advice. It's a big responsibility, but it's also the best seat in the house.
"Once you have the stardust in your veins," they told him, "you'll never be the same."