The Life of a Clown

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey come to town.

The Georgetowner's own Gary Tischler with Sandor Eke, the boss clown at the circus
Photo by some clown
The Georgetowner's own Gary Tischler with Sandor Eke, the boss clown at the circus

When I was a kid I wanted to run away with the circus.

I would meet the boss clown, I would walk with the ringmaster, be buddies with the guy who trains the big cats, and I would date the girl who gets shot out of a cannon.

I became a journalist instead. Same thing, except for the cannon girl, the big cat guy, the ringmaster, and the boss clown, although I may have spent some time with a contortionist once.

These days, at my age, it’s no good trying to run away with the circus. And "walking away with the circus" doesn’t have that zip thing going for it.

But yesterday I saw pachyderms marching down Washington streets.

And yesterday I talked with the ringmaster and met the boss clown.

They tell me that ladies are no longer shot out of cannons.

Two out of three isn’t bad.

The ringmaster is Jonathan Lee Iverson, and the boss clown is Sandor Eke, and they’re at the head of the pack when the circus come to town. That would be the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s 2011 show, “Barnum’s FUNundrum!” celebrating the life and legacy of the founder, P.T. Barnum. The circus is camped at the Verizon Center through March 27, then moves to Baltimore and Fairfax, Virginia.

As always, it’s the greatest show on earth, sparkling like a firecracker with hyperbole: come see 230 performers from six continents, watch the 100,000 pounds of elephants perform, see the cowboys, the pirates, the mermaids, the tigers, the Flying Caceres with their quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze. Watch the Puyan Troupe from China do their bouncy stuff on a two-tiered trampoline, and, there’s the body benders and the Mighty Meetal, the strongest man in the world. And don't forget Duo Fusion, the married couple of hand balancers, in which the wife does the heavy lifting. Just like in real life.

The elephants and clowns and ponies and performers marched through parts of Washington yesterday for an annual parade that signals the arrival of the circus in town and delights hundreds of children and tourist along the road.

Leading the way was Iverson, decked out in red-white-and-blue and top hat—the man who gets to say the iconic words at the start of each show: “Welcome Children of All Ages to the Greatest Show on Earth.”

Iverson, who started out wanting to be an opera singer but sort of ran away with the circus instead, holds some firsts for the circus: he’s the first African American ringmaster and the youngest ever to hold that high-stepping, master–of-charisma, beguiling cheerleader of all cheerleader jobs.

A New Yorker now in his thirties, he’s performed (at age 11) with the Boys Choir of Harlem and got a degree in voice from Hartford’s Hart School. Shortly after graduating, he was offered a job with the circus.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I know I saw myself as a singer, but to be able to perform in the circus in that kind of role, well, who’s going to say no to something like that.” Not Iverson, that’s for sure. “They kidnapped me,” he quipped.

Watch him work the crowd, picking up little kids, posing with moms, his voice clear over the noises of the downtown city. For a while he left to broaden his horizons, performing off-Broadway and in productions of “The Magic Flute” and “Showboat," sang with the USO and did some freelance writing as J. Frederick Baptiste.

But now he’s back, this time hitting the rails with family—wife Priscilla and children Matthew Felipe and Lila Simone—in tow.

He’s got the charisma of a ringmaster, a compelling stance and lively face. We asked him if he did anything special to create a persona for the ringmaster. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Look at me—In this outfit, folks are going to pay attention to you.”

That’s true, but he fills the outfit with his persona, as if born to the circus. “You look pretty,” a woman tells him. “I do, don’t I?” he says and preens. Welcome to the circus in Washington. “Great to be in this city,” he says. “I’m sort of like Henry Kissinger with a personality.”

Sandor Eke, on the other hand, looks a little like a crash dummy.

That’s his outfit, his persona, a puff of tomahawk hair on his head, spots of color, loose, colorful, dummy clothing and big, sometimes sad eyes. “I’m a white clown,” he says, explaining clown etiquette. “Like a black clown would be the guy that plays tricks on the white clown.”

But he’s also the circus boss clown.

“Makes me the guy who takes care of the other guys,” he says. “You know, who bunks with whom, dressing rooms, schedules, food, problems, the guy who talks to management on behalf of the other clowns...You wouldn’t believe how important dressing rooms are.”

Eke who is 35, lives in Budapest on the Danube River in Hungary, but doesn’t get to go home much. His parents, both circus folks, live there. “With this schedule, it’s a little crazy. My father was a tentmaker, my mother was a ringmaster.”

Clowns and circuses are time-honored professions and institutions in Europe. It’s where the best of them came from, and it’s why most circuses have an international flavor to them. Eke attended the Hungarian State Circus School—can you imagine that in an American state budget?—and started with a Swedish circus, but eventually made his way to the Ringling Brothers as part of a Hungarian teeterboard act

“Everything that circus performers do is difficult and takes so much practice,” he said. “But it is not very useful on the outside. Imagine explaining your job resume: I was teeterboarder.

“I love this life. I am an acrobat, a clown, I am totally a circus person,” he said. “I would not do anything else. My life is here. My friends are here. They are my best friends, people you can call in the middle of the night.

“I can say I have 50 real friends in the circus. They are not on Facebook.”

Asked about his future plans, he quipped “I have no future.”

“Actually, what I want to do is teach, teach other young people how to be clowns,” he said. “That is my hope, my future.”

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Jun 3, 2011 at 11:49 PM Beverly Pollack

I'm 65 and I decided that in my next life I'm going to be a clown so that I can have a pie fight. All kidding aside, what a great profession! they not only make us laugh, but do so much community service - visiting sick kids in hospitals, going to schools and libraries working on reading programs for kids, and even nutrition and exercise programs in schools. What a great group of people!

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