Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is America’s longest-running circus company. It began performances in the early 1890s. More than a century later, the company maintains many of the traditions of the circus, including traveling by train, which is home to hundreds of performers.
Home on the rails
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s newest show is called Dragons. Ringmaster Jonathan Iverson, a former opera singer, joined the circus about 10 years ago. He was drawn by the history and mystique of the company which calls itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
“The part of that mystique is the world’s largest privately owned train. I love the train," Iverson says. "Three hundred fifty performers and cast and crew and animals are actually traveling on rails across America. That is the world’s greatest carpool.”
That car pool - with 60 cars - is more than a kilometer-and-a-half long and crisscrosses the country for 11 months a year.
Iverson shares his train car with his wife, a dancer in the show, and their two children. Like the other families on the train, they cook and eat, take showers and do laundry - live their lives - in the privacy of their own car.
“It is so much fun. It gives us sort of like a mini-vacation every week," Iverson says. "We really see the country. America is really, really beautiful."
Alex Barney, a second generation clown, agrees. “Traveling by the train you are going through the middle of nowhere getting to the cities, you get to see what is left of the country. Definitely traveling by train is the key highlight for this job.”
In the middle of the 32 family coaches is the Pie Car, which has a custom-built kitchen and dining area. It is also a social center.
Chef Michael Vaughan and his six person staff are in charge of meals.
Vaughan says it is like feeding a big family. "Everybody here works together, all the groups, clowns, the globe riders, everybody we work together as a family."
Vaughan sets up another kitchen at each performance venue, and often, throws a party after the show. Train school
While their parents perform, children learn in a classroom set up behind the scenes. For teacher Manna Kettles, the unusual educational setup has advantages.
“My experience working here with Ringling, in the past, I have seen that they are better off than some of the kids in the regular schools because we get more time with them in a small group and we are able to work one-on one with them,” she says.
Sofia Petrov, 7, who is from Hungary, likes the circus school. “It is fun. I get to meet a lot of new people from all over the world.”
Dragons, the company's 142nd show, brings together talent from 18 countries, including acrobat Paulo Dos Santos, who is from Brazil. He recently celebrated his two sons’ birthday before the show.
“This moment is so good because everybody is coming. I am so happy because I see, you see I have friends here and my children too," Dos Santos says. "We stay together, party together, show together, everything."
At each stop, they all have a chance to go into town, explore the area or simply do errands, either by bus or in their own cars, which are carried on the train as well.
For ringmaster Jonathan Iverson, the circus train is like a city without a zip code.
"This is home. The backyard changes," he says. "Today’s backyard has Hershey Park. Tomorrow’s backyard has the Grand Canyon. That is the magic of it. But we are always home no matter where we are, we are always home."
That, he says, gives this rolling community a sense of stability.