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Greatest Bilingual Show on Earth

Circus * Ringling Bros.' performances this week at the L.A. Sports Arena will be in English and Spanish, an idea popular with Southland Latino families.

July 25, 2001|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Greatest Show on Earth is about to become El Espectaculo Mas Grande del Mundo . When the 131st edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus plays the Los Angeles Sports Arena tonight through Sunday, it will have two ringmasters.

Continuing a practice begun last year, every performance at the Sports Arena is bilingual, with Mexican singer and soap opera star Roberto Miquel joining regular ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson.

While the circus presents Spanish-English performances sporadically in cities such as New York, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Miami, Los Angeles is the sole United States market whose entire run is bilingual, an attempt to both capitalize on and reach out to the predominantly Latino population surrounding the Sports Arena. (Last week's engagement at the Forum in Inglewood was in English only, as is next week's run at the Pond in Anaheim.)

"The Latino community is growing every year in Los Angeles. Our business is reflecting that," says Shannon Hebert, a vice president of marketing for Feld Entertainment, which produces the circus. "For four years, we had presented two shows at the Sports Arena that were bilingual. We saw attendance double for those shows. Last year, we did a week. Attendance didn't double, but it certainly increased.

"We're finding that Latino families are attending the circus as an annual family event," she adds. "Latino households are multigenerational, from kids to grandparents, with the grandparents more the Spanish-speaking ones. So with bilingual shows, they can really enjoy it."

About 70% of the show is in Spanish, with announcements beginning in that language, continuing in English and concluding in Spanish. Iverson and Miquel (his real last name is Miguel, but he uses Miquel professionally) sing in their native tongues and play off each other as well as off the audience. The two preside over such acts as comic daredevil Bello Nock and his elephant Bo; animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, son of legendary trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, who died last week; and the Max-Air Blizzard Battalion freestyle skiing team, performing on ramps.

Miquel, 31, began his circus association in 1995, when he directed, produced and starred in a television special celebrating Ringling's return to Mexico for the first time in almost 40 years. In 1997, Ringling officials asked him to be their Mexican ringmaster, which led to the bilingual U.S. engagements.

"I do many things in Mexico, but I make time for the circus," Miquel says by phone from his home in Mexico City, where he has appeared in such telenovelas as "I Will Never Forget You" and "The Ninth Commitment." "When you get sawdust in your boots, you can never leave the circus. It's like a drug for me."

Iverson, 25, admits he was initially apprehensive about performing bilingual shows. "But when I did it," he says, "it was exciting." The only Spanish Iverson knew while growing up in New York were "the bad words." Now in his third season with the circus, he says "it's humbling to work with someone else. Roberto's very energetic. I've learned from him to really always be committed to your performance. Doing so many performances, you might become lax, or overdo, unconsciously. But when I look at him, I see the sincerity."

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Miquel says the performers got used to the sound of Spanish after his first show. Neither language, he believes, affects the animals, "but there is an elephant who's in love with me. It doesn't matter where I am--she has to grab my arm with her trunk!"

Ringling Bros. is targeting the Los Angeles Latino audience in ways beyond its bilingual engagement. Following the Saturday night show, circus-goers can stay for a concert by Ezequiel Pena, who sings and performs with horses, and singer El Morro.

According to Hebert, when Ringling's research showed that Latinos felt more involved with an event if it were brought directly into their neighborhood, the customary outreach program was augmented by a two-hour circus parade. Community schools and youth groups participated in the procession, held Tuesday afternoon near the Sports Arena.

Of course, bilingual or not, most of the circus' appeal remains visual--and visceral. Says Miquel, "If you see someone doing a death-defying act, it doesn't matter if you're speaking English or Spanish. The circus is full of emotion. You can feel love, tenderness, fear. That doesn't have a language."

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus runs tonight through Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St., L.A. Information: (213) 748-6131. Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232. Then July 31-Aug. 5 at the Anaheim Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. Information: (714) 704-2500. Ticketmaster: (714) 740-2000. Tickets are $10-$30 at the Sports Arena, $10-$50 at the Pond. Show times vary.

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