Ringling Bros. ringmaster gallops into new role

BY Tricia Despres For Sun-Times Media

November 1, 2013 9:34AM

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As the newest Ringmaster of the latest Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus production, Andre McClain spends his days and nights standing before stadiums full of crowds, using his powerful voice to attract the undivided attention of spectators both young and old.

Of course, his voice wasn’t always that impressive.

“When I was a kid and even throughout high school, I had this high and squeaky type of voice,” recalls the Missouri native, heartily laughing between each sentence. “When I was 19 years old, it changed overnight. I mean, it literally changed overnight. My family and I thought I must be sick or something.”

McClain’s resounding voice now serves as one of his most defining characteristics. It was one of the main reasons he was noticed by the renowned circus.

“I had never seen a circus at all until I joined Ringling 11 years ago,” says McClain, whose father founded the Bill Pickett Rodeo in 1984, known as America’s first all-black touring rodeo. “After meeting with a talent scout, they flew me down to Texas for a tryout, but my horse trailer broke down in Oklahoma. Without a horse, I had no idea what I was going to do, so I grabbed one of those big old tubs the elephants stand on and introduced my ‘invisible’ horse Jonah. I also sang and roped and when I was finished, they said my contract would be in the mail if I was interested.” McLain — animal trainer, cowboy, rodeo star singer-songwriter — was hired in 2002 as host of the circus’ All Access Pre-Show, working with exotic animals and horses at every performance as the audiences are invited onto the arena floor to meet the performers and the animals up-close.

“The ringmaster is not a role where you can just act it out,” explains Alana Feld, co-producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “Every feeling and every emotion has to really be you. Andre has a true passion and love for the circus and you can see it in his performance. That’s not something that can be taught. He also has allowed us to go back to our roots and traditions by being a true ringmaster on horseback.”

McClain is the first singing equestrian ringmaster in 100 years to take the reins of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus — alongside his horse Comanche.

“Comanche is quite a character,” he says of his 7-year-old horse. “These shows involve so many lights and props and people moving around that it was essential that I worked with him early on to build a trust and a relationship with him.”

Preparing for a long stay in the Chicago area, with dates at both Allstate Arena and the United Center, McClain and the entire production find themselves part of the ultimate reality show. With more than 110 performers representing 17 countries and 95 exotic and domestic animals, this year’s production is designed to keep generations of people — otherwise glued to their cell phone screens — entertained.

“Attention spans are short these days, so we make sure the show is very fast paced,” says Feld. “In fact, I would say it is by far one of our most contemporary shows we have ever put on. It’s all about infusing contemporary pieces to the show while making sure we have enough tradition in there with what people expect from us.”

“As the ringmaster, it’s overwhelming and quite an honor to introduce these 6th- and 7th-generation circus performers every night,” says McClain, whose wife of one year and 14-year-old daughter travel with him as part of the circus. “This isn’t some show Off Broadway. There are no special effects. These performers go out and risk their lives out there every day. This is the real deal.”

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