David Shipman knew he’d be famous as soon as he finished his ringmaster audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Not because he’d nailed it, but because of his pitiful Hammer dance moves.
The singer-dancer-actor from Pensacola, Fla., found out about the auditions via Facebook, then missed them when he couldn’t break away from shooting an episode of “The Vampire Diaries” in Atlanta. He sent his photo and resume anyway, and snagged a private audition with the producers in early September last year in Orlando, where he was working in professional theater.
“I sang a couple things, I did the traditional ‘ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages’ speech which starts the show, and I danced a little bit,” Shipman, 26, says by phone from a recent tour stop in Everett, Wash.
He thought he had ruined the audition, however, because when they asked him to dance, they wanted him to start with the choreography he had just learned, then “freestyle like Usher” for the rest of the song, so they could see his personality.
“I’m the whitest you can possibly get, so I did an MC Hammer move, I’m pretty sure,” he says. “It was one of those things where you look back on it and you actually physically blush, because you’re like, ‘Oh no, did that just really happen?’
“And what made it even worse was that it was on videotape. As soon as it was over, I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be famous. … The audition went terrible. It’s gonna be on YouTube tomorrow as (the) worst audition in the history of Ringling and it’ll go viral because of the MC Hammer move.’ ”
To his relief, it hasn’t been posted online — yet.
“It was one of those situations where I walked away and had no expectations of them ever calling me again,” he says. “I dismissed it and said, ‘Well that was a fun experience’ and went on my merry way. And then a week later, they called me and said that they were flying in their director in from L.A. to meet with me personally, and I was blown away by that.
“I practiced my freestyle Usher moves — sans my MC Hammer stylings. The director was really very kind, and taught me some really fun choreography. At the very end of it, I expected to walk away and hear from them later, but he offered me a contract that day.” That was Sept. 15, 2012.
And so the little boy whose first memory is of seeing the The Greatest Show on Earth at age 2 1/2 ran away with the circus two decades later. He’s Ringling’s 37th ringmaster and the third youngest, hired at age 25. He stepped into the spotlight Christmas Day in West Palm Beach.
For trivia fans, Shipman points out that Ringling is “one year older than baseball,” entering its 144th year.
Things weren’t exactly the way he remembered from the day his mom sent him to the circus while she went to the hospital to give birth to his twin sisters. Everything in his show memories and in circus movies seemed bigger than life, including the ringmaster, so he was surprised when the production team wanted him to just be himself.
“I’m an excitable person, and they just wanted me to share that excitement with the audience,” he says.
He’ll get to do that Thusday (10/24) through Sunday (10/27), when Ringling Bros. brings its “Fully Charged” production to the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Cedar Rapids. Audiences will have a ringside seat for high-wire acts, knife throwing, the Globe of Steel, a Mongolian strongman descended from Genghis Khan, gymnasts, a six-man acrobatic troupe from Russia, Asian elephants, camels, dogs, clowns and plenty of fireworks and razzle-dazzle.
“It’s unlike any show we’ve ever done before,” Shipman says.
- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: “Fully Charged,” Gold Edition
- Thusday (10/24) to Sunday (10/27), various times
- U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids
- Tickets: $18 to $43
- Ticket info: U.S. Cellular Center Box Office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or Uscellularcenter.com
- Want to win tickets? Check out Hoopla’s Facebook
- Extra: Pre-show Power Up Party – free to ticketholders one hour before show time. Meet the performers, try on costumes and see the animals up close.
- Show’s website: Ringling.com
- REVIEW: Circus a chance to make, rewrite memories
His role is to guide the performance. You can’t miss him, dressed in glittering top hats and tails designed and handcrafted by Susan Hilferty, who won a 2004 Tony Award for her costumes in Broadway’s “Wicked.” His Act II “On Fire” costume is covered in at least 4,000 Swarovski crystals, head to toe.
“When I’m onstage, I’m just sparkling. I look like a disco ball,” he says with a laugh. “(The costumes) are just stunning and beautiful, and it’s an honor to wear them.”
He says the show lives up to its “Fully Charged” billing.
“Everything is crazy energetic and so much fun, from the time the curtain goes up until it ends,” he says. “I keep the energy flowing the entire time. I introduce all the acts, I sing and dance, and it’s really fun.”
The ringmaster also is called to action if something goes wrong. In a different cast and a different show, a female performer was injured during Ringling’s “Dragons” production Aug. 31 at the I Wireless Center in Moline, Ill. Quad Cities media reported that she was expected to recover.
He’s witnessed one injury, but notes that the performers are athletes who “train constantly” and have been doing their acts all their lives. Many, like the elephant trainer, come from a long line of circus pros.
Cathy Carden is a seventh generation animal trainer and performer who received two elephants for her sixth birthday. Shipman says the elephants wag their ears, sway and chirp when they see her. All of the animals receive around-the-clock care, he adds, with 16 veterinarians on staff who fly around the country to monitor the animals’ well-being.
“They treat the animals better than they treat me,” Shipman says, “and they treat me pretty darned well.”
Everyone is keenly aware of safety issues, and part of the intrigue of Shipman’s job is always staying on his game.
“You can never let your guard down. These are live acts and anything can happen at any given time. You can’t draw attention away from it. You have to be very honest with our audience,” he says.
“This is live — you can see the sweat, you can see the strain. These are not tricks that you should try at home. You just have to make the audience aware that everything is going to be OK and that the show is just gonna keep going. The show must go on.”