Alex Ramon has been practicing magic since he was 13, has performed for family and neighbors, in libraries and homes around Richmond, Cali., where he grew up. He developed his talents enough to be a teen magic champion, then to tour the world with Disney Live! Mickey’s Magic Show, including a stop at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
And then came the phone call from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was still years away, but they were developing a show with a magic theme. Could he be their ringmaster?
At 23, Ramon became the second-youngest ringmaster in Ringling history, and the first magician to hold the title. On stage, he manages to make an elephant disappear and “gives kids what they’ve always wanted: control over the parents,” by making the adults levitate. (Here’s another profile of Ramon from the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Here’s what Ramon had to say about life in the circus and the “Zing, Zang, Zoom” show that stops in Atlanta Feb. 12-21. (There’s another circus opening near Atlanta this week, too, Big Apple Circus at Stone Mountain Park. I’ll post more info about that one later this week.)
Q: What is it like being a magician who is also the ringmaster in the circus?
A: As a kid, I never got to experience Ringling Bros. A lot of circus performers are generational, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. I’m not circus. This is my first time. On the road, you become family.
This is the very first time in 139 years that Ringling Bros. has created a circus show that is completely themed around magic and illusion. It’s very innovative, not just as the circus, but with magic. We’re performing for almost 10,000 people in some larger arenas surrounded by the audience. It’s big, it echoes. You can’t just perform to one side or the other, you have to be entertaining while you’re surrounded. You have to learn to work the space.
Q: So who designed the magic in the show? Did they just point you to an elephant and tell you to make it disappear?
A: It’s a lot like music. Sometimes the singer writes the lyrics or composes the song, sometimes there’s outside help. A man named Jim Steinmeyer, an illusion consultant – he’s done illusions for Broadway — he designed the illusion. Sometimes Jim would say, “Oh I want this,” then the director would say, “Fill in a trick here.” There’ s a creative team. I was part of that and putting the magic together.
The producers approached me and said, “Well, we want people to the audience to levitate.” And I said, “OK…what’s the premise?” You don’t just do that. Why? What’s the reason? I said “Why don’t I call the kids down first. They bring their parents. They become student wizards. I’ll teach them how to levitate.”
Q: Do tricks and routines always go as planned?
A: It’s live entertainment. In any form of live entertainment, there are going to be things that happen. My shoe comes untied, a motor breaks and we can’t lift something. My job, and the jobs of all performers, is to make sure the audience isn’t aware. It’ s a little magic trick we do, no matter what.
Things have gone wrong. Things have not always gone according to plane. I’m confident enough and experienced enough that it doesn’t ruin the magic.
Q: How much time do you spend on stage during the show?
A: I’m on the floor for about an hour. I run about two miles every single show, I drink 2 liters of water every show. It’s great, because the kids can relate to me a lot more than a big guy. The show moves along. I am moving around a lot, running a lot. The hardest part is running in the boots.
I ran track, so it’s easier for me. Most ringmasters are middle aged, 6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds. I’m 24, I was 23 when I started the show, the second-youngest ringmaster in history. I’m more like a kid’s big brother, almost.
Q: This is the first show to use magic like this, but are there still traditional circus acts?
A: We have the traditional circus acts – human cannonballs, beautiful Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, Chinese acrobats, the highwire.
The illusions act as a transition. I’ll use magic to transition the acts together. I do an illusion with a dog, then we got into the dog act. They’re transitions that brings the whole show together.
Q: What it like to work with the animals?
A: I live with 11 Asian elephants. You see them every single day. That’s an experience very few people get to have. The animals are trained, not tame. We still have animal handlers and staff. They are obviously taken care of the best possible way. It’s a great thing. Asia, she’s the lead elephant, the one that disappears, I get to see her and work with her. It’s amazing.
They really do know they’re in show business. They know their cues, they know when they’re supposed to do some cues. Sit up, lay down. Turn. In rehearsal, they do they act – when the audience is there, they put on a show.
Q: Some people have a problem with the circus using animals and with how they believe animals are treated. (In December, a federal judge ruled a former Ringling employee and the Animal Protection Institute did not have legal standing to sue the circus.) There’s a statue of an elephant in Woodruff Park, which isn’t that far from Philips Arena, that protests the circus. Do you see much of that? What do you think of it?
A: I can only tell you what I’ve experienced and it’s closer than most people will ever get. In order for them to perform this many shows, they can’t be sick, there can’t be malnutrition. I was shocked how well they were taken care of. Ringling Bros. has the money to take care of their animals. The elephants, specifically, are their biggest attraction. They spend over $70,000 on each elephant every year, just for the upkeep. They have 54 total, 11 in this show.
If it’s your personal feeling that animals shouldn’t be performing, that’s your feeling, but that has nothing to do with the care. The care for the elephants is top of the line. They get fresh fruits and vegetables, bathed, pedicures. They’re pampered. I think it’s really kind of rude the way they throw out a quote or change the facts. (Protests) don’t really affect me that much. A lot of it may be ignorance or naivete to the way the animals are treated.
Q: Where are you when you’re not performing? Flying? In a hotel?
A: We travel with about 300 people, so almost all 300 people live on the Ringling Bros. circus train. I have a room, basically like an apartment on the train. The train parks in the train yard in the city, and that’s where we live. Some live in house trailers and RVs. The trainers have to be with animals 24/7.
I used to travel and live out of hotels and fly every single week, two suitcases, 50 pounds, security, TSA. On the train, you get on, your travel day is living in bed, watching a movie. It’s the easiest travel day ever.You get to see parts of America that very few get to see. We really get to see the back door of America. I video almost all of them and string them together.
On the West Coast, the waves were crashing not even 20 feet away. You’re going into parts of Virginia and there’s a forest, tunnels, across bridges, lakes, waters. So cool.
Want to go? Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feb. 12-21. $14-$130. Philips Arena, 1 Philips Dr., Atlanta. 800-745-3000, www.ringling.com.