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Photo courtesy of Victoria Blackwell

New ringmaster Andre McClain stands center stage in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum

When auditioning an animal act for the circus, it's generally a good idea to have an actual living, breathing animal with you.

Such is the showmanship of Andre McClain that he was able to make magic without his trusty, and essential, sidekick.

"I pointed to the pedestal and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is my invisible horse, Jonah.'"

And just like that, a career change -- from rodeo rider to big-top performer -- was accomplished by McClain, ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Built to Amaze," which kicks off a weekend of performances in Bakersfield tonight.

"I had a one-man cowboy show with different events. I wanted to add more (tricks) to my show," McClain said of his fateful backstage visit to the circus a decade ago. "It was my first time ever seeing a circus, I always went to rodeos. I fell in love."

During his fateful audition, McClain impressed the man responsible for hiring him with an array of equestrian skills, honed from his years with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo -- America's first all-black touring rodeo, founded by his father, Lu Vason -- and then later with the International Professional Rodeo Association.

The audition landed McClain the position as host of the show's Three Ring Adventure, now known as the All Access Pre-show.

"I took the preshow and made it mine. It gives the audience time to come down and try on costumes and meet the performers. The preshow has always been a part of my heart."

Unlike many performers who audition for the ringmaster role, McClain was offered the position after just 10 years with the show. He also stands out as only the third African-American ringmaster of the 37 in the circus's history and the first singing equestrian ringmaster.

He said his circus career reflects the title of the tour, which is the newest in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey rotation.

"I grew (as a performer). The show is 'Built to Amaze.' I was custom-built to be the ringmaster. It's not just a show; it's a school also."

And McClain is an apt pupil.

"I love it. Like I said, it's still overwhelming every day. I'm like a glorified fan. Five, six, seven generations of circus performers. It's been a part of their family for years and years."

Those professionals include a family of performers who have honed an act of athleticism, comedy, magic and animal tricks.

"My sidekicks, Alex and Irina Emelin, they came over from Russia. They have two girls, one's 14 one is 4. These girls are learning the trade already. They have rabbits, snakes, dogs, ferrets in the show. Ferrets -- who would have ever thought?"

Although the Emelins follow the circus train in their own RV, the performers spend a lot of time with McClain and his family, which includes a daughter and wife Daniele, who is a "ringlette" (backup dancer and singer) for McClain.

"We're always together. You get more brothers and more sisters (from the circus). Your family grows."

That helps with life on the road, which he described as exciting and ever-changing.

"One of the most amazing things that I love about traveling on the train is seeing parts of the country that no one ever sees."

Travel includes seeing cities like Bakersfield, which he first visited on the rodeo circuit and returned to with the circus.

"I remember going to a restaurant where I was able to order chitlins. I remember something about every city I've been in. With Bakersfield, it's food, some good home cooking."

The circus also feeds its own with a pie car, which is open 24 hours a day and maintains a buffet set up to feed 300 people at one time.

Those performers need the fuel for some of the impressive acts in the show, McClain said.

"This year's show, it is truly bigger and better than ever. From beginning to end, this show is energetic, lots of dancing. It's a show anybody can relate to. There's a battle of the sexes, but we learn it takes everyone to build the greatest show on earth. Eighteen tigers in the cage at one time for the first time. Great comedians, you'll see them. A great high-wire act. There's a young lady that gets shot out of a cannon 55 miles per hour, 40 feet in the air.

"It's live entertainment, the real deal, no special effects. A lot of these guys risk their lives every day for our enjoyment."

It's no surprise McClain speaks so glowingly of his fellow performers, based on his years among their ranks.

"Number 1, it gives you a better respect for the company, for the guys behind the scenes that makes things happen, respect for the artists. You know what to expect, stronger performers, stronger entertainment."

The longevity of a ringmaster can vary, McClain said, with some sticking around for two years and others working for a decade or more.

"Some became actors, some go into teaching music and acting. If that time comes for me, I'd love to get into voiceover work" for Feld Entertainment, the circus's parent company.

But for now McClain is focused on the circus and life on the road, which he said he's not eager to leave.

"I think, for me, I would be scared of being in one place. I have a home in Kansas City. When I go home, the first week is relaxing. Second week, I get antsy. By the third week, I gotta go."

So the show must go on.