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Greatest job on Earth

A lifelong love of the circus brought Ringling Bros.’ new ringmaster front and center

David Shipman saw his first circus in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., when he was just 2 years old, and the experience stuck with him.

“I fell in love with it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I remember dreaming about running away with the circus. I mean, what kid doesn’t?”

That childhood fixation came full circle last year when Shipman became the newest ringmaster for the Greatest Show on Earth, and he’s been touring the country with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus since Christmas 2012.

Shipman, whose résumé includes plenty of theatrical work and an appearance on the CW series “The Vampire Diaries,” is still in shock over his latest gig, especially because he missed the original rounds of auditions.

“I was committed to do more things that terrified me and put myself out there more, to take more chances,” he said. “The more it scared me, the more I had to find a way to do it.”

So he took a chance and reached out personally to circus officials in hopes of setting up an audition, and an hour later he had arranged a private meeting. A few weeks after an audition he assumed he had bombed, Shipman got the telephone call saying he’d gotten the part.

“To get this was totally a dream come true,” he said.

Shipman’s role is that of the classic showman: He sings, he dances, he recites the familiar “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” spiel, and he maintains the energy level at a constant peak. “My job is to keep the audience engaged and excited from the time they sit down to the time they get up to leave,” Shipman said.

Although he’s new to the circus, many of Shipman’s fellow performers are from families that have been part of the Ringling Bros. company for generations. The show promises traditional big top spectacle – strongmen and acrobats, jugglers and clowns, tigers and prancing horses and elephants – but Shipman says the show lives up to its “Fully Charged” moniker.

One act involves a knife thrower who lights his blades on fire before chucking them at his assistant. “He’s actually throwing the knives at his daughter-in-law,” Shipman said. “I don’t think I can ever hear people talk about their crazy in-laws and take them seriously anymore.”

Shipman has participated in more than 200 performances, but he said the sights and sounds of the circus still leave him in awe. “I’m like a 5-year-old kid when I’m the ringmaster,” he said. “To see the looks on the children’s faces and know that I’m helping create a memory that they’ll take with them as long as I’ve taken with me – it’s just very cool.”

And if that sense of childlike wonder couldn’t get any stronger, Shipman recalls one show that held personal significance for him. “Our third stop on the Ringling tour was my hometown, and I got to perform in the same Pensacola arena I sat in when I was 2. It’s been amazingly cyclical and such an unbelievable experience.”

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