Putting the Zing Back into Ringling 

Richmond-born Alex Ramon is the second-youngest person to helm Ringling Bros. Circus — and the first "zingmaster."

At five-feet-eight, Alex Ramon would just about graze the shoulder line of a typical circus ringmaster. Indeed, Ramon is an anomaly in his chosen medium: small, quick, and wiry, with a narrow face and rubbery jaw line. The 24-year-old Richmond native is the second-youngest person to hold court at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "Most ringmasters are six-feet-four with a big, baritone voice," he said. "I changed the look."

In fact, he not only changed the look of the ringmaster — he helped reformat the entire show. Ramon is not a ringmaster but a "zingmaster" (i.e., a hybrid of a magician and circus emcee). Around the time they discovered Ramon at his previous job, emceeing shows for Disney Live, the producers at Ringling Bros. had just decided to saturate their entire show with magic. Ramon may in fact have been the impetus for that redesign, since it's likely that Ringling Bros. director Shanda Sawyer knew about the young magician long before Zing Zang Zoom was conceptualized. (Ringling Bros. and Disney Live are owned by the same parent company, Feld Entertainment.) At that time, Ramon barely knew what a circus entailed. He'd never attended them as a kid; his first circus, in fact, was a Ringling Bros. production (also directed by Sawyer) that he saw at age 21, on a night off from the Disney tour. But he did know how to command a stage and bring the kind of youthful sensibility that Ringling Bros. wanted. Not to mention he already had a cult of celebrity.

"Typically you'll have the ringmaster be an emcee, and then you'll have your feature — the star of the show," Ramon explained. "But I was both."

The new circus, called Zing Zang Zoom, includes a variety of complex illusions. "I make elephants disappear," said Ramon. "I teach kids how to levitate their parents, saw people in half, incorporate dogs, turn men into tigers." His older sister Leah performs alongside him — at 26, she's an ex-Raiderette cheerleader who learned trapeze and aerial hoop in order to join the circus. Ramon said he's happy to have his sister along with him. The circus can be a bit isolating, after all. He'll spend the next two years crossing the country by rail, stopping in each major city and then packing up again. His world will consist of 34 coaches and 300 fellow performers.

Granted, this is the life Ramon knows. He learned his first card tricks at age thirteen, won the San Francisco Conjurers Competition at seventeen, and conquered the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas one year later. At age twenty he joined Disney for a two-and-a-half-year magic show tour that took him to fourteen different countries. From there, he went straight to Ringling Bros.. He's never had a day job. "It's kinda funny when my friends talk to me and they say, 'Oh I got raise, this and that,' — I don't know if that's good or bad," Ramon said. He can't help but sound a little self-important when contrasting their lives to his own: "Sometimes I'll text message a friend: 'I just made an elephant disappear.' I get a kick out of that. I think it's funny."

Magic wasn't the only thing that distinguished Ramon from his peers. He also had incredible self-mastery and intensity of purpose. A second-generation Chicano, he grew up in a hard-working family of modest means. Ramon's mother taught kindergarten (she later switched to preschool). His father delivered pharmaceuticals. Ramon attended El Sobrante Christian School through eighth grade, and later enrolled in Berean Christian High School in Walnut Creek. He was an extremely disciplined kid — someone who knew, early on, the value of plodding away at something until you got it right.

Ramon learned his first card trick from one of his father's coworkers. He got a magic book for Christmas that year and started building his repertoire. It began as a hobby, he said. He would learn from books and videos, and occasionally get tips from other conjurers when he stopped by the local magic shop. Ramon put together his first show at age fifteen and performed it at his dad's fiftieth birthday party. ("It wasn't very good but my family loved me and supported me, so they clapped in all the right places," he said.) Pretty soon his avocation became an obsession, and he walked around with a deck of cards in his hand at all times. Ramon would practice card tricks while waiting in line at the supermarket. He practiced so much that the backs of the decks rubbed onto his fingertips, leaving them blue. Over time, Ramon augmented his repertoire to include coin tricks, illusions, mind-reading, and levitation. By age sixteen he'd entered a class of his own. "It's kind of weird," he said. "You met kids who liked to do magic tricks, but none who were as furious as I was — or did it as well."

Homegrown and entirely self-taught, Ramon learned mostly by trial and error. He had occasional slip-ups, like the time he tried to thread a $300 watch on a rope, and wound up throwing it into a patch of ivy. (He eventually found it, much to the relief of the audience member to whom it belonged.) But he took the glitches in stride and worked harder — much harder, he said, than the average kid taking piano lessons under duress. By the middle of high school, Ramon performed regularly at birthday parties, public libraries, and conventions. He learned how to fill out W2s and 1099s by himself. Then, at age seventeen, he became one of the youngest-ever champions of the Oakland Magic Circle Inner Club competition. Thus began the winning streak that would eventually lead him to Disney, then Ringling Bros..

Now Ramon oversees a show in which any number of things could go wrong. His job is to keep the audience from ever finding out. It's often quite difficult. A couple weeks ago, he said, they were missing a power cable for an illusion. Another time, an assistant took the night off to get surgery, without notifying Ramon. "It affected the show, but the audience didn't realize it," said the ringmaster. "We've done 260-plus shows in the last eight months, so we were still able to have the illusion go on without a hitch."

Ramon has such command of the stage, in fact, that audience members rarely realize he's as young or as small as he is. He said that when he did a dress rehearsal for the ABC daytime talk show The View, host Sherri Shepherd didn't recognize him, even though she'd already seen Zing Zang Zoom in Madison Square Garden. "We were rehearsing an illusion trying to levitate Whoopi Goldberg," Ramon said. "Sherri looked at my sister, points to me, and asks, 'What did he do in show?'" Shepherd seemed embarrassed about the gaffe, but Ramon was flattered. "She says 'Because of your presence, I thought you were so much bigger.' ... To me, that's actually a compliment."

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