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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fun-loving ringmaster's love of Memphis no joke


Photo by Brandon Dill

UniverSoul Circus ringmaster and native Memphian Tony Tone urges the crowd on while members of the audience dance in the ring as during a performance at Hickory Ridge Mall.

By Sara Patterson, Memphis Commercial Appeal

August 25, 2011

Before Tony Tone became the "marvelous and magnificent" ringmaster of "The Most Interactive Circus in the World!" he was the quintessential class clown at Overton High School.
When Tone, whose real name is Anthony Maurice Luewellyn, isn't working his audience into a frenzy 14 times a week for the traveling UniverSOUL circus, one might find him fine-tuning his impersonation of the company's CEO, Cedric Walker.Next.Show producer Deneise Howard said Luewellyn's impression recently passed the ultimate test -- a phone call to Walker's wife.
"He does a great one of Onionhead the clown," she added. "No one is safe."
After a show in the Hickory Ridge Mall parking lot Wednesday morning, the native Memphian talked about his last five years on the road.
It's "not a normal life," he said, but one he seems made for.
After graduating from Overton in 1989, Luewellyn, now 40, attended University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. He was already versed in gymnastics and theater from his grade-school days, but in college he discovered stand-up comedy.
"His friends told him to get on the road," his mother, Phyllis Freeman, said by telephone Wednesday. Luewellyn took his show on the road, traveling the country and living out of his suitcase.
"I can't be any more proud of him," Freeman said. "I can't even put it in words."
Luewellyn didn't run away to the circus. He ran into it when his first comedy manager became the show producer. Howard, who described Luewellyn as "charismatic, energetic, likable and good-looking," encouraged circus management in 2006 to use the comedian as ringmaster.
"There was a mishap once with a motorcycle that wouldn't crank," Howard said. "It was right in the midst of the gas crisis and Tony immediately went into how prices were affecting everybody.
"He made people laugh; they thought it was part of the show."
Before the elephants began to pirouette on stepping stools Wednesday, Luewellyn cranked the music and hundreds of children jumped from their chairs to move like Tony Tone.
"Hands on your hips," he commanded the crowd. Then, pulling his plaid golf cap to one side, he encouraged them to "Jump On It" to the Sugar Hill Gang song.
Luewellyn said circus life has taken a toll on his voice and his love life. There's homesickness, according to his mother.
"It's great being home," he said. "Just the genuine love and support of the people here."
And there wasn't the hint of a joke behind his words.

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