Performers gather to remember `Mr. Circus'

Wednesday, November 17th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy Hugo Daily News, Stan Stamper photographer

HUGO, Okla. (AP) -- Doris Richard Miller, known to many in these parts as "Mr. Circus," always believed the show must go on. Even though he died in September, his Carson & Barnes 5-Ring Circus pressed onward with its full schedule of shows.

Today, about 1,500 circus lovers, townspeople and performers gathered under a big red circus tent set up in a field north of town to pay tribute to Miller in what one circus official predicted would be "the greatest funeral ever."

Miller's gold and red casket sat in the middle of a center ring on top of two tubs like those elephants stand on during their acts. More than a dozen floral arrangements, some in the shapes of circus wheels, surrounded the casket.

Circus musicians played spirited, upbeat circus tunes on their tubas, horns and drums. A spotlight flashed over the crowd. Outside the tent, llamas, camels and Suzie the elephant grazed on grass."We have gathered together to say goodbye to one of the greatest showmen that was ever alive," granddaughter Kristin Byrd Parra told the crowd. "For a preacher, it's very comforting to share the ring with a man like D.R.,' said the Rev. Steve Goughnour. "We thank him for what he's done, for showing us what the circus is all about -- people."

After the service, residents lined the 11/2-mile route to the cemetery, watching as chartered buses and school buses ferried people to the cemetery and waiting for the procession of a gold band wagon filled with circus musicians, a black horse-drawn hearse and an elephant to make its way to Showman's Rest. The black horses were dressed in gold and adorned with flowers.

"Nearly everybody in the business knew him," said Doyle Milson, general agent for Carson & Barnes. Carson & Barnes is one of the old-fashioned circuses, said Thomas Dunwoody, president of the Circus Hall of Fame. "They set up and they move every day. Circuses don't do that any more," he said.

Big top fans and circus performers from across the country have filled the local hotels, coming to pay their respects for an itinerant legend in the heart of Hugo, a small southeastern Oklahoma city known as Circus City, U.S.A.

Schools were closed for the day and several businesses, including Betty Jean's Flowers, were shutting down for the morning "The circus family is our family," said Betty Jean Cannon. Her flower shop needed to make six trips to deliver flowers ordered for the service. Past performers and circus lovers from across the country ordered arrangements in the shapes of elephants, circus wheels and clowns, she said.

One person ordered flowers to be placed on all of the 87 plots in Showman's Rest, a portion of a Hugo cemetery reserved for circus performers. The circus had been part of Miller's life since he was age 7, and it was where he passed away at age 83. Miller died Sept. 8 on a circus lot in McCook, Neb., after complaining of chest pains. It was the same small town were he saw his first circus 75 years earlier.

Before his death, Miller picked out his red and gold casket and left specific funeral instructions, complete with a full complement of circus performers. It wasn't possible to fulfill his wishes until the circus season ended. Miller's body has been waiting in storage, awaiting burial.

Miller's instructions specified that his casket be carried in an 1872 hearse drawn by six black horses. He also planned for a group of circus musicians to follow in a circus wagon from the International Circus Hall of Fame in Indiana playing "circus music every step to the cemetery," Milson said.

One of Miller's 36 elephants also got a role in the procession and circus owners from across the country were selected as pallbearers.

For his burial, Miller saved a spot in Showman's Rest. Miller's wife, Isla, who died a year ago, also is buried there. They married in 1934, and performed a high wire and trapeze act as part of a traveling show owned by Miller's father, Obert. Both later were inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame.

Miller started his circus 62 years ago and built it into one of the nation's largest tented show, said Trey Key, general agent for the Hugo-based Kelly-Miller Circus, which Miller co-owned and helped found.

In recent years, Miller spent more time at that show's winter stop in Hugo but occasionally joined the Carson & Barnes circus on the road, traveling for weeks. Many circus performers worldwide got their start in the Carson & Barnes show, which features elephants, horses, clowns and high-flying trapeze acts, Key said.

"He was like a kid watching the show," Key said. "He bought everybody Cokes, he bought everybody peanuts. He applauded and laughed and commented on the acts."