Monday, August 24, 2009

....In Oklahoma: a Big Top Moves Out....

TIME Magazine
Monday, May. 12, 1986
By Gregory Jaynes

After the winter, the circus bestirred itself like an animal and hit the road. There were kinks to be worked out, sore joints and what have you, but nothing that could not be attended to on the circuit. The outfit made a pretty sight crossing the Red River on the highway from Hugo, Okla., where it holes up between November and March, to Paris, Texas, where the show would open the 1986 season. They numbered among them 80 brightly painted vehicles, 250 colorful people, a hippo, a rhino, a giraffe, assorted lions, tigers, llamas, horses, donkeys, zebras, elephants and goats. The last to leave home base was the owner, D.R. Miller, who felt rather special and unhurried about this, his 50th year in the catbird seat.

While the others were pulling out, in fact, the owner fished a fresh chaw of Red Man from his pocket, got in the big new Chrysler with the tobacco juice cup affixed to the dash, and drove over to Mount Olivet Cemetery. Down at the end of a drive lined with red-tipped photinias, in a section called Showmen's Rest, he pointed out his brother's grave, his father's grave and the spot where he and his wife Isla Marie would spend eternity. All around were tombstones in the shape of tents, or wagon wheels, or ticket booths, or markers with MAIN ENTRANCE etched across them, and epitaphs of touching rhyme: "Give life the best that's in you/ for it's only a one-night stand./ There are no repeat performances/ brought back by popular demand." Here on a bright spring day, once again loosing his flock upon the land, Miller took a moment to look back, another to look ahead (saying in the doing he had never + lost his sense of adventure), then addressed himself to business.

The man's father, Obert Miller, had started with a dog and a trick pony. In 1924 Obert brought eight-year-old D.R. into the act. In 1932 D.R. met a fetching young farm girl named Isla at a barn dance in Kansas. In 1934 D.R. and Isla were married. By then Obert Miller's show had grown to four dogs, four ponies and a monkey, a big enough production to accommodate the newlyweds. For their efforts, D.R. and Isla earned a quarter a week to split. D.R. always bought a cigar with his portion, and Isla bought a candy bar with hers--"a big old PowerHouse; remember those?" By 1937 D.R. and Isla had a piece of the action, as they have had in one circus or another ever since; thus 50 years of ownership. Since 1969 the organization has traveled under the name Carson & Barnes. There was no Carson, there was no Barnes. D.R. just thought the names had that certain ring.

It is a big-top circus, its one concession to modernity being polyvinyl rather than canvas. It is a long, low tent sheltering five rings. In the mornings men and elephants erect it, and in the evenings they take it apart. The drill, for 16,000 miles and 20 states, is rise before dawn, drive to the next town, set up, perform, usually at 2 p.m. and again at 8, collapse the tent, sleep, get up, load and drive. The highest-paid acts--whole family troupes that shoulder chores across the board, from flying high to walking nags--get $2,400 a week, in cash, each Sunday, payday. The lowest-level pay is $75 a week. Seventy-five, incidentally, is what the butt of the ancient joke, the kid who tidies after the elephants, receives. It may be the arts, but at Carson & Barnes it means disposing of twelve fragrant cubic yards a day. James K. Judkins, general manager of the circus, started this way.

In the summer of 1976, Judkins, then a 19-year-old New Hampshire boy attending Haverford College, signed on as a cook with a circus bound for broke. Cooking led to a truck-driving job, then magician, then fire-eater ("It's just basic common sense. Heat rises. Keep the heat going up. Keep your mouth wet--and your mustache trimmed"), then sideshow manager, then ringmaster. Then the show went bankrupt. Judkins' last task, in December 1977, was to return an elephant leased from D.R. Miller. Hauling a rented trailer that the elephant was systematically reducing to bits, Judkins reached Hugo penniless and hooked on for the winter, cleaning after the beasts.

Today, to supplement his wages, Judkins sleeps with snakes. "You get a salary, which isn't much," he explained, "and then you try to do something else to earn some real money. Every circus is like that." In Judkins' case, this means driving a tractor trailer packed with anacondas, boa constrictors and pythons, as well as the odd tarantula, and sleeping in it too. At each town, he opens his establishment on the midway and charges people 75 cents to view his creatures. It is not exactly what he had in mind when he was majoring in psychology and political science, but apparently he has found what he was cut out to do.

"Sometimes I feel like just leaving, looking for a normal life," the general manager confessed. "You'll be driving along at 5 a.m. and the window on your truck won't shut all the way and you're freezing to death and you see lights from houses come on and you know there's coffee and a regular breakfast in there somewhere. But I'm hooked, I guess."

So say his circus colleagues. Everywhere one looks on the lot (that is circus argot, the lot; townsfolk who come to gawk before the show are called, uncharitably, lot lice) there are people doing a dozen jobs, saying nothing else beats the life. Dennis Harvey, ringmaster, welder, electrician: "I'm more settled here than anywhere, strange as it sounds. It's like joining a family." Moira Loter, bareback rider, aerialist, jackie-of-all-trades: "I've lived in a house. You always want to go back on the road." Carlos Bautista, whose family, when not being catapulted off a teeterboard, performs, according to the alliterative program, as "jaunty juggling juggernauts displaying dazzling dexterity": "This is what my father taught me to do. This is what I do." Bautista's daughter Patricia: "Si."

About 50% of the troupe are Hispanic. With the exception of a few tattooed bigots salted among the hands, there is little disharmony to speak of; everyone is too busy. There might be more slack time for all if Carson & Barnes would move indoors, but D.R. Miller says a circus is not a circus in a building, Ringling Bros. or no. To perpetuate his notion of the way things should go, he carefully schooled his only child Barbara in the ways of running the show, and when Barbara married Geary Byrd, an Oklahoma University civil-engineering graduate, in 1970, Miller quashed with a cunning proposal Byrd's ambition to join the Oklahoma highway department. Byrd, now ) the show's superintendent, recalled the offer as he checked out the portable toilets in Paris, Texas, on opening day: "He said, 'I tell you what, I'll pay you $25 a day just to follow me around. That's all you have to do, just follow me around.' Now look at me. Cleaning the donicker and everything else."

"We were just lucky Geary took to this," Mrs. Miller said minutes later, as the performance commenced before 2,000 Texas Parisians. She was holding hands with Mr. Miller, the two of them sitting next to the band, which went flat twice on Blow, Gabriel, Blow but shortly got the hang of it. Just then one of the new colts in the bareback act broke out of the ring and nearly threw the rider, Lucianna Loyal. A boy, a new employee, was trying to lead the horse out but was getting nowhere. Miller jumped from his seat, grabbed the bit, and got rid of the horse. "My hero," Mrs. Miller said, and the old man laughed.

An hour passed, with some of the acts a little rough yet, but not so as the audience could tell. (To be sure, there would be time enough to polish: 433 performances; 227 cities.) During a lull, Ringmaster Harvey asked the audience to recognize the owners' golden anniversary, and as Isla cupped D.R.'s elbow to get him to stand and acknowledge the applause, he moaned, "Oh no, I don't want to do this."

"Denny's just filling time," Isla said.

"To hell with the fill-ins," D.R. said. "I don't like this." But you could tell he did, and so could Isla, who kissed him and made him smile.