Culpepper and Merriweather Circus
The end dates begin on October 23, in nearby Honey Grove, TX when the sprightly Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, possibly the least shaky of the threesome, rings in its last show of the season, and thence, only a few hours later, pulls into the Hugo barn. The next day, at the Choctaw County Fairgrounds in Hugo, Carson and Barnes will give its final show of the six-week fall tour. And let’s hope, in TV parlance, it’s a season end, not a “series” end ... Two days later, in Ardmore, “Bronco Johnny,” as he calls himself, presents what looks to be his last show as Kelly Miller circus owner. And the spangled curtain will, I fear, fall forever on the House of Ringling. And the future of K-M may be perilously up in the air. Say it ain’t so, somebody.
Carson and Barnes in the 1960s
I am ruefully moved by the chronology of it all. (Big Apple Circus opens in New York the day following Johnny’s last stand.) Taking refuge in my memory of favorite circus days gone by, my mind defers to the rare and difficult ground upon which I once found Kelly Miller. And it strikes me that, grass of any kind beats asphalt, any day. That is, on any day there might still be a circus out there actually looking for lots over which to pitch yawning canvas and giddy banner lines.
My one and only visit to the Kelly Miller Circus produced by John Ringling North II: The location, Brewster, NY. The lot had grass! And weeds! And rough clumps of dry mud! The ground wobbled up, and it wobbled down. And it had half the backyard in the front yard, and over thick black cables I fearlessly trod, to reach the big top
Wonderful day, light rain parting under a sky of dancing sun and clouds, nothing to spoil the show. A very good show, full of ingratiating spirit. So much better than a sterile mall. Best of all, there were PEOPLE in the tent. A lot of PEOPLE. These downsized days, I enter circus tents with a silent prayer to the man on high: “Please, let there be at least, say how about 250 people in the seats? I don’t ask for much, God.”
A circus fans's dream setting: Kelly Miller in recent years
The shopping malls were once a boon to circuses, as when Cliff Vargas drew lush crows into his tent. The peak years, the mid 1980s. But today, there is nothing sadder than a circus over asphalt when so few people show up. Add to this the gloom of a dying mall shadowing “circus day,” of so few cars in football sized parking lots, of the tent standing next to a freeway, and you have a Circus Vargas at the Southland Mall, in Hayward, CA. About the only place for me to catch the show during its quick sprint through the Bay Area.
I’ve not seen a single circus this year, and for me, that’s a first. That show might have been Vargas, but I just can’t take the experience in that dismal location any more. Were there a few dogs in the show, something more down to earth, I might have felt a driving emotional connection. I might have gone.
When I told Jim Royal, once of the team of North II and Royal I, about my visit to the Brewster lot, he wrote, "Yes, the date in New York. When I booked the date, it was going to be on a school practice field....large, level, and plenty of parking. There was a last minute change and we ended up on the weird lot. That was probably the worst lot of the season for you to visit. Oh well, even RBBB played many lousy lots when it was under canvas."
Give me grass and weed, mud on the side,if you must, okay, a little bit “lousy.” Give me a down-to-earth experience where wizards and animals make magic in rings. Give me the Real Circus, thank you!
Now, here’s to those lucky enough to be close to the Hugo action: Get thee down to “your doing fine, Oklahoma” land. Book a flight. Jump a Greyhound. Ride the rails. And enjoy the next few days. And pray for the tents to rise once again, when a new spring blooms over old, vacant fields.