Last Ringling folds up big top in Oklahoma
Wearing a white cowboy hat and sitting ringside, John Ringling North II watches almost every performance of Kelly Miller Circus — a remarkable feat if you know the Hugo-based show runs twice daily during its 33-week season.
North, 77, is the last of his famous circus family in the business. His grandmother was the original seven Ringling brother's only sister.
There is nobody to take the show on the road next year after North retires at the end of Kelly Miller's season this year. The show was founded in 1938 as the Al G. Kelly Miller Brothers Circus and would celebrate its 80th anniversary next year if a successor is found.
With many states and cities enacting bans on circus elephants and other exotic animals, North said he wouldn't be able to book Kelly Miller's season next year unless he did it without animals.
"That's not the circus I grew up in and not how I want to carry on," North said.
North watches the show intently during performances, clapping enthusiastically for his troupe as if every performance is the first he's seen.
During one recent show on a cold, wet day, staff encourage North to leave and warm up in a trailer, maybe fix himself a hot drink.
But the circus owner stayed.
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"If they all have to be out here, then so do I," North said.
After a final performance last week in Ardmore, the Kelly Miller Circus returned to Hugo, its winter home since 1942.
North still hopes to sell Kelly Miller or lease it to another operator in the United States or possibly Europe to keep the production going for the more than 50 people it employs.
"Most of these people are friends of mine," North said. "If the show closes, they are out of work."
After being out from the circus business for 40 years, North purchased Kelly Miller Circus in 2007 in hopes of reviving the show he remembered from his youth. It's one of several Oklahoma businesses North owns, including two oil companies in Ardmore.
The town of Ringling in Jefferson County, population 1,037, is named for North's family. John Nicholas Ringling, one of the founders of Ringling Bros. Circus, helped finance the construction of the Oklahoma, New Mexico and Pacific Railway in 1913.
Keeping it old school
Under North's watch, Kelly Miller Circus has kept it old school.
Ringmaster Rebecca Ostroff describes Kelly Miller as a "little jewel" that North rescued and polished into the rare and shiny thing he recalled from childhood.
"This circus was dying when he took it over, but he breathed new life into it," Ostroff said. "He's done great things during these 11 years."
The acts include a fire breather, aerialists from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and a motorcycle-riding stuntman from Peru.
The trailers and ticket book are hand-painted by a circus artist in Hugo, featuring images of clowns and swirling gold script.
Until four years ago, an elephant still pulled up the center poll of Kelly Miller's big top tent each morning at a new stop. The circus switched to a small tractor after the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised concerns about The practice.
Trick roping cowboy Joel Faulk, who performs during the second half of the show, said he has always appreciated North's pride in his work and commitment to making the small circus the best it could be.
"Why are you doing all this?" Faulk asked North not long after meeting him. "He said the circus had given him everything he has in his life and so he wanted to give something back to the circus."
The circus business has gotten tougher over the years.
Attention spans are shorter — fewer kids want to sit through a two-hour show, North said. The circus has to compete with video games, iPhones and Netflix.
There's also more permitting, federal regulations on exotic animals, as well as new state laws and local ordinances banning circus animals.
This year, Kelly Miller was forced to cancel a three-day stint in Waukegan, Illinois, after The city council voted to deny the circus a permit just days before the show was scheduled to arrive there.
In 2018, a new law in Illinois will take effect banning all circus elephants in the state. New York has also enacted a circus elephant ban beginning in 2019.
Animal activists buried city officials and sponsors with thousands of emails in protest along Kelly Miller's tour route this year, North said.
"It used to be that there were no animal activists," North said. "People liked us. They were happy to see us when we came to town."
In 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals listed Kelly Miller as one of the "Eight Worst Circuses in the U.S.," citing a history of violations for animal care under the federal Animal Welfare Act.
PETA has posted negative material about Kelly Miller Circus on its website that includes what the group says was a citation from the USDA in 2015 after an inspector saw a cattle prod that was allegedly used on camels and zebras in the show.
North said the incident never happened.
"They tell lies about us," he said. "Circus animals are probably as well cared for as any animals on the planet — they have to be."
None of the animals in Kelly Miller Circus are beaten or chained, he said.
Kelly Miller leases its animals from the Missouri-based Carden family, which produces several animal and circus acts across the United States.
This year's Kelly Miller Circus included an elephant, two camels, a donkey and a trained zebra that answers math problems by picking up numbered flashcards with its teeth.
North grew up traveling with the circus, spending his summer breaks from school on the road with Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey. In those days, the massive show traveled by rail instead of truck. The big top seated 10,000 people and took two and a half days to erect.
"I like being in a new town every day," North said. Once the people are in this tent, they love the show. It's a big buzz to hear them scream and cheer."
Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey last performed under a tent in 1956, before moving to indoor venues.
In May, North and other members of the Kelly Miller troupe watched the last performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus via iPad. What he saw bore little resemblance to the "Greatest Show on Earth" he grew up in.
Bowing to pressure from animal welfare groups, Ringing Bros. & Barnum and Bailey retired its circus elephants in 2016 and debuted a new outer space-themed show for its last season called "Out of This World" that included ice skating acrobats.
"The hippodrome track had ice on it and they didn't have any rings," North said. "It wasn't the circus that I remembered."
Hopes to raise the big top again
While there is no operator lined up to take Kelly Miller Circus on the road again next year, Tavana Brown, circus general manager is still optimistic. Talks are ongoing with multiple parties in Europe and the United States to lease the show in 2018, she said.
"There is a lot of interest," she said.
Ostroff also believes the circus will go on, even without its last Ringling.
"The circus has a life of its own and it really doesn't need any of us to make it happen," she said. "We are just the bodies to pull the ropes."
Did you know?
Obert Miller and his sons, Kelly and Dory, founded Kelly Miller Circus in 1938 in Springfield, Missouri as Al G. Kelly Miller Brothers Circus.
At one time, it was the second-largest big top show in the United States.
The Kelly Miller Circus moved its winter headquarters to Hugo in 1942.
From 1984 to 2006, third-generation circus performer David Rawls owned and operated Kelly Miller Circus.
John Ringling North II purchased the circus in 2007. North's great uncles founded Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
In October, Gov. Mary Fallin issued a commendation to North for his service to the state as the owner of Kelly Miller Circus.