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Currently, three circuses winter in Hugo, Okla., distinguishing the southeastern town as ‘Circus City USA.’ Photos by Charles Sasser


Hugo: N


ot only is Hugo the only city in Oklahoma named after a famous French novelist (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables), it is also the only city in


America where Santa Claus rides an elephant in the Christmas parade. The southeastern Oklahoma town became known as “Circus City USA” in 1937 when grocer Vernon Pratt per- suaded the Kelly-Miller Circus to winter there. Since then, some 22 other circuses have win- tered in Hugo, the county seat of Choctaw County located in the Choctaw Electric Cooperative service territory. Currently, three circuses occupy winter quarters in the town of 6,000: Kelly-Miller; Culpepper & Merriweather; and Carson & Barnes.


By the end of March each year, the circuses pull out of town in a colorful bustle of wagons, trailers and trucks to start their show tours. A circus on the move is like a military operation. “Front end guys” mark the route while mechanics bring up the rear in case of breakdowns. Travel trailers be- come homes on wheels. Cook trailers surge ahead to prepare meals. Children attend classes in a “traveling school” supported by the Hugo School District.


Prescilla Rangel is a fifth generation, high-wire


artist of Kelly-Miller Circus who received her schooling on the road.


12 WWW.OK-LIVING.COOP


‘Don’t Stop the Show’


Circus City USA


By Charles Sasser


“It’s a life I’ve known and loved,” she says. When the circuses return home for the winter, they are welcomed by cheering locals and bright banners along Main Street. Kelly-Miller custom- arily puts on a show for Hugo before it departs in the spring and another at the end of summer. “There is a core group of us who call Hugo home,” explains Brenda Rawls, who formerly traveled with Kelly-Miller but now runs the home office. “Others return to their homes in Mexico, Europe or Asia. They reassemble every spring in Hugo.”


“The circus is like a United Nations,” elephant handler Armando Loyal adds.


Those who call Circus City home are so much a part of the community that Rawls’ husband, David, who manages Kelly-Miller, is a former mayor and city manager. Her mother was sister to the brothers who formed Ringling Brothers Circus.


“Most circuses are family affairs,” says Barbara Byrd, who manages Carson & Barnes with hus- band Geary. “Circus is in your blood.” Byrd, a “circus brat” who inherited Carson & Barnes from her father, D.R. Miller, went on the road when she was two weeks old. Her two daugh- ters, their husbands, and five grandchildren now travel with the circus.


Miller established the Endangered Ark


Foundation in Hugo in 1993 to help preserve en- dangered Asian elephants. While elephants are leased out to various circuses during the season, they return to the ark for winter vacation. Currently, 27 elephants reside at the Foundation, comprising the second largest herd in America; 11 of them are retired through an “elephant social security system.”


“Mr. Miller saw the ark completed and the first baby elephant born before he died,” says Carson & Barnes animal trainer Louie Delmoral, who spent 15 years as assistant to Gunther Gabriel Williams, the most famous animal trainer in the world. “I started out with a wheelbarrow picking up after the elephants at the end of the parade. You might say I worked my way up from the back to the front.”


Hugo has circus in the soul, as displayed in the


bronze elephant at the Chamber of Commerce and Angie’s Circus City Diner. Many circus peo- ple began their careers in Hugo—and many now rest at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. A section called Showmen’s Rest is one of only two cemeteries in the nation dedicated to circus performers. Stone engravings of Big Top scenes and a huge monu- ment of a dancing elephant with the inscription “A Tribute to all showmen under God’s Big Top” mark the eternal slumber of legends. Norm Pence, curator of the Frisco Depot


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