501 Life Magazine | Miller Spectacular Shows: Business is multigenerational family fun
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Miller Spectacular Shows: Business is multigenerational family fun

by Renee Hunter

Miller Spectacular Shows, a family carnival business started by Johnny Miller’s grandfather, has lasted five generations.

“He kind of spun off from the [carnival] food business,” Johnny explained.

“During the Depression, they were hunting any way at all to make a living,” added Sue, Johnny’s wife of 46 years.

Johnny and Sue inherited the business from his father in 1974. Other Millers involved include the Miller’s older son, Freddy, his wife, Patsy, and their grandson Trey and his wife, Katie.

The business started in Bald Knob, where Johnny grew up, and came to Greenbrier by fluke. When Johnny’s dad was asked to bring a carnival to Greenbrier, he sent Johnny and his brother. Johnny’s brother met, fell in love with and married a Greenbrier girl who refused to leave her hometown. The business moved.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Sue said.

The Millers own about 50 rides, a number that varies as they sell old rides and buy new ones.

“We have a lot of exciting rides,” Johnny said. His favorites are the “old standbys,” such as the carousel.

“I don’t ride anything,” he admitted.

Crowd favorites are the Tilt-a-whirl and the Spider, both old standbys, and the Eclipse, a modern ride that consists of a group of randomly spinning discs.

“It’s a very exciting ride,” Johnny said.

Safety is an important issue. At each new location, a state inspector makes sure the rides are in top condition and properly set up. The Millers rigidly adhere to height guidelines set by the manufacturers because so many of the riders are people’s children and grandchildren.

The Millers regular tour begins in late March in South Louisiana and moves north to Michigan. They spend the summer there and in Illinois before moving south again. They spend the fall in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi and Louisiana, with one Arkansas stop before coming home for a three-month hiatus.

“We stop off in Stuttgart (for the Wings Over the Prairie Festival) on our way home,” Sue said.

Things have changed somewhat from the early days of the business. Once they had a five-month break between tours, but the economy has forced them to spend more time on the road.

Miller Spectacular Shows is a family affair, expanding over three generations.

Living conditions have improved, from tents and trailers without bathrooms or kitchens to modern RVs.

Rides have gotten bigger and more exciting. The 42-foot Ferris wheel has been replaced by the 90-foot Gondola, for example.

And there is more paperwork. Patsy and Sue must keep detailed documentation on ride and equipment maintenance.

“I can’t hire a secretary to travel with us,” Sue said. “Our office moves once a week.” She added that she could do paperwork seven days a week, year round, and still be behind.

The Millers employ 20-25 people in the spring during the smaller festivals and 50 or more at the season’s peak, when the festivals are larger.

“There’s quite a big family,” Johnny said. “We keep most of our crew most of the time; they like their work and that’s the reason they keep coming back.”

Johnny says he would never do anything else. Taking the same route to the same workplace every day and sitting at the same desk to do the same thing would bore him.

“I like to travel, and I like seeing different parts of the country that some people have never seen,” he said. “I like meeting new people.”

“It’s been a very enjoyable life,” Sue added. “But I look forward to retiring and staying home and being with my grandchildren.”  

Their replacements are waiting in the wings.