Miller Spectacular Shows has upgraded its 2014 route by picking up seven county fairs in Kentucky previously held by Myers International Midways.
The Florida show is getting out of the carnival business, according to fair officials from those events that signed new contracts with Miller. A phone call and text message sent to carnival owner Bobby Myers was not returned.
The seven fairs under contract with Miller are Taylor County, Murray-Calloway County, Union County, Allen County, Hart County, Hardin County and Barren County. All the dates run in June and July, starting with the Taylor County Fair in Campbellsville, said Freddy Miller, owner/operator of Miller Spectacular Shows.
The Greenbrier, Ark. carnival anticipates adding an eighth Kentucky fair pending a signed contract, Miller said.
The majority of the Kentucky events replace old still dates on the carnival's route, Miller said. The Kentucky fairs run on a pay-one-price business model covering gate admission, the carnival and ground entertainment. Miller Spectacular Shows will split that revenue with the fairs, Miller said.
The process for signing the Kentucky dates started after Freddy Miller saw an item posted on a Matt's Carnival Warehouse message board by the Taylor County Fair seeking a carnival for its 2014 event. He contacted fair officials and told them Miller Spectacular Shows was interested in filling the date.
"I had time in my route and I needed to improve it," Miller said. "We heard the rumor out there but I couldn't imagine Bobby [Myers] shutting down. But these are tough economic times. Some shows won't make it much longer, but in my mind Myers was not one of them."
Miller didn't think anything would come of his initial phone call to Taylor County until he got a call back from a fair official who confirmed Myers would not be back next year and that they would like to see Miller submit a proposal for their event.
The Taylor County representative was familiar with Miller's operation and after looking at the show's website, he told Miller he would like to recommend the carnival to other fairs searching for a new carnival to replace Myers at their events.
Because so many fairs were involved with Myers, the Kentucky Association of Fairs and Horse Shows set up a meeting with Miller in Elizabethtown, home of the Hardin County Fair and a community near Fort Knox. Over the next few weeks, Miller signed seven more Kentucky fairs to his route next season.
"Taylor County told me all these other fairs were scrambling to find a carnival," Miller said. "I think the decision by Myers caught a lot of people by surprise. It's a tight time frame and they were all in panic mode. Things snowballed from there. Not one fair had to change their dates to accommodate us."
For Miller Spectacular Shows, the jump to the Bluegrass State will cover about 500 miles after the carnival plays Riverfest, a major event in Little Rock, Ark. that draws about 250,000 people. The carnival will most likely play a still date in Kentucky or Tennessee prior to its fair run to give its employees a rest, Miller said. "We always have a still date after Riverfest and use it to unwind," he said. "The hours are long and it can wear a crew out."
Miller won't make too many changes for next year's Kentucky fairs but over time it will make adjustments to help promote those events and grow revenue, he said.
"We will keep things similar to what Myers did," he said. "I didn't want to create a huge ripple in the water at first. We have a strong desire to grow those events."
The Miller operation has about 60 rides and attractions split into two and sometimes three units, managed by Freddy and his father and mother, Johnny and Sue Miller. The family business now covers five generations, including Freddy's two sons, Trey and Drew.
Trey Miller, 25, and his wife, Kate, have "really stepped up" their involvement in the operation, Freddy said. Trey recently bought a Mardi Gras, his second ride purchase, and has expanded his electrical skills for resolving equipment issues, his father said. Kate helps in the office.
Drew, Freddy's youngest son, graduated from Central Baptist College and came out this summer to help out on the show.
Miller Spectacular Shows has expanded its route to cover 13 states after initially booking a smaller region covering Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana. The Eastern New Mexico State Fair and the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fair are two of its biggest dates.
The carnival has played DuQuoin, a free admission fair, for about 14 years and it gets better every year by booking first-class entertainment, Miller said. "They don't have totals for a head count, but this past fair they parked 256,000 cars," he said.
The DuQuoin event closes on Labor Day and from there, the show makes its longest jump of the season, a 1,100 mile trip to Odessa, Texas for the Permian Basin Fair & Exposition. Miller sets up 40 rides in Odessa. Then it's on to the Panhandle South Plains Fair in Lubbock, a contract Miller has renewed for 2014.
Over the years, Miller has expanded its territory as the show has grown in size. At one time, it booked most of the county fairs in Arkansas but the state is not that big and the show looked to other states to upgrade its route, Miller said.
"Years ago, if somebody told me I had to make a 300-mile jump, I got nervous, but I was much younger at the time," he said.
The carnival still plays Toad Suck Daze in Conway, Ark., though, an event with an interesting name that's just 12 miles from the Miller residence and seven miles from winter quarters.
"People always tell you never book events close to home because everybody has their hands out, but it's been good for us and they win national awards," Miller said.
The 2013 season was phenomenal, including a strong summer run which made the show a lot of money. At the same time, it had Miller questioning whether the "bottom would fall out" at some the carnivals' bigger fairs in Illinois and Texas.
"Other than the weather, only one of our fairs was down and that was due to the operations," said Miller, who declined to identify the event. "We're hoping to get it to rebound. The rest of our fairs are easy to work with."
Miller feels lucky to have a strong work force. About 80 percent of the crew return every year, he said. The show does not use international workers. "I'm an old Arkansas boy and a firm believer in using Americans. I don't think we need to farm labor out just for the convenience of saving money."
Key employees include D.D. Coover, Miller's "right hand" who has spent the past 15 years working for the show. Rich Jentz has been concessions manager for 10 years. The carnival industry may remember his late father-in-law, Wayne Hazen, who was with the old Bill Hames Shows for many years.
In addition, Mike Phillips helps Johnny Miller manage the second unit. Phillips has been with the show since the fall of 2011. At one time, he owned All-American Amusements of Little Rock before selling the show a few years ago.
"He and my dad are the best of friends," Freddy said. "He's taken the reins and gets the show up and down."
Ride superintendent Kevin Telford has been with Miller Spectacular Shows for about 25 years. Frank Wills handles the carousel, and at age 65, he was born and raised on the Miller show and "has more seniority than I do," Miller said. "His dad ran my grandfather's carousel."
Miller aunts and uncles, including twin sisters Janis Cooper and Jeanie Bradshaw, run food trailers/
The show debuted several new attractions for 2013, namely the Sizzler, Zero Gravity, Dizzy Dragon, and Quad Runner.
The same holds true for the Fabbri Eclipse and Majestic X-Scream. Miller bought it both attractions four years ago and both are still the only ones in North America. "The X-Scream catches the attention of midway patrons everywhere", Miller said.
"It gives you a bit of an edge," Miller said. "It's the nature of the beast. You start buying bigger rides and you can't quit. It does make it easier to book dates and puts you in a different category than your competitors."