Step Right Up: Video Explores Circus Cemetery Showmen’s Rest in Hugo, OK

Apr 23, 2024 | 0 comments

Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen, to the circus cemetery! Welcome to the greatest show on earth… well, at least in eternal rest. Nestled in the charming town of Hugo, Oklahoma, lies a section of the Mount Olivet Cemetery that’s truly one-of-a-kind – the Showmen’s Rest. Prepare to be dazzled as we take a whimsical stroll through this unique final resting place!

What makes the Showmen’s Rest so special, you ask? Well, grab your popcorn and let me enlighten you! This extraordinary section of the cemetery is dedicated to the performers, artists, and entertainers who spent their lives under the spotlight, bringing joy and wonder to audiences far and wide.

According to this article in Historic Houston: Hugo, Oklahoma was founded in 1901 and named for French novelist Victor Hugo.  In 1937 the Al G. Kelly Miller Brothers Circus began wintering here after a local big top fan, Vernon Pratt, went to Mena, Arkansas and convinced circus owner Obert Miller to accept his offer to house the Circus in Hugo during the non-traveling months. Since that time more than 22 circuses have wintered in this small Oklahoma community.  Often as many as five different troops at a time called Hugo their winter home.  It wasn’t long before people were calling the town Circus City, USA.  Today three troops, Carson & Barnes, Kelly Miller and Culpepper & Merriweather, can be found there in the winter.

The animals and performers enjoyed the milder climate of southern Oklahoma from December until March when they began traveling from town to town, thrilling people of all ages with their fabulous “under the big top” shows.  Over the years a performer would go to the celestial big ring.  His earthly remains were interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery where a small plot, Showmen’s Rest, was laid out for them.  This rectangular area is marked off by tusked elephants atop granite columns.  In the middle of this beautiful tree-filled burial ground is a large monument featuring an elephant performing with an etching stating “A Tribute to All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.”

The Amazing Circus Cemetery, Showmen's Rest, in Hugo, Oklahoma

Amazing Memorial Markers

As you wander through Showmen’s Rest, you’ll be greeted by an array of captivating headstones that reflect the vibrant personalities of those laid to rest here. From larger-than-life monuments adorned with circus tents and acrobats to intricately carved wagon wheels and ticket booths, each grave tells a story of a life lived in pursuit of the extraordinary. View more photos in this video.

One of the most notable features of this circus cemetery is its sense of camaraderie. Here, performers from all walks of life come together in eternal harmony, forming a colorful tapestry of talent and showmanship. Acrobats, high wire walkers, elephant trainers, and snake handlers – you name it, they’re all here, ready to entertain for eternity.

One of the larger markers is for John Carroll, an elephant trainer who worked in circuses from the age of 15. His life savings were used to establish the John Carroll Showmen’s Rest Trust Fund to provide final resting places for his fellow circus performers who could not afford graves and markers themselves. The fund also supported the 2017 installation of a columbarium for the cremated remains of circus folk.

But it’s not just the headstones that make Showmen’s Rest a sight to behold. The atmosphere itself is imbued with a sense of magic and wonder, as if the spirits of the performers still linger, putting on one last spectacular show for anyone willing to watch and listen.

Circus cemetery headstone Ted BowmanAcross the base of the headstone for Ted Bowman, the inscription reads, “There’s nothing left but empty popcorn snacks and wagon tracks. The circus is gone.” Another headstone for showman James Zajicek reads, “We actually lived the life that most people only dream of.”

Visitors to Showmen’s Rest often leave feeling a sense of awe and admiration for the incredible lives that were lived here. It’s a reminder that behind every dazzling performance and dazzling smile, there’s a person with dreams, passions, and a story to tell.

So, the next time you find yourself in Hugo, Oklahoma, make sure to pay a visit to the Showmen’s Rest at Mount Olivet Cemetery. It’s a place where the spirit of the circus lives on, where laughter echoes through the ages, and where the magic of showmanship never fades away. Step right up and experience the wonder for yourself – you won’t be disappointed!

Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death, recorded this video in February, 2024.

A Good Goodbye