He's not just clowning around: Paul Miller makes circus a serious business

In 1996, Paul Miller literally ran away to join the circus.

At the time, he was a thriving theater student at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). The Covington Catholic graduate had auditioned for Ringling Bros. as a sophomore and was passed over. But when Ringling’s bigwigs came back around to evaluate him during his senior year, they were more than impressed with what they saw. He was invited to attend Clown College and tour with one of the most prestigious circuses in the world. Miller dropped everything, including his CCM classes, and climbed aboard the circus train.

“About 30,000 people apply for Clown College, and 30 get accepted, and 10 of those get a job,” Miller says gratefully. “The university’s been here since the 1890s and it’s going to be here, but you’ve got to take these opportunities when they come.”

Life on the road with the circus was mind blowing for young Miller. He’d had an idea of what to expect, but he was exhilarated by the sheer diversity of the performers. He’d spent his early childhood in a fairly diverse community in Cleveland before moving to Northern Kentucky’s Villa Hills, (which Miller affectionately refers to as “Vanilla Hills”), and he had always missed having a mix of different people around him.

Due to the fact that the clowns were some of the only English-speaking members of the staff, they often ended up wearing Public Relations hats for Ringling on top of their bright, curly wigs. This allowed Miller to hone his PR skills in addition to his talent for performing.

“The clowns were on the news almost every morning,” recounts Miller. “In a thirty minute newscast, you need two minutes of highly visual good news … and this is what the circus can provide.”

“It was a pretty amazing start to this chaotic life,” he says of the overall Ringling experience.

The end of Miller’s time with Ringling sent a tear rolling down the clown’s cheek. Not because it concluded an amazing chapter of his life, but because of a national disaster. In March of ’97, his homecoming circus show was met with a historic, deadly flood that left many Cincinnatians’ homes destroyed.

But, in Miller’s words, the show must go on. He used the opportunity to provide compassion, entertaining flood victims at five area Red Cross Shelters.

“These people have lost everything. And you’re going to be laughing or you’re going to be crying,” says Miller.

Following that, Miller hung up his clown shoes, completed his degree at CCM, and married his college sweetheart.

“Renee said, ‘I’m not marrying a college dropout.’ So I went back and got my degree there. And now I’m so glad I did,” says Miller, who has used the skills he learned at CCM (such as costume sewing, stage lighting, and sound engineering) throughout the years since completing his degree.

With Renee’s publishing career feeling stifled and Paul at a crossroads in his work, the newlywed pair decided to seek opportunity in New York City. Paul worked his magic on casting agents by throwing in some circus tricks at auditions. He landed roles on a few major soap operas that still pay him royalties today. Renee made a good living wage and they had a nice apartment.

“We lived in Manhattan and Renee covered the rent. And if we had a good month we would just paint the town. It was fantastic,” recalls Miller with a laugh.

While in New York, Miller also began teaching circus to kids.

“I worked at 20-thousand-dollar-a-year private schools. They would send a chauffer to pick me up with my circus equipment; and I was teaching the wealthiest kids how to spin plates and how to juggle. There’s only one way to juggle and only one way to spin a plate — I don’t care how many houses you have or what your first language is,” says Miller.

It was around this time that Miller started to see the circus arts as a great equalizer of humanity. He describes it as a type of level playing field. Background doesn’t dictate someone’s ability to juggle, determination does.

“A lot of kids just don’t fit in on the basketball team or playing water polo. You can be a poor weirdo or a rich weirdo, but all people need something to feel good about,” says Miller.

While they were living it up in New York, a Ringling Bros. connection presented an opportunity to Miller — a job in Japan performing at a hot springs bath resort. Miller was ecstatic. Renee took a six-month leave of absence from her publishing job, and they crossed the globe together for Paul’s temporary gig. New York was amazing, but, as Miller stated previously, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are not to be ignored.

At the resort, the Millers lived in luxury. All of their expenses were paid. The couple’s groceries were delivered to them. They spent their days “reading books, riding bikes, hanging out with monkeys, and drinking,” Miller recalls. “You check in and put on a green bathrobe and go from bath to bath. I worked 12 minutes a day. It was incredible,” he says.

After returning to the states, they spent time living in Chicago and in Northern Kentucky. Paul continued developing his unique brand of circus teaching — keeping the focus on inclusion, and discovering untapped talent in people of all types.

In and around his Northern Kentucky home, Miller worked with underprivileged kids cultivating a program called My Nose Turns Red. While in Illinois, he launched CircEsteem, which was born of his experiences working with youth from various backgrounds, and finding that the circus could be a common thread.

“It was really this blend of working with poor kids in Kentucky and working with supremely wealthy kids in Manhattan. It grew into a fantastic nonprofit organization. Now it’s serving, like, 2,000 kids a week in Chicago,” says Miller.

In Chicago, Miller was involved in numerous moneymaking endeavors. “I was street performing and I was working fine dining out there,” he says. “And then September 11th happened, and of course I lost my job at the fancy dining place, because for six months nobody was eating a $40 steak. Weird times. I was running a nonprofit youth circus and it just wasn’t sustainable. So we came back to Kentucky.”

When the Millers’ own children came along, they began to think more about the long term — financial security and setting roots. Renee had always wanted to live in picturesque Devou Park. Paul agreed that it was an idyllic setting for raising a family. Eventually, they could afford this dream.

“This is a fantastic place to raise kids. This is the cheapest, safest, easiest place to raise a family — to grow and thrive,” says Miller.

Along the way, Miller purchased a run-down, abandoned, movie theater in the city of Ludlow, Kentucky. He had acquired his real estate license while in Manhattan and had learned all about historic buildings and tax credits. He wanted to procure a reasonably priced launching pad for the many ventures he was working on to bring the circus to the Greater Cincinnati area.

Miller wanted someplace with a lot of space for putting on shows and teaching circus skills. He wanted an office. He wanted living accommodations for traveling performers. He also wanted to help Ludlow.

“Ludlow might be offended, but I call it the ugly stepchild of the river cities,” Miller says. “I did acquire a building for very cheap, and I’ve been able to host artists from 35 different countries in a little three-bedroom apartment above our office. A lot of this block was boarded up. There was a lot of blight. But it was opportunity too. That’s why I’m here. I could afford it and I could make it happen.”

Miller was troubled by the struggle facing the disadvantaged youth he met in the theater’s neighborhood. With open arms and scholarships, Miller invited kids in Ludlow to learn circus at Ludlow Theatre through his Circus Mojo program.

“When two of the three kids in the van have never been to Ohio, yet you can see the Carew Tower from our parking lot — that’s kind of hard for people to wrap their heads around,” says Miller.

At Ludlow Theatre, alongside children from other area schools (and of varying backgrounds), the Ludlow kids have acquired various circus skills — and a sense of self worth. Miller, his previous students, international guest performers, and Miller’s own two children participate in the instruction.

“The first kid from Ludlow who walked through the door is now a performer in the Netherlands,” says Miller, who has been focusing on developing the neighborhood and bettering the prospects of its citizens for years. “The work we’ve done outside of Ludlow has been really to sustain and bring this project to fruition. For ten years I’ve never made any money in Ludlow, but this has been kind of a jumping off point for other things.”

The execution and management of those ‘other things’ is an impressive juggling act in and of itself. These days, Miller has his hands in everything from the Bircus Brewing Company to real estate development to training kids with autism to perform acrobatics on aerial silks. He helps orchestrate visas, housing, and anything else his traveling circus artists need. He works with senators and government agencies to get kids out of juvenile detention centers and into juggling. He does gigs at casinos. He partners with German organizations to bring harmony between communities, highlighting heritage and common bonds through circus. He voluntarily organizes forums to bring peace between clashing members of his community. And, of course, he puts on shows at Ludlow Theatre every Friday night.

Somehow, Miller maintains a near perfect balancing act and pulls off his daily grind with showmanship and style. His life imitates his art. In short, he’s a true clown, a juggler, and a wearer of many, many hats.

And there is a method to this clown’s madness. Miller is building a business model he hopes to replicate. He’s doing it for the love of circus and its future in this country. At the same time, he aims to help the downtrodden citizens who reside in places like Ludlow, and further the interests of his own family.

“Every major city has a Ludlow. And in that Ludlow there are kids who have dreams, are hustlers, and can do great things. And there is a movie theater or a church that you can buy for $50,000,” says Miller. “I’m going to do three or four more of these all over the United States. It’s a sustainability thing, because then when we have circus artists, we can hire them for a year and they can do two or three months in each destination.”

Miller is currently invested in a real estate project meant to provide economical, yet functional, accommodations for artists.

“This is the next sustainability play,” he says. “I’m also trying to encourage the young people to invest in real estate, because for circus performers, there’s no retirement program. We don’t have 401ks so you have to. That is a piece of the puzzle to make sure the artists can thrive.”

Miller has high hopes that someday his own children will carry on the family business. He’s been grooming them as performers for their entire lives, as well as young businesspeople.

“It’s kind of a neat apprenticeship position. That’s how circus skills have been passed down from generation to generation,” says Miller. “It should be lucrative enough. If they want to do college, that’s on them. But if they want to be a part of the family business, they know how to run the lights. They know how to use a mop. They’ve been on the news. It’s an opportunity for them. So, we’ll see.”

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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.