At the carnies' final resting place, the show never ends

December 11, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

MIAMI IDB — MIAMI -- More than most institutions, cemeteries are reflections of the variety of America's culture, embracing the rich and unfortunate, the noble and notorious, the cherished and the prodigal, the drab, the dashing, the saintly and the profane.

At their best, they strive less to wallow in sad finalities than to celebrate the inherent optimism of earthly existence and a promised peace hereafter.

Perhaps at no other spot is the Reaper's work less grimly acknowledged than at Miami Showmen's Association Rest at Southern Memorial Park. For almost four decades, this sun-drenched plot with its neat hedges and mammoth statuary elephant and lions has granted eternal repose to the weight-guessers, shooting-gallery barkers, merry-go-round operators, cotton candy concessionaires, truck drivers and other assorted nomads and roadies who follow the carnivals season to season, town to town.

"All this here, all this here," says Neil Composto, the association's executive secretary, swinging his arms in wide arcs to encompass animals, grass and sky. "We have all this. And then we had to buy 300 more graves, because this was all used up. And now we just got another 300 back over there. This is the Catholic section. Here's the Jewish section, and that's the Protestant section. I would say we have over 1,000 graves in all.

"You see, these carnival people, they're very close-knit. This is the way they want it. They just want to be together."

When David Endy, the association's first president and the grandfather of carnivals in South Florida, died in 1982 after more than 50 years in the business, he was buried here. So were Louis "Peanuts" Baker, Earl "Doc" Norman, Sol "Duke" Geffen, Bernard "Bucky" Allen, John "Whitey" Hilferty, Alfred "Rhody" Ridings and Harry Bernstein, whose nickname on his bronze marker evokes thrilling irony in a place such as this. It was "Lively."

Formed in 1943 as a social and benevolent organization, the association now has about 900 members, down from its heyday of 1,600. There are three showmen's groups in Florida, but this one, with its 17,000-square-foot meeting hall on Northwest 28th Street, is the oldest. It began selling cemetery plots to its members early on, because "they didn't want anybody buried in the potter's field," says Composto. In those days, high-roller or down-in-the-heels, a carnie could pick up a nice bit of everlasting real estate for $50, and most members bought two plots -- an extra for the missus.

Now "we lose a good maybe 20, 25 folks a year," says Composto, pacing the even rows in search of familiar names.

"This fellow here, Lew Lange, is very, very well known. He and a fellow named Sig Eisenberg years ago ran Christmas parties . . . the biggest Christmas parties you ever saw for needy people. . . . This fellow, Joe Denoga. He died last Christmas. All his life a carnie. I think that's all he ever did. Last couple of years he was kind of sick, but he was a real nice old gent.

"Somebody like him dies, they call me at home, all kinds of hours. I make all the arrangements. I call up the cemetery, tell them the grave number they're in, what plot. Some of them . . . they worry. They want to be sure they're going to get buried."

Whenever another member dies, a bit of the club's collective history and memory fades. Composto has been in the association since 1957, but he was a stock-car and boxing promoter, not a carnival man, and he cannot say for certain how and when the animals got here.

The oldest of the old-timers recall they were imported from Italy, but otherwise there is not much to tell: The elephant and snarling lions get a new coat of paint every four or five years. They do not have names. A motto lettered on the elephant's blanket reads "Show folks. May they always be right, but right or wrong, Show folks." Tail turned to Northeast 18th Avenue and trunk frozen in eternal salute, the great blue-gray beast is large enough to be seen from virtually any corner of the 70-acre park.

Paul Fox, Southern Memorial's manager, says cemetery visitors sometimes ask "if that's where we bury animals. And a lot of people use the monument as a symbol -- 'Go down to the elephant and make a left turn.' " There can be no better landmark for a place of remembrance than a creature that never forgets.

"I want to tell you something," says Composto. "Show people, they're really serious about their dead. When we have a funeral here, everybody who's retired, they come. Somebody dies, the women call all the women; the men call the men. Sometimes, if it's one of the big names in the business, people fly in. They got respect."

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